History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bloated Bloggers--
Blustering Al Benson versus John Brown

I used to get annoyed, even angry, at bloggers and other internet trollers who wrote malicious things about the Old Man.  The truth is that one could waste a lot of time sniping and fighting with self-assured idiots and racists over their remarks about John Brown because they frequently appear on line.  Of course I've learned that these people are speaking from their hearts first, not their intelligence.  They are hateful, prejudiced, and malicious in intent.  They are not people of reason or learning, so they do not merit engagement.  I've learned to ignore them.  Indeed, only a handful of anti-Brown critics bear any kind of notice, mainly because they write from positions of influence and intelligence, and for the most part they are academics who throw out insinuations and half-truths.  Right now I'm working on a piece about Otto Scott, a rabid anti-Brown author now deceased, that I'll be posting shortly.  Scott was malicious in intent, but he was a thoughtful and able writer despite his gross errors and racism, and should at least be dismissed at the intellectual level because his clever volume on Brown and the "Secret Six" is treated as the definitive work by neo-Confederates, crypto-racist Southern Calvinists, and other right-wingers with an agenda that includes bashing the Old Man.

Then there are people like Al Benson Jr., a man that I do not know and do not wish to know.  Benson has a blog called Revisedhistory and is currently on a rant against the Old Man that reveals a depth of ignorance and hatred that could only come from a neo-Confederate or someone who thinks like one.  I find it hilarious--a comedy of errors composed by someone intelligent enough to read, write, and keep a blog, but little more than that.


Benson's bluster is probably provoked by Tony Horwitz's recent publication, Midnight Rising, which has garnered more media attention on the Subject than anything we've seen in this era.  Whether or not Midnight Rising will have the impact upon scholars and historians that David Reynold's John Brown Abolitionist is another question.  Tony's book is written for a wider and more popular readership and has been marketed and promoted in an unprecedented manner, and although I have significant differences with him over key themes in the John Brown story, his reading of the Old Man is much closer to mine in comparison to people like Benson.  The latter's reaction suggests that extreme right-wing neo-Confederates just can't stand the amount of attention that Brown has gotten lately, and apparently Midnight Rising has Benson's prejudiced blood rising too.  This is what makes his harangue so hilarious, so entertaining. Benson's multi-part rant (which is still in process) has thus far two segments under the title, "John Brown-from business failure to terrorist and media hero."  He begins his diatribe with this profound declaration: "Much has been written about John Brown of Harpers Ferry, Virginia fame over the years.  And much of  it is historical and political goop."  Goop?

Re: Obama, of Course

After recounting some inane anecdote about how Kansans love John Brown (which is a generalization, by the way), he writes: "Why do you suppose that Obama went to Osawatomie, Kansas to give that speech awhile back?  That's John Brown territory and Obama knows it.  He was identifying with the crowd that thinks John Brown was the greatest thing since sliced bread."  This pretty much establishes the trajectory of Benson's writing: he doesn't know history and he's a reactionary bigot.  Actually, President Obama went to Osawatomie to speak because that's where Teddy Roosevelt spoke in 1910, fairly well exploiting the John Brown historic site to make a speech about his political objectives, and did so virtually without mentioning Brown in his speech!  Afterward, Roosevelt wrote an article diminishing Brown in favor of Lincoln to avoid being associated too closely with Brown.  President Obama never once mentioned John Brown either, which shows he was following Roosevelt's strategy more than identifying with the Old Man.

Consider the Source(s)

Benson fairly well seals it in the rest of the first entry, citing his two main sources: Otto Scott's twice published assault on Brown and the "Secret Six" and J. C. Furnas', The Road to Harper's Ferry.  In fact, both books are anti-Brown, and neither is based upon original research, nor does either have any value to John Brown scholarship.  To no surprise, these are the works that Benson cites for his information on Brown, although he clearly is aware of other published efforts.   But this kind of narrow prejudice and selective reading is what defines conservative and right-wing historical treatments, allowing people like Benson to scream "historical revision"--as if their narration of history is truth and everyone else's is just "goop."

The second installment of Benson's right-wing tirade is more of the same.  He starts with a reference to a review of David Reynold's book (I suppose Benson wouldn't want to dirty his Sadducee hands by actually picking it up and reading it), in which he laments that all "progressive" treatments of John Brown are "socialist," then some gratuitous references to "terrorists" like Che Guevara and Bill Ayres versus the noble Tea Party, with the conclusion, "You can see why John Brown looks so much better when socialists are running the country."

Benson's Bitterness

Benson's bitterness is seething and it is really evident that he's using his hatred of John Brown to vent his own warped hatred of the current Presidential administration and all things not right-wing.  The fact that right-wingers cannot distinguish between liberal capitalism and socialism is itself a sign that most of the anti-Obama "socialist" claptrap reflects the political and historical ignorance of the Right.  Benson is just too ignorant to reason with, but his blogging extravaganza is at least illustrative, which is why I'm spending time on it here.   While I'm hardly a spokesman for liberal politics, I cannot help but point out that it is liberals who have contributed the most intelligent, thoughtful, and reasoned political discourse, and without liberal scholars, there would have been no explosion of in depth research on slavery, abolition, and the histories of people of color that has taken place over the past forty years.  Benson fairly well highlights just how politically and historically stupid so many self-proclaimed conservatives happen to be.


Yet the heart of Benson's second segment is his vituperations against John Brown's Calvinist faith and Puritan legacy.  He writes:
I have also read, over the years, some comments by writers who actually considered people like John Brown and Thaddeus Stevens to be Calvinists! Where they came up with such flights of fancy I have no idea–maybe from the same people who blithely inform us that Abraham Lincoln was a Bible-believing Christian. One is as equally ludicrous as the other. But that seems to be the trend today. Demonize Christian Southerners and try to make agnostic and apostate Northerners look like Christian crusaders.
I don't know if Benson has read my religious life of John Brown.  I doubt his reading on Brown has gone beyond the Southern partisanship that he evidences in such words.  While I would agree that Lincoln has often been made far more a Christian than he was in reality, it is not "equally ludicrous" to say that Brown was a devout evangelical Christian and Calvinist.   By all accounts, Brown was as much an advocate of the Reformed doctrines of grace as was the errant Southern general, Thomas Jackson.  In fact, I have often said that apart from their view of slavery and "race," Brown and Jackson were cut from very similar cloth, and they have similar profiles as devout Christian men in the reminiscences of their followers and associates.  

Brown's upbringing in the Reformed Congregational church, with its deep roots in the English Reformation and the Great Awakening is a matter of history.  Nor was he a creature of the New Side and experimental evangelical movements of his era as some historians like to claim.  Brown was fairly conventional if not backward looking in his Reformed theology, so much so that liberal Christians like Franklin Sanborn and Thomas Higginson were the ones who recognized that Brown's religion was wed to the historic evangelicalism of the Protestant Reformation.  Brown made profession of faith in Christ at sixteen years of age and joined the First Congregational Church of Hudson, Ohio, although he was reared in a home as replete with evangelicalism as it was with anti-slavery doctrine.  He never withdrew his membership as a Congregationalist officially, although he widened his practice of worship to include other evangelical churches during his lifetime.  He was a voracious Bible student throughout his life, a constant gadfly to his sons' liberal and spiritualist tendencies, and even fairly good apologist for Calvinism over against advocates of Wesleyan-Arminianism.   His letters, while largely personal and occasionally motivated, reflect many personal references to his faith in Christ, his belief in Scripture, and his devout belief in the singular claims of Christianity upon humanity.  To deny this as does Benson is, frankly and flatly, prejudice. 

Bearded Fundamentalists

After making a mess of Brown's religion, Benson brings part two to a close by noting that Tony Horwitz  "noted that Brown was a terrorist," which probably is more a reference to a piece in the New York Times that Tony did a year prior to the publication of his book.  To be sure, Tony seems to believe that Brown was a religiously oriented terrorist, although he is more careful in how he frames his presentation in Midnight Rising, somewhat setting up the reader to draw that conclusion without proclaiming it himself.  Yet Benson objects to Tony's reference to Brown as a "bearded fundamentalist," concluding: "Let’s don’t try to tar the Fundamentalists with John Brown’s brush. That’s grossly unfair to them. Otto Scott’s comments about Brown’s theology, or lack thereof, show that Horwitz was off base on this point."

This is hilarious stuff.  It reveals nothing about Brown, but a great deal about Benson and his ilk, the ultimate historical revisionists.  These are the folks who are bent on making the antebellum South--so full of cruelty, rape, theft of labor, and heart-rending injustice--as if it were a land of godliness, piety, and biblical orthodoxy.  It is comical that a man with so little understanding of the historical facts, and one so dependent upon discredited and useless narratives, should enter such trash under the heading of historical revision without realizing his own role in the perpetuation of the slave master's revision.

I have no intention of reading Benson's next installment, nor will I revisit his blog.  But highlighting his folly should not only give us a good laugh.  Afterward it serves also as a sober reminder that John Brown is hated because what he represented challenged the forces of evil in places high and low.  As the gospel writer put it, "men love darkness rather than light" (John 3:19), and this romancing of the Old South is darkness.  Indeed, as Jesus said to the enemies of righteousness in his day, 'If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains" (John 9:41).

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