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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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Monday, January 28, 2013

In Response--

What Makes History Interesting: Steven Lubet Responds

In the previous installment of this blog, I was pleased to feature a review ("The John Cook Book," 15 Jan.) of Steven Lubet's new book, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook.  The review is by H. Scott Wolfe, a research librarian from Galena, Ill., and an aficionado on matters of Brown and his raiders, who is also a friend and regular contributor to this blog.  The other day, I was happy to hear from Steven Lubet, who would like to respond to some of the issues raised by Mr. Wolfe, and I'm happy to post the thoughtful response that follows.--LD

H. Scott Wolfe has decidedly mixed feelings about my book, John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook, which he recently reviewed on this blog.  He had kind words (which I appreciate) for the chapters dealing with Cook’s escape from Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent capture and trial, which comprise the latter two thirds of the book.  On the other hand, Wolfe did not care at all for the opening chapters on Cook’s early life, which he considered too speculative.  I would never attempt to change a reviewer’s mind, but Wolfe’s critique – which he presented as a guide to “all future historians and biographers” – actually provides an interesting opportunity to discuss the ways in which historians approach probabilities, inferences, and deductions from the available sources.

Wolfe’s primary complaint about JB’s Spy was my use of what he calls “conditional verbs and adverbs,” which he considers out of bounds.  To Wolfe, there is no place in history for probabilities or likelihoods, and he admonishes writers to stick strictly to “the facts.”  As I will explain below, any product of such Wolfean discipline would be shallow and unenlightening. 

All histories and biographies seek to answer two questions:  What happened? And why?  The second question necessarily involves some degree of speculation.  Historical reasons, motivations, causes, and objectives – on both individual and broader scales – are inevitably ambiguous, indistinct and obscure.  In the absence of a diary – or even if we had one – who can say what first caused Abraham Lincoln to oppose slavery, or Stephen Douglas to tolerate it?  There are many opinions, but there is no definitive answer.  And it is much harder to reconstruct the early life of someone such as John E. Cook, who was obscure until eight weeks before he died at the young age of thirty.  To get at the reasons behind Cook’s actions, therefore, one obviously must look at the era in which he lived and the people and events surrounding him.  That is why so many biographies are subtitled “the life and times.” 

So much for the general case; now let’s consider a specific example.  Wolfe was deeply troubled by my discussion of Cook’s adoption of abolitionism, given my observation that there is “no precise record” of his conversion to the cause.  Lacking such a record, I turned to the political and social forces that were sweeping the nation at the time, including their impact on the neighborhoods in which Cook worked and lived.  Wolfe says this amounted to a “virtual Hurricane Sandy of speculations,” but in fact I drew only measured and supportable conclusions from the available information.

Here is what we know:  Cook was living in Brooklyn in 1854, working as a law clerk.  In addition to his job – for which he showed little aptitude – his main pursuits were writing poetry for young women and practicing with firearms.  According to his employer, Cook had shown no interest in abolition.  Then, in September 1855, Cook departed New York for Kansas, where he joined the Free-State militia.  Those are the facts, but why did he do it?  The question comes naturally, and I admit of course that the answers are unavoidably somewhat speculative – but that is what makes history interesting.
Henry Ward Beecher
 And so, I point out that Henry Ward Beecher was at that very time preaching abolition from the pulpit of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, while recruiting “emigrants” for the anti-slavery crusade in Kansas.  Yes, I do infer that Cook “would have been drawn” to Beecher, but that is not much of a conjecture.  Beecher was, in the words of his biographer, “the most famous man in America,” and almost nobody passed up the opportunity to hear him speak.  People traveled hundreds of miles to hear Beecher, while Cook lived nearby in Brooklyn.  Moreover, Beecher was a Connecticut Congregationalist, as was Cook, so it is no great leap to conclude that Cook sometimes would have attended Beecher’s sermons.  Would any Congregationalist in Brooklyn have stayed away from Plymouth Church? 

But wait, there’s more.  The pastor at a nearby Dutch Reformed church (attended by Cook’s sister and brother-in-law, with whom he was living) blamed Cook’s abolitionism on “radical preachers” who spread “diabolical resentments” over slavery.  Although the pastor did not name any particular radical preacher, the most prominent and outspoken of them all, and the one closest at hand, was Henry Ward Beecher.  And finally, it is undeniable that Beecher inspired thousands of young men, mostly New Englanders like Cook, to join the war in Kansas.  “Beecher’s bibles” – that is, rifles in the hands of Free Staters – were famous for a reason. 

I explained all of that in JB’s Spy, before reaching the very modest conclusion that Cook was influenced by Beecher.   That is something similar to suggesting that Lady Gaga was influenced by Madonna (or Chris Rock by Richard Pryor), even if one cannot verify attendance at a specific concert.  I suppose I could have omitted Beecher from the book, leaving Cook’s motives and influences completely unknown, but that would have been a disservice to readers who – pace Wolfe – are interested in the context of the story.

Wolfe supports his minimalist view by invoking the wisdom of the old television series Dragnet, in which Sgt. Joe Friday always requested “just the facts, Ma’am.”  Perhaps that was a suitable modus operandi for a fictional cop on a twenty-two minute television show, but it is not the way that detectives operate in real life.  In an actual police investigation (a subject of which I have some professional knowledge), the facts are just the starting point.  Witness interviews generate inferences and deductions, which develop into theories, which then lead to narratives.  Any cop who limited an investigation to the so-called facts would quickly be out of a job.

A similar situation confronts historians, making probabilities and inferences both permissible and unavoidable when writing about the past.  As a stylistic matter, of course, it might be that John Brown’s Spy made too frequent use of conditional adverbs.  If so, it was only because I attempted to draw a bright line between established facts and well-supported (and clearly identified) suppositions.  A book that neglected such context would be a list, not a biography.  In any case, I hope that others will read John Brown’s Spy and reach their own conclusions.

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor of Law, Northwestern University

H. Scott Wolfe Replies [30 Jan.]:

The Father Of The Wolfean Discipline Responds
In Defense Of The “Minimalist” Viewpoint
           I appreciate the contribution of Dr. Lubet, in taking the time to respond to my recent review of his book: John Brown’s Spy, and, also, Dr. DeCaro’s posting of our opposing viewpoints. For if there were no differences in opinion, we would not have horse races.
            First, to satisfy my gargantuan ego, I must state that I revel in the honor of being the namesake of the newly coined “Wolfean discipline” of historical research…despite its “shallow and unenlightening” devotion to facts.
            Granted, the early life of John E. Cook lacks a cornucopia of primary source materials. And I would not question the way some historians “approach probabilities, inferences and deductions.” And true, those inferences and deductions can develop into “theories” and “narratives.”
            But there resides the danger…particularly in the case of John Brown historiography. Ever since the gibbet tightened, there has been an eternal deluge of deductions and inferences…which have evolved into narratives that bear no resemblance to FACTS.
            There is really nothing enlightening about speculation. It may stimulate the imagination or open up new realms of possibilities. But it doesn’t tell you what happened. And for this founder of the Wolfean discipline, there is always room for more facts…and very little for additional “probabilities and likelihoods.” It is for our peers in the field to decide which is more useful in documenting the life (and times) of The Old Man.
H. Scott Wolfe

P. S. Perhaps the most painful aspect of Dr. Lubet’s response, at least to this son of a County Sheriff, was his deprecation of that icon…that role model…of law enforcement, Sergeant Joe Friday. Please don’t tell me he was “fictional,” and that he did not illuminate how “detectives operate in real life.” The next thing the Professor will be telling us is that Dan Mathews of “Highway Patrol” was a faker. And after I have been wearing this fedora for so many years!! 10-4!-H.S.W.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

From the Field--
A Thrilling Adventure in the Speculative Use
of the Conditional Verb Tense

by H. Scott Wolfe*

Well, the holidays are over, and Santa’s sleigh has disgorged a number of gifts for yours truly, the epitome of the unworthy. Of course there was the requisite case of “Moose Drool Brown Ale,” brewed in my college town of Missoula, Montana, and necessary for the physical alignment of my brain cells and the proper lubrication of my aging joints. And, in addition, Old Saint Nick provided me with a generous armful of the more recent publications relating to Old John Brown.
The first to be drawn from the stack was an eagerly anticipated volume written by Steven Lubet, a Professor of Law at Northwestern University. Entitled John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook [Yale University Press, 325 pp.] it seeks to tell “the nearly unknown story of John E. Cook, the person John Brown trusted most with the details of his plans to capture the Harper’s Ferry armory in 1859.” And, oh yes, it also seeks to tell the story of the “full confession that earned a place in history’s tragic pantheon of disgraced turncoats.” In other words: Benedict Arnold, move over….

Now, as I have indicated in prior posts, I have devoted decades to the pursuit of the lives and deaths of the men of John Brown’s “Provisional Army.” These soldiers are much more than historical window dressing…their individual stories provide much insight into the varied motivations central to the antislavery cause. But alas, virtually all are but mere twinkling stars…totally dominated by the intense sunlight of their Commander in Chief, John Brown. Admirably, Lubet himself recognizes that Brown’s men were not merely “spear carriers,” and have “seldom been described …as independent moral actors.”

Biographical accounts of these twenty-one soldiers are rare. There has been a slim volume produced in regard to the life of their Secretary of War, John Henrie Kagi. Tony Horwitz, in his book “Midnight Rising,” briefly introduces the men with some useful annotation as to primary sources. But, all in all, John Brown’s soldiers remain essentially ignored. So when I heard of a new full-scale biography of Captain John Edwin Cook, I jumped at the chance…and Santa delivered.

Daguerreotype of John E. Cook
Kansas State Historical Society Collection

This biography can be divided in two parts…based upon the components of its subtitle: Cook’s “Adventurous Life,” and Cook’s “Tragic Confession.”  But as I began to delve into the book, I soon discovered that it is short on adventure…and long on confession. To be perfectly honest, the story of Cook essentially begins on page 96.

The early pages outline Cook’s upbringing in Haddam, Connecticut…his brief occupation as law clerk and needle salesman…along with a survey of his varied character traits. Lubet touches all of the Cook-stereotypical-bases: the politically connected Yalie;  those long, blonde curls surrounding an “effeminate face;” the consummate lady killer; the crack-shot with pistol and rifle; and, especially, his “Loose Lips Sink Ships” persona.

It is when the story reaches the origins of Cook’s adherence to the antislavery cause…and his eventual removal to Kansas…that Lubet assembles one of the most extensive aggregations of conditional verbs and adverbs ever before seen on this planet. I have never seen the like since I once paged through an unabridged dictionary during high school detention. His book actually states that there is “no precise record” of Cook’s antislavery conversion, but that does not preclude a virtual Hurricane Sandy of speculations.

Cook was “no doubt inspired” by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a man to whom he “certainly would have been drawn.”  He was “surely also attracted” to the social life of Beecher’s Plymouth Church. “It would not be surprising if” Cook gave shooting demonstrations. The imprisonment  of the Amistad slaves, thirty miles from Haddam, “may have been” Cook’s first exposure to the meaning of slavery. His racial awareness “could only have been” heightened by the Kansas Nebraska Act. Lubet eventually speculates that Cook’s emigration to Kansas occurred because he was “within earshot” of Beecher’s call for men to support the antislavery cause.
Portrait of Cook, Frank Leslie's
Illustrated News, 
Nov. 18, 1859

The first half of the book is replete with such conditional musings. “He may have planned”….”It may be that he”…”It is quite possible that he”…”He must have been aware of”….”He might very well have been.” The deluge persists with torrents of “likelys,” “evidentlys,” and “probablys” bouncing off my historical umbrella. That act was “entirely possible”…He “could not have” performed in that manner…It “had to be” his intention.

I’m sorry folks, but being elderly enough to remember the television police drama “Dragnet,” I have always been a proponent of Sergeant Joe Friday’s admonition to all future historians and biographers: “Just the facts, ma’am.” No probablys…No evidentlys…No likelys. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

The book’s Reader’s Digest-version of the Kansas conflict and John Brown’s actions therein is, I regret to report, also quite weak and harvests freely the spoiled fruit from the Tree of John Brown Misinformation. Once more we are regaled with that miraculous message of Sumner’s caning, which reached The Old Man on the plains of eastern Kansas…through the instrumentation of some ancestral “Fed Ex Overnight.”…and thereby sent him off in a “crazy” state to Pottawatomie Creek.  Did Brown really rout “a large contingent of United States cavalry” at the Battle of the Spurs? And was the Old Man to be found roaming the streets of Harper’s Ferry, adorned with “the heavy white beard by which he is now usually characterized?”

And Lubet’s seeming fascination with Cook’s physical appearance and sexual libido often takes charge of the entire story.  Even his initial interview with his Chambersburg lawyer is described as “almost erotic.” His natural attraction to women…spurred by a female-dominated upbringing…is undeniable. Yes, he impregnated a woman during the Springdale winter (He was not the only one. Brown’s men were not celibate priests, but rather, red-blooded American boys.) and underwent a shotgun wedding while residing near Harper’s Ferry. But true history need not be bent to fit the story. The winter lectures at district school houses near Springdale were frequent activities…enjoyed by all of Brown’s trainees…and were not merely vehicles to allow Cook “to court his students’older sisters.” And Cook’s supposed leap through a window at the Kennedy farmhouse, facilitated by the fact that he was “already adept at silently climbing in and out of bedroom windows,” is pure sarcasm, not biography. Perhaps it’s a shot at humor, but the gun jammed.
Historical marker of Cook's capture, Mont Alto, Pa.
(photo by H. Scott Wolfe, 2006)

Now you may remember that when I formerly produced a review of Horwitz’s Midnight Rising, I began with several questioning remarks…such as I have in the paragraphs above. But then I mellowed, and complimented the work as a whole. Such is the case with Lubet’s “John Brown’s Spy.” The holidays may be over, but their aura of good will and benevolence still surround me. And gossamer strands of altruism still cling to my notably stooped shoulders.

I mentioned above that this book essentially begins on page 96. It is here, with the post-Harper’s Ferry capture of Captain John E. Cook, that the author finally finds firm footing amidst the shifting sands of his subject’s life. And this makes perfect sense…for the story of Cook’s capture, rendition, confession and trial more soundly strike the “sweet spot” on the keyboard of a Professor of Law at Northwestern University.

It is in the final chapters that the story of John Edwin Cook reaches its fascinating climax. The documentation is also richer, with admirable usage of excellent sources ranging from the “Memoirs” of  Alexander McClure, the ill-starred antislavery attorney who took charge of Cook in Chambersburg; to the interviews with Jenny Kennedy Cook,  who was compelled to endure the trauma of being married to the second-most hated man in the State of Virginia.

These chapters of the book are also good history because they are based upon a great story. From the moment that Cook stumbled from the woods into the hands of local bounty hunters…to his Keystone Kop-like opportunity for escape in Chambersburg…to his rendition to the State of Virginia…the book begins to capture the reader and say: “Guess what will happen next?”
Cutaway from sketch of Cook and fellow raider,
Edwin Coppoc, in their Charlestown jail cell
(New York Illustrated News, Dec. 24, 1859)

And then there is the story of Cook’s famous “Confession.” This strange, evolving document was created through the machinations of two fascinating characters…both Northern proslavery Democrats (“doughfaces,” was the derogatory term in use at the time). One was Cook’s own brother-in-law, Ashbel Willard, the Governor of Indiana…and the other was Daniel Voorhees, trial lawyer, honey-tongued orator, and soon destined to become one of the most annoying stones in the shoe of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. These men, with the assistance of prosecutor Andrew Hunter, induced Cook to pen a full confession…the purpose of which was twofold.

First, by coming clean with his own involvement AND identifying prominent moral and financial backers in the North, it was hoped that Cook could receive leniency in his sentencing from Virginia Governor Wise. And second, his legal team sought to have his trial transferred to a Federal court in Staunton, Virginia…where the long arm of the national government would be able to issue subpoenas to question the really big fish to be fried: men such as Fred Douglass, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Gerrit Smith…all implicated in the confession itself.

But all such legal and political wrangling went for naught. Yet the trial of John Cook is to me the most fascinating of all the others held in the Court House in Charlestown. It certainly was the most dramatic of any held for the Harper’s Ferry conspirators…John Brown included. The Old Man wanted to die. John Cook wanted to live. Martyrdom to the cause held no charms for him. But the result was the same…he was convicted and sentenced to hang…and all hopes for a commuted or lessened sentence were futile.

 Cook was a despised man, particularly in Jefferson County, where his trial was held. He was “one of the deepest dyed villains that ever planted foot upon the soil of our State…whose hospitality he has basely violated…” He was the spy…the sneak…the recreant.  He had ingratiated himself with the local populace…married one of their daughters…broken bread at their tables…and even plinked tin cans with the great-grand nephew of George Washington himself. So the chances of John Edwin Cook receiving a reduced sentence in the State of Virginia were about equal to the chances of General William Tecumseh Sherman being later popularly elected as Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.


So what is Cook’s legacy? He certainly appears to be one of the least likable of the members of Brown’s Provisional Army. His sincere commitment to the antislavery cause is often questionable. His early lawyer, Alexander McClure, called Cook “a sincere fanatic, with mingled humanity and atrocity strangely unbalancing each other…” Lubet himself considers him more of a “thrill seeker” than a “do-gooder.” Perhaps the most apt description was anonymously given in the Jefferson County Register of Deaths, following Cook’s execution on December 16, 1859.  It simply lists his occupation as “adventurer.”

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.  

Postscript: A Room with a View

Not having read John Brown's Spy, I am particularly grateful for Herr Wolfe's contribution.  However, I did happen to note one interesting oversight on the part of author Lubet that is worth noting here, if only because failing to do so might rob the narrative of a most poignant moment.  Lubet rejects the description provided by James Redpath (in his biography of Brown)which states that Cook had an unobstructed view of Brown's hanging from the window of his jail cell.  According to the Redpath book, Cook "watched his old Captain until the trap fell and his body swung into mid air, when he turned away and gave vent to his feelings."  Lubet disdains this "poignant vignette," saying that it never happened, and pointing out that Cook even wrote a letter about the hanging and never mentioned that he watched it, "--which in any case would have been impossible from his cell." (See Lubet, p. 254 and note 10, citing Redpath, Life of Captain John Brown, p. 404).

Actually, it is more likely that Professor Lubet is wrong in this case, and that the "poignant vignette" is worthy to preserve as part of the narrative.

To be sure, it is interesting that Cook did not mention that he had seen Brown's hanging, but the fact that he made no mention of it in one instance of writing does not itself disprove that he had seen it from a distance.  More to the point, Lubet fails to observe that Redpath's remarks on page 404 were not his own words, but actually are enclosed in quotation marks.   Unfortunately, Redpath did not provide a citation for the quotation, although in this case it was from the New York Tribune--evidently a very reliable source, since the Tribune had an undercover journalist in Charlestown with good access to the jail.  This journalist reported many details that otherwise would have been denied to anti-slavery northern newspapers.  Interestingly, though, Redpath omitted some parts of the report, including some key descriptions that provide explanation of Cook being able to see the gallows from his jail cell window.   In fact, the report says that the place of  Brown's execution was not more than a half mile from the jail; it also says that “from the windows of his cell in the second story . . . Cook had an unobstructed view of the whole proceedings.  He watched his old Captain until the trap fell and his body swung into mid-air, when he turned away and gave vent to his feelings.” (“John Brown’s Invasion.  Further Interesting Incidents of the Execution,” New York Tribune, 6 Dec. 1859, p. 6.)   The jail in Charlestown in Brown's day was a two-story house with rooms made over as jail cells.  Cook and the other raiders, with the exception of Brown and Stevens, were incarcerated on the second floor of the jail.  To err is human, and historians are humans.   However, as we have seen somewhat recently, when it comes to the theme of John Brown, some scholars may confuse cynicism with objectivity, while others may dismiss the studied but sympathetic scholar as a mere panegyrist. Lubet seems to be a conscientious scholar, and armed with Herr Wolfe's review, I look forward to finally reading this fine book.--LD

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Watching "The Abolitionists"--
Brown and Calvinism Caricatured--Again

The segment on John Brown is nicely dramatized, but it's the same old stuff about how business failure clouded his sense of God's leading, etc.  Then to top it off, the clip with R. Blakeslee Gilpin babbling about John Brown and Calvinism.  Speaking in the historical present tense, Gilpin says:
"Brown is drifting just further and further into a very deep and dark relationship with God.  He's always trying to discern what God wants for him.  That's really what Calvinism is all about, you're eternally in sin, you're just constantly trying to get out of it like a drowning man."
I'm sorry folks.  I don't want to be mean.  I'm sure R. Blakeslee Gilpin is a fine fellow and a bright one at that.  But I've read and reviewed his recent book, John Brown Still Lives! which is a cultural study of Brown, featuring a number of very interesting chapters.  However, the very worst part of the book are the opening biographical chapters--really some of the worst writing on Brown that I've seen in my years as a student of the man.

Now this.

First, the story line of how Brown's business life took a nose dive and devastated him is just worn out gossip.  Brown faced two phases of business disappointment.  The first phase from the economic upheavals of the late 1830s and into the early 1840s resulted in personal bankruptcy.  Brown made something of a comeback by the mid-to-late 1840s when he distinguished himself as an expert of fine sheep and wool and aligned himself with Akron magnate, Simon Perkins, Jr.  These disappointments did not ultimately discourage him or his faith.

The second disappointment was the failure of the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation in 1849.  Yet even though this venture failed, Brown and Perkins continued their partnership, as the former did quite well in cultivating the Perkins flocks and farms.  Their collaboration lasted until 1854, and although Brown hardly moved on as a rich man, he was not ruined and there is not the slightest evidence that this had any negative impact on his spiritual life.

So the storyline in "The Abolitionist", as it regards John Brown so far, has misrepresented the man.  I dread to think what's next.

As far as Gilpin is concerned, Brown never drifted into any dark relationship with God.  There is nothing in his letters, family testimony, or any other evidence that suggests the scenario that Gilpin has contrived.  This is yet another case when a historian substitutes imagination for facts.  As a student of John Brown's life and letters, I am more than annoyed that this kind of poorly studied, sophomoric improvisation get presented by a "talking head" simply because he moves in elite academic circles.

Second, this description by Gilpin of what Calvinism "is all about" is just atrocious.  Any Calvinist past or present would be outraged by the kind of ignorance and bias revealed in this statement.  As one who embraces Calvinism, I would have to say that Gilpin knows nothing about the theology or the experience of evangelical Calvinism.

I dread to think what "The Abolitionists" is going to do with Brown in Kansas and beyond.

Here we go again.