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

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cranky Yankees?--
Connecticut Republicans Debate John Brown

Ricky Campbell, a journalist for the Register Citizen, a publication in Torrington, Connecticut, has recently reported that the Republicans in Connecticut are divided over history--that is, over John Brown.  Apparently, in 1860 a resolution was passed by Republicans in that state that, according to Campbell, "indirectly condemns Torrington’s own John Brown."1

At present, Connecticut Republicans are divided over a recently developed resolution, evidently prepared by Republican admirers of Brown, to rescind the “unqualified censure and condemnation” of Brown made in 1860.  According to Campbell, the pro-Brown element and others in the state who value Brown's legacy consider the 1860 resolution, "an unqualified censure and condemnation of Brown," to be a "bruise on the party."  However, the corrective 2012 resolution has not made it out of committee, a point of frustration for Connecticut's pro-Brown Republican element.

While there is typically a measure of prejudice against Brown in cases like this one, it is not clear that opposition to the remedial resolution is primarily anti-Brown.   In fact, it may be more so a reflection of the anti-historical spirit of our contemporary culture, especially popular conservative culture in the United States.  Republicans currently are overwhelmed with apprehension about the possible (if not likely) reelection of Barack Obama, and Republican resistance to this resolution seems to reflect present-day concerns as far outweighing any historical theme in their minds.  For instance, Doug Glazier, a Republican from Windsor Locks, told the Register Citizen that he thought the pro-Brown resolution was a hoax.  “I thought someone was playing a joke on us. It’s hard to believe that anyone has the time for something that happened 150 years ago, that the position of the Republican Party is being compromised through the old resolution. It’s unbelievable. It’s actually ridiculous.”

Of course, it is impossible to separate history--historical memory and interpretation--from politics. It is not simply what we say about the past that reflects our political perspective.  It is also what we think is important in history that matters.   It may seem to Mr. Glazier that pro-Brown Republicans are pushing a "hoax" upon the party at a time when they have bigger fish to fry.  But the fact that Glazier thinks Brown's legacy is too ridiculous to ponder says something about his political and social values at present.  It suggests that Glazier is indifferent to matters of justice in history, which implies that he has similar feelings about justice at present.  After all, even in Lincoln's time, the Republican party had a majority of moderates and compromisers who would have kept black people in slavery as long as the South promised not to expand slavery into new territories.  It was only a minority of Republicans--known as Radical or Black Republicans--that held the same values as John Brown.  The Radical Republicans enjoyed power during the Reconstruction, but fell prey to the lack of historical memory and inclination to moderate politics that came to prevail in the Grand Old Party before the turn of the last century.

At present, it is one of those John Brown Republicans that is a guiding spirit of the pro-Brown resolution in Connecticut.  Doug Hageman, a state committee member and an advocate for Brown's legacy, is strong on removing the 1860 resolution, and considers the rejection of the new remedial resolution as "a slap in the face for the town of Torrington.”  Hageman wants Connecticut Republican delegates to "bring it in and fix this. We’ve got to get rid of this thing,” he told the Register Citizen.  Unfortunately, Hageman, who professes to be a "big fan" of the Old Man, isn’t a member of the resolution committee. Most of the members of the committee seem to think that nobody would have known or cared about the 1860 resolution if it was never brought up in the first place.

That this debate is taking place in Connecticut is no coincidence, just as it is more than interesting, given that state's ironic anti-slavery history--ironic because the state that produced important abolitionists like the embattled Prudence Crandall and the influential Harriet Beecher Stowe (not to mention Owen Brown and his more famous son, John) has a bloody association with racist oppression.  In 2002, some brave and noble journalists published an extended study of Connecticut's ugly, racist underside in the Hartford Courant's Sunday magazine, entitled "Complicity."  In the introduction, they write:
Connecticut is one of the richest states in the richest country, but much of that wealth is stained with the blood of slaves. That may shock many in Connecticut, who know their state was a force in the abolition of slavery, and that it sent thousands of its young men to die in the war to free the enslaved and end an inhuman, ungodly institution. But the fact is that politically and socially and economically, Connecticut was as much a slave state as Virginia or Mississippi. It even had that most iconic of slave institutions: the plantation. The big difference is that we hid most of our involvement because, well, we could. In large part, the slavery that Connecticut benefited from happened somewhere else.2
The writers go on to say that Connecticut grew extremely prosperous in the 18th century by growing and shipping foods purchased by Westindian slave holders for their human chattel.  Then, Connecticut's rivers and streams became the life veins of 19th century textile mills, many of which depended upon the most famous product of southern slave labor, cotton.  To make matters worse, right up to the early 20th century, Connecticut towns became the nation's center for ivory production--processing tons and tons elephant tusks, themselves obtained through the forced labor and killing of a myriad Africans. So much for the South and its evils.  As Beecher Stowe put it, this was slavery northern style, with "all of the benefits and none of the screams."3

In light of this terrible history, it is unfortunate that Campbell, the Register Citizen journalist, refers to Brown's Harper's Ferry raid as having been "vicious."  To the contrary, Brown's seizure and control of Harper's Ferry and key slave holders was anything but vicious.  His former captives later testified that he was exceedingly careful of their safety and comfort; even one of his admiring raiders believed that Brown should have been less concerned for his hostages and more deliberate in getting the job done in Harper's Ferry.  Perhaps were Brown a Republican, he might have been more vicious, but he disliked most Republicans as much as most of them disliked him.

As the Register Citizen points out, in 1860 the Republicans of Connecticut seem to have been desperate to distance themselves from Brown. Of course, this was the posture of the entire Republican party.  Newspapers of the day, like the New York Herald,  are quite clear that Republicans were the first to disown Brown, calling him a madman.4 The minority Republican authors of the 1860 Congressional Report on the Harper's Ferry raid could not write fast enough in condemnation of the Old Man, protesting only the proslavery leaders' tendency to link Brown to other northern antislavery people.5  But it was tall, gaunt Abe Lincoln who made the official Republican view of Brown clear in his famous Cooper Union speech, when he characterized Brown as delusional and fanatical. "An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people," Lincoln declared, "till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them."6  In light of this standard Republican posture, it is no wonder that Connecticut Republicans in 1860 made an effort to disown one of the sons of their own state.

Today, even though people like Doug Glazier “can’t imagine spending time on something that happened in 1860,” 

some Connecticut Republicans on the Central Committee want the State to renounce its 1860 statement.  “Those who were practicing the institution of slavery were anti-Constitutionalist,” declares Michael Garrett, who ran as the Republican candidate of the Bridgeport mayor’s office in 2007. “That, I think, was John Brown’s point as well," says Garret.  "It was a great evil and he wanted to make it right.”

Garrett believes that the stumbling block for the new resolution is not only Republican concerns for the election cycle, but also because of Brown's illegal assault on Harper's Ferry.  

“We don’t condone violence; that’s not the focus,” Mayor Ryan Bingham of Torrington responds.  Torrington is the place of John Brown's birth, although the Brown family's house burned down nearly a century ago and all that remains is a marker on the site.  Yet, Bingham concludes, “the belief in something and applying it to something you think is worth fighting for on the community front can be applied today. He (Brown) believed in something, fought for it and achieved his ultimate goal.”


         1 Unless otherwise noted, the source for information in this article is Ricky Campbell, "John Brown resolution divides state Republicans."  The Register Citizen [Torrington, Conn.], 17 May 2012
         2 "Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself to Slavery," Northeast: The Sunday Magazine of the Hartford Courant (29 Sept. 2002), 3-4.  See "COMPLICITY: The State That Slavery Built: An Introduction."  Hartfordcourant.com (29 Sept. 2002).
         3  Ibid., 4.
      4  “Mad Brown’s Insurrection,” New York Herald (20 Oct. 1859), 6.  The Herald was a Democratic and proslavery newspaper and its editor, James Gordon Bennett, was starkly racist.  Democrats were keen on the fact that Republicans were falling over themselves to call Brown insane in order to distinguish themselves from him.  Bennett's paper notes that it was the Republican "organs," or publications, of that initiated the language of Brown's "insane" effort at Harper's Ferry.  Southerners and proslavery people generally did not think Brown insane at the time.
         5 See Sen. Jacob Collamer, "Views of the Minority," in U.S. Congress Senate Select Commission on the Harper's Ferry Invasion (Washington, D.C., June 15, 1860), 21; also see my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom (New York: International Publishers, 2007), 77-79.  

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