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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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Thursday, December 27, 2012

John Brown Studies Past, Present, and Future

It almost goes without saying that in the century and a half since his death, the abolitionist John Brown has been the subject of a good many books and articles.  To be sure, the Brown bibliography—including everything in print from the best studies and biographies to the very worst screeds and fiction—cannot rival the number of books written about Abraham Lincoln.  Yet even the professional gatekeepers of “American history” cannot deny that the controversial abolitionist has enjoyed a popular come back in the 21st century that has now become prominent in the academy as well.  For more than a decade now, there has been a steady stream of books about Brown, including four biographies, a number of valuable cultural studies, essay collections and readers, as well as novels and illustrated books for young people.  While a number of these works are problematic to say the least, nevertheless they bear witness to the upsurge of interest in Brown.
            Whatever the biographer may conclude about Russell Banks’ fictive interpretation of the Old Man in Cloudsplitter (1998), there is no doubt that this successful novel both signaled and enabled a sea change in popular thought about Brown.  Indeed, Cloudsplitter probably did for John Brown what Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” movie did for the popularization of the Muslim activist in the late 20th century.  Of course, in both cases (and I can attest to this first hand as a student of both leaders), the undercurrents of interest in Malcolm and Brown were already quite vital, and it is not always easy to determine when novels and movies have inspired trends or when they are simply manifestations of what is already at work in society.  Neither can we be certain that for all the popular appeal created by biographical novels and films they do not also undermine real historical understanding in the long run, since they typically revivify their stories as much as they skew them in the name of art.  Then, perhaps they also tend to both stimulate and satiate the popular appetite for history at the same time.   Regardless, Cloudsplitter was a boon to the rising popular interest in Brown that had ripened by the time of the sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid in 2009.  Certainly the kind of popular sympathy for Brown did not exist when a former generation commemorated the centennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1959.
Boyd B. Stutler
Yet as important as novels and movies may be in popular culture, the academy has its own ways of thinking. Certainly by the mid-20th century, the prominent attitude toward Brown among leading historians was negative. Historians like Allan Nevins, C. Van Woodward, and David M. Potter really knew little about Brown, although this did not stop them from banishing him to the margins of history as little more than a mentally unstable troublemaker.  Meanwhile, the two most knowledgeable scholars in the John Brown field, Boyd B. Stutler and Clarence S. Gee, were a magazine editor and a clergyman, respectively.  Stutler, a very conservative man in political and social concerns, took academic prejudice against Brown in stride, but privately lamented the misrepresentations of Nevins and other renowned academics of the day, somewhat facetiously referring to them as the “scientific historians.”  Still, it is quite telling that Stutler advised and assisted both Oswald G. Villard in correcting and revising his supposedly definitive 1910 biography, and Stephen B. Oates in preparing his supposedly definitive 1970 biography.  While the Villard and Oates biographies remain important works for the historian, in a sense they also frame the relatively thin and worthless academic contributions to John Brown studies during the 20th century.
Thomas Vince
Even after the appearance of Oates’ landmark biography, To Purge This Land With Blood, the wealth of research in John Brown studies largely remained in the hands of grassroots and local scholars throughout the rest of the century.  This is evident in the case of two young associates of Stutler and Gee, Thomas Vince and Edwin Cotter.  Vince, an archivist and community historian in Hudson, Ohio, and Edwin Cotter (d. 2001), for many years the supervisor of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York, did more ongoing, on-the-ground research than contemporary academics.  Both Vince and Cotter were not only knowledgeable generalists in the study, but also became specialists in specific areas of Brown’s life by amassing knowledge of community history and documentation that far outstripped the work of professional historians.  Other local historians have likewise done significant research on Brown even to the present time, and these researchers, many of them librarians or people affiliated with local historical societies, represent vital streams of research almost completely removed from the academy.  (I dare not fail to mention that I have periodically featured articles by Scott Wolfe, an independent scholar and research librarian in Galena, Illinois, as well as articles by Grady Atwater, the superintendent of the John Brown cabin in Osawatomie, Kansas.)
Jean Libby

Historically speaking, another notable figure is Jean Libby, a photographer and college teacher from Palo Alto, California, who has worked mainly in the milieu of local historians in her study of the Harper’s Ferry raid.  In the 1970s, Libby actually did field research in Jefferson County, (by then) West Virginia, including the oral traditions of whites and blacks reflecting the direct impact of Brown in 1859.  In so doing, she overturned the popular notion of the non-involvement of enslaved people in the Harper’s Ferry raid, revived and contextualized Osborne Anderson’s vital black witness, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry (1861), and buttressed her arguments with actual research.  Libby has subsequently studied original documents and daguerreotypes of Brown in a manner far beyond what any pure bread academic has done.  Her contributions are unparalleled, and the academy heretofore has offered nothing even close to this kind of in depth, ongoing research.
Given the conventional hostility and lack of adequate scholarship in the academy regarding John Brown, one must appreciate the impact made when David S. Reynolds, a professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York, published his breakthrough biography, John Brown Abolitionist, in 2005.  While Reynolds was not the first scholar to publish a full biography of Brown in the 21st century, his work received immense and immediate attention, and deservedly so.  While John Brown Abolitionist was not without some problems, its strengths are considerably more important.  Portraying the abolitionist as “the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights,” Reynolds turned the tables on the conventional 20th century academic portrayal of John Brown, rendering him a flawed hero, but far more a hero—a man in advance of his times, a racial egalitarian in an age of flagrant white supremacy, whose life and death can no longer be filed away under conventionally dismissive categories.

To be sure, Reynolds cannot be credited for single-handedly bringing about a John Brown revolution among scholars.  A great deal of thinking and writing was already underway for years prior to the publication of John Brown Abolitionist.  Historian Robert McGlone had been working in John Brown studies for decades, and his important biography, John Brown's War Against Slavery—which finally appeared in late 2009—was undertaken in part as a response to Stephen Oates’ acclaimed 1970 biography.  Other scholars had undertaken the John Brown theme following Oates, and perhaps the leading spirit in this regard was Paul Finkelman, a professor of law and history who has edited two collections of scholarly writing on Brown, the first and most notable being His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995).  Finkelman also spearheaded a notable scholarly conference on John Brown at the Mount Alto campus of Penn State University in July 1996, "John Brown: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy"—perhaps the first sign that academia was awakening to the fact that the Old Man could not be so easily dismissed.
The Mont Alto Conference,

While the Mount Alto conference had its inevitable share of screeds and “terrorist” papers, it pointed toward the immediate future of John Brown scholarship.  A number of its attendees published books on John Brown in the first few years of the 21st century, thus proving that interest in Brown had already come to a head by the time of the Reynolds biography.  Yet it was John Brown Abolitionist that proved to be muscular enough as a work of scholarship to break through academic barriers of prejudice and misinformation, and lyrical enough to become the banner text of a new era.  In a sense, every new biography and study of John Brown in the 21st century will be considered against the backdrop of Reynolds’ text and interpretation, and no narrative of the abolitionist will escape the long shadow of John Brown Abolitionist, just as most writing on Brown in the 20th century could not help but reflect the importance of Oswald Garrison Villard’s 1910 biography.

Nevertheless, none of this suggests that the John Brown study has been exhausted.  We are far from the point, as we are in the case of Abraham Lincoln, where one may justifiably sigh aloud at the appearance of yet another new book.  While the Lincoln narrative has been exhaustively parsed like a Greek verb in a seminary classroom, Brown’s narrative begs more work in almost every facet of the story, from his less exciting early life and business efforts to his militant anti-slavery efforts in Kansas and Virginia.  Works like Brian McGinty’s John Brown’s Trial (2009) and Steven Lubet’s John Brown’s Spy (2012) have demonstrated what can be accomplished by working in heretofore unexplored areas of the story.  Indeed, notwithstanding McGlone’s belated but formidable John Brown’s War Against Slavery, the McGinty book on the historic trial of the abolitionist may prove to be the single most important contribution to a sadly neglected but central category of John Brown biography.  I have hardly been exhaustive in this article--there have been other quite notable works published in recent years that have likewise contributed to the forward movement of John Brown scholarship, a noteworthy contribution being Evan Carton's very popular biography, Patriotic Treason.  I may not agree with significant aspects of his book, Midnight Rising, but Tony Horwitz should also be saluted as for demonstrating the vitality and influence of the Old Man's story in our own time.  This is a good time for John Brown studies, and we are looking forward to what 2013 may bring.

To all my readers, I wish a most happy and studious new year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Abe on John, Fred on Abe

"Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a state.  We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong.  That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason.  It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right."  Abraham Lincoln, December 2, 1859

"It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model.  In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.  He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men."  Frederick Douglass, April 14, 1876

Saturday, December 08, 2012

"The Tribunal": A New John Brown Reader!

Following Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising, the release of yet another acclaimed John Brown book, The Tribunal, may suggest that the Old Man may be getting more attention than all the Civil War sesquicentennial can attract, even with the release of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."  It is almost as if--and I write this with a great measure of delight--historians cannot get beyond 1859.  This time around, the publication of The Tribunal promises to be a wide lens blockbuster in which the editors, John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, have returned with what promises to be a definitive reader.  I have not yet gotten my copy, but I'm happy to report that our friend and fellow biographer, David Reynolds, has written a good review in The Wall Street Journal, excerpted here. "The Tribunal," Reynolds writes,
"demonstrates just how central John Brown was to the cultural and political life of his time. Included in the book are powerful writings about Brown by some of the century's most notable people: Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher, Jefferson Davis, Herman Melville, Stephen Douglas, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx, to name a few. Brown's name echoed among thousands of average folk too. Little wonder that Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was inspired by a tune sung by Union troops as they tramped southward that contains the memorable words: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, / But his soul is marching on." 
The Tribunal doesn't whitewash Brown. To the contrary, it recognizes his flaws and provides a broad sampling of just criticism. But it reveals as well that those most hostile toward Brown were pro-slavery types who felt threatened by his forward-looking views. Some of Brown's strongest defenders were people like Thoreau, who had formerly espoused nonresistance but who came to realize that only violence could uproot an institution so deeply entrenched as slavery. . . .  There are a few unfortunate omissions in The Tribunal, such as a letter and an article in which the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had formerly gained fame for her portrayal of the nonresistant slave Uncle Tom, signaled a turnaround when she praised Brown for attacking slavery "with fire and sword." But, all in all, Mr. Stauffer and Ms. Trodd should be commended for making available so many documents that were formerly hard to find and that reveal so much about this key figure in American history. The Tribunal confirms what has become increasingly clear in recent years: To understand America fully, we would do well to reflect on John Brown—on what he stood for and the ideals he embodied for some of the nation's deepest thinkers." (David S. Reynolds, "The Other Great Emancipator."  The Wall Street Journal, 3 Dec. 2012)
The book is a whopping 570-pages and looks like an embarrassment of riches with respect to post-Harper's Ferry statements about John Brown.  Harvard University Press can hardly be exaggerating when it declares that Stauffer and Trodd "have assembled an impressive and wide-ranging collection of responses to Brown’s raid: Brown’s own words, northern and southern reactions, international commentary, and reflections from the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Represented here are all the figures one would expect to see (Lincoln, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass), many surprises (John Wilkes Booth, Karl Marx, Giuseppe Garibaldi), as well as free and enslaved blacks and white citizens. The result is a book that views Brown from multiple vantage points."

The publisher's website continues:

The Introduction describes the panic that Harpers Ferry created in the South, splitting the Democratic Party along sectional lines and altering the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. Without Brown, it speculates, the Civil War and emancipation would have been delayed by another four years—probably more—which in turn might have disrupted emancipation movements in Brazil, Cuba, and even Russia. The Tribunal is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil War era and the history of social protest movements."

I provide here the entire table of contents, which is most impressive, and includes a substantial amount of Brown's own writing in Part 1.

Part I: In His Own Words
“Sambo’s Mistakes,” 1848
“League of Gileadites,” January 15, 1851
“Dear Wife and Children, Everyone,” June 1856
“Old Brown’s Farewell,” April 1857
“To Mr. Henry L. Stearns,” July 15, 1857
“Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States,” May 8, 1858
“A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America,” 1859
“Interview with Senator Mason and Others,” October 18, 1859
“Last Address to the Virginia Court,” November 2, 1859
“Prison Letters,” October–December, 1859
John Stauffer, Harvard University

Part II: Northern Responses
Horace Greeley, “Tribune Editorial,” October 19, 1859
Boston Courier, “A Lesson for the People,” October 20, 1859
Illinois State Register, “The ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’” October 20, 1859
Anonymous, “To the Clerk of Court, Charlestown,” October 23, 1859, and “To Friend Wise,” December 2, 1859
The Patriot, “The Harper’s Ferry Affair,” October 26, 1859
Lydia Maria Child, “Dear Captain Brown, ” October 26, 1859, and “The Hero’s Heart,” January 26, 1860
E.B., “To John Brown,” October 27, 1859
Joshua R. Giddings, “The Harper’s Ferry Insurrection,” October 28, 1859
Friends’ Review, “The Riot at Harper’s Ferry,” October 29, 1859
Salmon P. Chase, “To Joseph H. Barrett,” October 29, 1859
New York Evening Post, “A New Version of an Old Song,” October 29, 1859
Henry Ward Beecher, “The Nation’s Duty to Slavery,” October 30, 1859
Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” October 30, 1859, and “The Last Days of John Brown,” July 4, 1860
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Courage,” November 8, 1859, and “Remarks at a Meeting for the Relief of the Family of John Brown,” November 18, 1859
Frederick Douglass, “Capt. John Brown Not Insane,” November 1859
Edmund Clarence Stedman, “How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry,” November 12, 1859
William Dean Howells, “Old Brown,” November 1859
John Andrew, “Speech at Tremont Temple,” November 18, 1859
Charles Langston, “Letter to the Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer,” November 18, 1859, and “Speech in Cleveland,” December 2, 1859
Theodore Parker, “To Francis Jackson,” November 24, 1859
Henry Clarke Wright, The Natick Resolution, December 1859
Albany Evening Journal, “The Execution of John Brown,” December 1, 1859
“Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland Resolutions,” November 29 and December 2, 1859
Henry Highland Garnet, “Martyr’s Day,” December 2, 1859
J. Sella Martin and William Lloyd Garrison, “Speeches at Tremont Temple,” December 2, 1859
Fales Henry Newhall, “The Conflict in America,” December 4, 1859
Anne Lynch Botta, “To Henry Whitney Bellows,” December 6, 1859
Wendell Phillips, “Eulogy for John Brown,” December 8, 1859
Edward Everett and Caleb Cushing, “Speeches at Faneuil Hall,” December 8, 1859
Charles Eliot Norton, “To Mrs. Edward Twisleton,” December 13, 1859
Charles Sumner, “To the Duchess of Argyll,” December 20, 1859
John Greenleaf Whittier, “Brown of Ossawatomie,” December 22, 1859
Thomas Hamilton, “The Nat Turner Insurrection,” December 1859
William A. Phillips, “The Age and the Man,” January 20, 1860
Louisa May Alcott, “With a Rose That Bloomed on the Day of John Brown’s Martyrdom,” January 20, 1860
Stephen Douglas, “Invasion of States,” January 23, 1860
Richard Realf, “John Brown’s Raid,” January 30, 1860
Abraham Lincoln, “Address at the Cooper Institute,” February 27, 1860
William H. Seward, “The State of the Country,” February 29, 1860, and “The National Idea,” October 3, 1860
John S. Rock, “Ninetieth Anniversary of the Boston Massacre,” March 5, 1860
William Henry Furness, “Put Up Thy Sword,” March 11, 1860
Carl Schurz, “The Doom of Slavery,” August 1, 1860
Pennsylvania Statesman, “Old Brown’s Argument,” October 20, 1860
Lucretia Mott, “Remarks to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society,” October 25, 1860
Osborne P. Anderson, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, early 1861

Part III: Southern Responses
Henry Wise, “Comments in Richmond, Virginia,” October 21, 1859
Republican Banner and Nashville Whig, “The Harper’s Ferry Riot,” October 24, 1859
Robert Barnwell Rhett, “The Insurrection,” October 31, 1859
Richmond Daily Enquirer, “A Suggestion for Governor Wise,” November 2, 1859
Southern Watchman, “The Harper’s Ferry Insurrection,” November 3, 1859
D.H. Strother, “The Late Invasion at Harper’s Ferry,” November 5, 1859, and “The Trial of the Conspirators,” November 12, 1859
Sarah Frances Williams, “To My Dear Parents,” November 7 and 11, 1859
Margaretta Mason, “To Lydia Maria Child,” November 11, 1859
Arkansas Gazette, “The Harper’s Ferry Insurrection,” November 12, 1859
Richmond Whig, “Editorial,” November 18, 1859
Natchez Courier, “Forewarned, Forearmed,” November 18, 1859
Mahala Doyle, “To John Brown,” November 20, 1859
Edmund Ruffin, “Resolutions of the Central Southern Rights Association,” November 25, 1859, and Anticipations of the Future, June 1860
Susan Bradford Eppes, “Diary,” October–December 1859
Amanda Virginia Edmonds, “Diary,” November and December 1859
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Dear Friend,” November 25, 1859, and “The Triumph of Freedom—A Dream,” January 1860
Thomas J. Jackson, “To Mary Anna Jackson,” December 2, 1859
John Preston, “To Margaret Junkin Preston,” December 2, 1859
Raleigh Register, “The Execution of John Brown,” December 3, 1859
Moncure Conway, “Sermon,” December 4, 1859
Reuben Davis, “The Duty of Parties,” December 8, 1859
Anonymous, “A Woman’s View of a Woman’s Duty in Connection with John Brown’s Crimes,” December 11, 1859
Andrew Johnson, “Remarks to the Senate,” December 12, 1859
James A. Seddon, “To R.M.T. Hunter,” December 26, 1859
Anonymous, “Old John Brown, a Song for Every Southern Man,” ca. December 1859
Mann Satterwhite Valentine, “The Mock Auction,” 1860
George Fitzhugh, “Disunion within the Union,” January 1860
C.G. Memminger, “The South Carolina Mission to Virginia,” January 19, 1860
Alexander Boteler, “Speech on the Organization of the House,” January 25, 1860
John Tyler, Jr., “The Secession of the South,” April 1860
National Democratic Executive Committee, The Great Issue to Be Decided in November Next, September 1860
Howell Cobb, “Letter to the People of Georgia,” December 6, 1860
William Gilmore Simms, “To a Northern Friend,” December 12, 1860
John Wilkes Booth, “Philadelphia Speech,” December 1860
Richard K. Call, “To John S. Littell,” February 12, 1861
James Williams, “To Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux,” February 1861
Dr. Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham

Part IV: International Responses
The Times, “Editorial,” November 2, 1859
Joseph Barker, “Slavery and Civil War,” November 1859
L’Univers, “Editorial,” November 24, 1859
Cyprian Kamil Norwid, “To Citizen John Brown” and “John Brown,” November 1859
Victor Hugo, “A Word on John Brown,” December 2, 1859; “To M. Heurtelou,” March 31, 1860; and “To the Memory of John Brown,” October 21, 1874
Ottilie Assing, “John Brown’s Execution and Its Consequences,” December 1859
Harvey C. Jackson, “An Address to the Colored People of Canada,” December 7, 1859
Glasgow Herald, “The Outbreak at Harper’s Ferry,” December 19, 1859
Aberdeen Journal, “A Martyr or a Criminal?” December 21, 1859
Manchester Examiner and Times, “The Execution of John Brown,” December 24, 1859
Harriet Martineau, “John Brown; South’s Political Posturing,” December 24, 1859, and “The Puritan Militant,” January 28, 1860
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, “Captain John Brown,” December 25, 1859
Caledonian Mercury and Daily Express, “A New Year’s Reverie,” January 2, 1860
Anti-Slavery Reporter, “The Harper’s Ferry Tragedy,” January 2, 1860
Argus, “A Revolt in America,” January 10, 1860
Karl Marx, “To Friedrich Engels,” January 11, 1860
Feuille du Commerce, “John Brown,” January 21, 1860
Joseph Déjacque, “To Pierre Vésinier,” February 20, 1861
William Howard Russell, “Diary,” April 20 and August 17, 1861
J.M. Ludlow, “A Year of the Slavery Question in the United States (1859–60),” December 1862
Louis Ratisbonne, “John Brown,” February 1863
Giuseppe Garibaldi, “To President Lincoln,” August 6, 1863
W.T. Malleson and Washington Wilks, “Speeches to the Emancipation Society,” December 2, 1863
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, 1873
Hermann von Holst, “John Brown,” 1878

Part V: Civil War and U.S. Postwar Responses
Various Authors, “John Brown’s Body,” May 1861
Elizabeth Van Lew, “Occasional Diary,” 1861
Mary Boykin Chesnut, “A Diary from Dixie,” November 28, 1861
Wilder Dwight, “Letters,” July 30, 1861, and March 4 and 8, 1862
George Michael Neese, “Diary,” January 3 and 26, 1862
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Chiefly about War Matters. By a Peaceable Man,” July 1862
John Sherman, “To William Tecumseh Sherman,” September 23, 1862
Charlotte Forten, “Diary” and “Letter,” November 1862
Moncure Conway, The Golden Hour, 1862
Adalbert Volck, “Worship of the North” and “Writing the Emancipation Proclamation,” 1863
John H. Surratt, “Diary,” January 16 and 20, 1863
Anonymous, “John Brown’s Entrance into Hell,” March 1863
J. Sella Martin, “Speech to the Emancipation Society,” December 2, 1863
William Henry Hall, “Oration on the Occasion of the Emancipation Celebration,” January 1, 1864
John Wilkes Booth, “Remarks on Lincoln and Brown,” November 1864
Walt Whitman, “Year of Meteors (1859–60),” 1865
Joseph G. Rosengarten, “John Brown’s Raid: How I Got into It and How I Got Out of It,” June 1865
C. Chauncey Burr, “History of Old John Brown,” July 1865
Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, “Dear Mrs. H—,” July 27, 1865
Charles Sumner, “The National Security and the National Faith,” September 14, 1865
James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, 1866
Herman Melville, “The Portent (1859),” 1866
Gerrit Smith, “John Brown,” August 15, 1867
John Milton Hay, “Diary,” September 10, 1867
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., “How We Met John Brown,” July 1871
Henry S. Olcott, “How We Hung John Brown,” 1875
Colored Citizen, “Wanted, a Few Black John Browns,” January 4, 1879
Eli Thayer, “To G. W. Brown,” January 13, 1880
Frederick Douglass, “John Brown,” May 30, 1881
George Washington Williams, “John Brown—Hero and Martyr,” 1883
David N. Utter, “John Brown of Osawatomie,” November 1883
Mark Twain, “English as She is Taught,” April 1887
Frank Preston Stearns, “Unfriendly Criticism of John Brown,” 1888
T. Thomas Fortune, “John Brown and Nat. Turner,” January 12 and 29, 1889

Not having seen the book, my only concern is that the editors have provided solid citations and contextualization when necessary, something Professors Stauffer and Trodd did not do in their less successful prior John Brown reader.  However, they are thoughtful scholars and I am optimistic that The Tribunal will be an excellent resource for the John Brown shelf.  Certainly, Stauffer and Trodd deserve our salutation and best wishes at the completion of such a mammoth challenge.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Saturday, December 01, 2012

John Brown Dead
The New-York Tribune, 3 December 1859, p. 6.

Slavery has killed John Brown.  We state the fact simply, and not by way of complaint.  We have discouraged all appeals by others than Virginians to the clemency of the Slave Power in the premises.  Slavery and John Brown were foes to the death; Slavery for the moment is victor, and the law of the exigency is a very old one, Va victis—We to the conquered!  John Brown defeated and a captive?  War has its necessities, and they are sometimes terrible.  We have not seen how Slavery could spare the life of John Brown without virtually confessing the iniquity of its own existence.  We believe Brown himself has uniformly taken this view of the matter, and discountenanced all appeals in his behalf for pardon or commutation, as well as everything savoring of irritation or menace.  There are eras in which death is not merely heroic but beneficent and fruitful.  Who shall say that this was not John Brown’s fit time to die?
“We are not of those who say, ‘If Slavery is wrong, then John Brown was wholly right.’  There are fit and unfit modes of combating a great evil; we think Brown at Harper’s Ferry pursued the latter.  We dislike Popery; yet we did not therefore feel justified evil, when we saw the Pope pass in ostentatious procession, in a palanquin born on the shoulders of men, surrounded by an armed legion and reverenced as a demi-god, to shy a stone at his head, much less point a pistol at his breast.  We have never felt at liberty, while in a Slave State, to do any act inconsistent with the laws and fixed polity of that State.  If any slaveholder introduces the topic, we respond to his suggestions; but we never begin the discussion.  And, while we heartily wish every slave in the world would run away from his master to-morrow, and never be retaken, we should not feel justified in entering a Slave State to incite them to do so, even if we were sure to succeed in the enterprise.  Of course, we regard Brown’s raid as utterly mistaken and, in its direct consequences, pernicious. 
“But his are the errors of a fanatic, not the crimes of a felon.  It were absurd to apply to him opprobrious epithets or wholesale denunciations.  The essence of crime is the pursuit of selfish gratification in disregard of others’ good; and that is the process opposite of Old Brown’s impulse and deed.  He periled and sacrificed not merely his own life—that were, perhaps a moderate stake—but the lives of his beloved sons, the earthly happiness of his family and theirs, to benefit a despised and down-trodden race—to deliver from bitter bondage and degradation those whom he had never seen.  Unwise the world will pronounce him—reckless of artificial yet palpable obligations he certainly was—but his very errors were heroic—the faults of a brave, impulsive, truthful nature, impatient of wrong, and only too conscious that ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.’  Let whoever would first cast a stone ask himself whether his own noblest act was equal in grandeur and nobility to that for which John Brown pays the penalty of a death on the gallows. 
And that death will serve to purge his memory of any stain which his errors might otherwise have cast upon it.  Mankind are proverbially generous to those who have suffered all that can here be inflicted—who have passed beyond the portals of the life to come.  John Brown dead will live in millions of hearts—will be discussed around the homely heart of Toil and dreamed of on the couch of Poverty and Trial.  To all who have suffered for human good—who have been persecuted for an idea—who have been hated because of their efforts to make the daily path of the despised and unfortunate less rugged—his memory will be fragrant through generations.  It will be easier to die in a good cause, even on the gallows, since John Brown has hallowed that mode of exit from the troubles and temptations of this mortal existence. 
Then as to the ‘irrepressible conflict:’ Who does not see that this sacrifice must inevitably intensify its progress and hasten its end?  Thirty Millions of Americans—including the Four or Five Millions of Slaves—are talking and thinking of John Brown—of his daring, his purpose, his defeat, and his death.  How can the most hostile, the most stolid, suppress the questions—What was it that required the execution of John Brown?  How came such a man to die the death of a felon?  What is the Juggernaut that demanded this bloody sacrifice?  Admit that Brown took a wrong way to rid his country of the curse, his countrymen of the chains of bondage, what is the right way?  And are we pursuing that way as grandly, unselfishly as he pursued the wrong one?  If not, is it not high time we were?  Before censuring severely his errors, should we not abandon our own? 
Yes, John Brown dead is verily a power—like Samson in the falling temple of Dagon—like Ziska, dead, with his skin stretched over a drumhead, still routing the foes he bravely fought while he lived.  Time will doubtless make plain the object and effect of this sacrifice, and show the errors of Man overruled and made beneficent by the wisdom and loving justice of God.  So let us be reverently grateful for the privilege of living in a world rendered noble by the daring of heroes, the suffering of martyrs—among whom let none doubt that History will accord an honored niche to Old John Brown.”