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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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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Historical Note-
Brown’s Flaws, and the Flaws of His Critics Too

Our friend, Grady Atwater, the administrator of the John Brown historic site in Osawatomie, Kansas, has written an interesting piece in the Osawatomie Graphic (July 18), providing a sympathetic but frank discussion about John Brown’s most famous character flaw, his domineering personality. 

I.  No Angel Wings

Atwater makes good use of a letter written by Brown’s Kansas associate, George B. Gill, to another Brown associate (and later biographer), Richard J. Hinton.  Gill’s letter, written on July 7, 1893 (held by the Kansas State Historical Society) provides a retrospective and criticism of Brown.  Pointing out that “a man is never a hero to his valet,” Gill wrote that “a person with good motives can be an imperfect person.”  Referring to Brown, he added that despite his ability to do great good, such a man might also “be personally absolutely offensive.”   Atwater continues:

Gill stated that John Brown was domineering and wrote, “My intimate acquaintance with Brown demonstrated to me that he was very human; the angel wings were so dim and shadowy as to be almost unseen. Very superstitious, very selfish and very intolerant with great self esteem, he could not brook a rival. . . .  He was intolerant in little things and little ways, for instance, his drink was tea, others wanted coffee. He would wrangle and compel them to drink tea or nothing, as he was the cook and would not make coffee for them.”

Atwater likewise points out Gill’s observation that Brown could offend his most loyal followers, such as Aaron Stevens (who ultimately shared a jail cell with Brown at Charlestown, Va., and followed his leader to the gallows) sometimes raised “merry hell when the old man would get too dictatorial.”
Atwater concludes that “Brown was a human being and had faults and weaknesses like any other person,” and that he admitted that he had these domineering inclinations all of his life, and “worked to control that aspect of his personality all of his life.”  

II.  True Enough

Atwater is correct.  Brown’s sibling once referred to this attitude in him as “a king against whom there is no rising up,” and his life story includes episodes, great and small, of clashes with family members and associates.  He could be extremely hardheaded and despite his willingness to ask for advice, often decided to follow his own mind.  Atwater recognizes that “Brown’s detractors have sometimes utilized this as a means to discredit the sincerity of Brown’s abolitionist beliefs,” while pro-Brown writers have “glossed over this aspect of his personality or mollified it as part of his dedication to the abolitionist cause.”   Atwater concludes that despite the fact that John Brown’s personality could irritate some people, “his fealty to his abolitionist beliefs was genuine, and he was willing to fight and die for the abolitionist cause.”

It is important to recognize this trait in John Brown, for it is an essential element of his biography and, as Atwater recognizes, to overlook it is to misrepresent the man as he really was in his humanity.  It may also mean failing to recognize how this trait gave shape to various aspects of Brown’s life and work, sometimes for better and also for the worst.  Certainly, Brown’s critical delay at Harper’s Ferry was due in large part to this tendency to disregard what others said.  It is also true that he clashed with other leaders and colleagues at times.  The same George Gill elsewhere recalls how Brown insisted on being the cook for the whole company of his men and fugitives from slavery that he assisted in late 1858-early 1859 in going from Missouri to Canada.  Brown clashed repeatedly with Jane Harper, one of the liberated people, over food preparation and would not tolerate Harper’s insistence that she could cook better.  Apparently their feud, though somewhat comical, was real enough to display Brown’s imperious attitude in even small things.  In short, Brown was something of a control freak.  Many years ago, I asked the late Edwin Cotter Jr., longtime researcher on Brown and caretaker of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, N.Y., if he would want to meet the Old Man.  He surprised me when he said that he wouldn’t necessarily want to do so since Brown was so hard to get along with.   I don’t agree with that assessment, but I can understand Cotter’s point, even though I think it was a bit one-sided.
George B. Gill: His 1893 Description of
John Brown is Not Entirely Trustworthy
(Kansas State Historical Society #53529)

III.  Consider the Source

Notwithstanding the fact of Brown’s domineering ways, this is hardly sufficient in addressing the Gill reminiscence.  Nor should we let the description of Brown’s imperious, hardheaded manner stand by itself as the last word on his personal profile.

It is important to consider George Gill’s 1893 letter in which he made this blunt description of Brown.  The year in which it was written is important because it was written well over thirty years after Gill’s involvement with Brown in Kansas.  Recall that Gill was one of Brown’s Kansas freedom fighters and followed him as far as the Chatham convention in Ontario in May 1858.  But after Brown’s plans for the raid went awry due the betrayal of Hugh Forbes, Brown’s mercenary military advisor (and another hardheaded individual), his men were dispersed until the Virginia plan could be reactivated.  After this hiatus, however, some of Brown’s men, including Gill, did not rejoin him and were not participants in the Harper’s Ferry raid.

This hardly discredits Gill’s reminiscence overall, which is valuable to Brown’s biography.  Yet the fact that Gill’s remarks, as presented by Grady Atwater, were written in 1893 is important because apparently by this time the former had become somewhat jaded and resentful toward Brown as a result of his own personal evolution.  

IV.  Changes

It is obvious enough that often people change over time in general.  Over two or three decades, people may change politically, religiously, or in some other way.  Furthermore, there was a significant shift in the political sentiments of the United States from the Civil War era to the later part of the 19th century.  Reconstruction fell prey to this shift, particularly as white society reassessed its priorities and decided that enough energy had been spent on black freedom.  As the old anti-slavery radicals and so-called “Black Republicans” began to disappear from the scene, others moved to the right.  Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, began as a utopian leftist and antislavery man in the antebellum era but after the Civil War his views shifted to accommodation to the changing priorities of white society.  Even the sentiments of John Brown’s surviving son, Salmon, became tainted with racist remarks in the early 20th century.  It was in the later 19th century that a number of Brown’s former allies in the free state movement also published screeds and attacks, denigrating his name and reputation.  It would be a mistake to read Gill’s 1893 remarks outside of this context.

V.  Gill's Agenda

While Gill did not later reassess his basic belief that John Brown was an antislavery hero, his sentiments were tainted with personal prejudice. As a matter of fact, Hinton, to whom Gill wrote his 1893 letter, recognized Gill’s prejudice.  Hinton even made editorial comments on this letter, pointing out that although Gill was honest, his view of John Brown was temperamental like him.  Hinton further pointed out that Gill was a Mason and did not believe in divine revelation.  In fact, he was agnostic and rationalistic (my source for this document is Katherine Mayo’s transcription in the George B. Gill folder, Box 8, John Brown – Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection).  Actually, it seems that Gill had grown old and crotchety by 1893, and his ego and prejudice tended to color the way he portrayed Brown.  This is particularly true as it pertained to Brown’s religious views, which Gill came to despise.

For instance in the same 1893 letter, Gill castigates Brown’s “God idea,” by which he meant his belief in the God of the Bible, and the biblical idea that divine providence may raise up people for a special purpose.  In another section that Atwater does not quote, Gill recounts an episode when a pro-slavery thug (and probably a murderer) was captured by some of Brown’s men, apparently in Brown’s absence.  The thug was handed over to free state leader James Montgomery.  “Montgomery gave him a trial and he was released by general consent as not meriting punishment,” Gill recalled.  “When we returned Brown was furious because the man had not been shot.  His Calvinism and general organism would have treated Servetus as Calvin did.”

This is an interesting statement first because Gill, looking back nearly forty years, remembered Brown’s disgust when a man that he believed was guilty, was set free.  Since we do not have the full information on this case (Gill wasn’t even sure of the man’s name), we should not conclude that Brown was simply bloodthirsty.  Gill does not say that the man was not guilty, but that Montgomery’s drum court did not find him meriting punishment.  Brown evidently believed otherwise.  Since the drum trial took place in his absence, it may be that Brown had evidence that Montgomery did not know.  Regardless, this episode is harked by Gill quite conveniently to portray John Brown, as he put it, essentially as having been “vindictive in his nature.”

But notice that Gill’s own religious bias is working strongly in this old reminiscence.  He deliberately connects Brown’s desire to see the prisoner executed with his religion.  Gill quite pointedly associates a “vindictive nature” with Calvinism, and then compares this episode with the historical Reformation episode when the heretical physician Michael Servetus was burned to death in Geneva, Switzerland, which at the time was under the religious auspices of John Calvin.

VI.  Necessary Detour: Calvin and Servetus

For those unfamiliar with this latter episode, Servetus the heretic unfortunately lived before the time of “separation of church and state.”  In European societies, government and state religion were inseparable, a reality that often led to war, persecution, and executions.  Servetus was equally odious to Roman Catholics and Protestants because he did not believe in Trinitarian Christianity (historic catholicity).  In fact, Servetus was first sentenced to death for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, but managed to escape.  While endeavoring to escape to Eastern Europe, he passed through Switzerland, where his identity became known in the Protestant city of Geneva.  Some historians have pointed out that Servetus was reckless in letting his identity be known within Geneva, and perhaps there was a measure of defiance in his failure to move through Geneva incognito.  He and Calvin had previous correspondence, so Servetus knew that making an audacious public appearance could jeopardize his life as much in a Protestant city as in a Roman Catholic city.   When Servetus was apprehended, he was a prisoner of the Genevan authorities, not John Calvin.  The charge against him was not heresy but treason, since Geneva was a Protestant city-state by constitution.  We should be reminded that freedom of religion and “separation of church and state” did not exist in either Protestant or Roman Catholic states.  Although Calvin finally approved of Servetus’ execution, the Reformer tried to win over the heretic, and failing to do so, sought to see his capital punishment commuted.  Calvin has often been blamed for Servetus’ death, but the heretic’s death was not in his hands since he was an enemy of the state.

I have gone on this detour of history to point out that many people, even to this day, tend to blame Calvin for Servetus’ death, as if Servetus was Calvin’s victim.  If Calvin finally approved of Servetus’ execution, he did not initially press for it, nor was it in his hands to kill or save him.  In fact, Servetus fell prey to a real political crisis: the most fervent “Calvinists” in Geneva actually wanted to spare Servetus as a way of sticking it to the Roman Catholic Church, since Servetus would have been killed by the Roman church had he not escaped.  Other Protestants in Geneva felt that to spare Servetus was to allow heresy to go unpunished, and would prove deleterious to the reputation of the Reformation in Switzerland.  By all accounts, what to do with Servetus was no easy issue, and it is absolutely unfair to pin his death on Calvin alone.

VII.  Not at Face Value

Furthermore, “Calvinism” in the context of John Brown is typically represented as a distorted, angry, and dysfunctional religion based upon a cruel and angry God.  Most of Brown’s biographers have failed to correctly describe Calvinism, especially in describing Brown’s expression of it.  Even celebrated biographies by writers like Oates fail to correctly explain Brown’s Calvinistic evangelicalism by describing it in skewed, distorted ways. This is exactly how George Gill treats Brown in his 1893 letter to Hinton.  He accuses Brown of having a “vindictive nature” and then makes the flawed and forced comparison with Calvin and Servetus, when it is neither historically nor theologically sound. 

George Gill’s description of Brown thus cannot be taken at face value.  Our friend Grady Atwater does a good job of pointing out that Brown is distinguished for his loyalty to the struggle for justice, whatever else were his personal flaws.  I agree, except that he does not critically evaluate Gill’s remarks.  (Atwater is not alone in this oversight, since Stauffer and Trodd did the same thing with this document.)  In short, Gill was in Kansas with Brown in the 1850s and his 1893 statement is important, but it must be received critically and carefully.  Gill despised Brown’s evangelical Christian faith, belittled his belief in the Bible, and disdained his Calvinistic heritage in particular.  Gill was also an ardent Mason and Brown left the Masonic Lodge in the 1830s and was always highly critical of the worthy brotherhood and made no secret of his contempt of the Lodge.  So it is understandable why an older, jaded, and resentful Gill would provide a tainted portrayal of Brown in 1893.

VIII.  Gill: An Earlier Reminiscence

If anyone doubts this criticism, then consider that earlier reminiscences of Brown by Gill also exist.  In the Villard Collection at Columbia University, for instance, there is a transcript of Gill’s description of Brown made somewhat earlier, around the 1870s.  In this earlier statement, Gill described Brown accordingly: “Tenacious of his own opinions and purposes, yet liberal and tolerant towards the opinions of others, justice was the cornerstone of all his thoughts and theories, kindness was the prevailing characteristic of the man.”  Gill even recalled that once while camping at Little Sugar, in Linn County, Kansas, Brown shared the little food that he had with a hungry dog that was hanging around the camp because, with Brown, “all living things had a right to comfort and humane treatment."  Writing earlier, Gill pointed out that Brown rejected the Masonic order because he believed brotherhood embraced the whole human race, "both bond and free."  Finally, Gill concluded:  “No man was ever more averse to giving pain then he was, yet [if] it was necessary in the interests of justice to do so, could cut a man's head off, without disturbing in the least his own nervous equilibrium.” ("Testimony of Geo. B. Gill; What was his general appearance and what [sic] his characteristics," in George B. Gill folder, Box 8, Villard Papers)
"Justice was the cornerstone of all his thoughts and theories, kindness was the prevailing characteristic of the man.”
These words are distinctly different from Gill’s later resentful and biased reminiscence of 1893.  In the 1870s, Gill made a fair evaluation of Brown’s ability to strike the guilty without flinching, and even pointed out that despite his personal gentility, the abolitionist could strike down another man in the interests of justice.  This is certainly what happened in the Pottawatomie killings of 1856, when Brown led his men to kill five pro-slavery conspirators intent upon doing harm to his family and other free state people.  Yet Gill’s earlier—and more honest—treatment of Brown bears none of his 1893 anti-Christian and pro-Masonic bias, nor was it framed in the cultural reversals that characterized white society in the late 19th century when other of Brown’s associates betrayed his memory.


George Gill’s reminiscences of Brown are very important and should be used wholistically as a valuable historical resource.  But taken as a whole, they reveal that George Gill himself, not John Brown, had the more vindictive character; his 1893 reminiscence alone cannot be trusted.

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