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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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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The New York Review "Exchange":
Uneasy About Brown? 

On February 25, this blog featured comments on Christopher Benfey's article in The New York Review (Mar. 7) of the latest effort by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, The Tribunal.   In response, I wrote: "The professor's argument is as clear as it is disturbing.   He writes as if standing with those in the 19th century who put "moderation" over black life and freedom--as if the nature of chattel slavery in the antebellum era, as well as the state of the political circumstances then reigning, rendered an attack upon slavery as worse than slavery itself."  Unfortunately, my remarks seem confirmed in the most recent "Exchange on John Brown," published in the The New York Review, after David S. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, took Benfey to task in the latest edition of the Review (May 9).  Following Reynolds' criticism, the Review printed Benfey's response.  The latter writes quite in keeping with the outlook of an elitest 20th century academic hold over.
David Reynolds

"Hawthorne's Jaundiced Lens"

In his rejoinder, Reynolds writes that "Benfey devotes a sizable amount of his review to discussing Hawthorne. . . a political doughface who had virtually nothing useful to say about John Brown or slavery," as well as Herman "Moby-Dick" Melville, whose writings added "little to the political debate [over slavery] other than underscoring its complexity."   Reynolds rightly contends that it was Emerson and Thoreau's consideration of Brown that merits "far more space--and respect--than Benfey gives them," the latter preferring "Hawthorne's jaundiced lens."

To Reynolds' well-placed mark, Benfey attempts evasion.  "The subtle men of Concord are uneasy allies in the canonization of John Brown," he writes in response.  Benfey thus argues that Thoreau's attraction to Brown was based only on the fact that the former was a "writer of blunt and pungent rhetoric"--a notion that is reductionist and self-serving.  To the contrary, Thoreau wrote that "no man in America has ever stood up so persistently for the dignity of human nature" than John Brown.  "He could not have been tried by his peers, for his peers did not exist."  This hardly sounds like the words of someone who was uneasy about Brown.

Christopher Benfey
Benfey attempts the same slight-of-hand on Emerson, claiming that it was Brown's courage that most captured the eminent author.  Not only did Emerson have "little to say about slavery in his praise of Brown," writes Benfey, but he apparently plagiarized his famous statement that Brown would make his gallows as sacred as the cross.  Whether or not this is true is not clear, although Benfey makes much of the fact that the "gallows glorious" remark was apparently removed from Emerson's published work in later years.

Undoubtedly, Reynolds can better prove that Benfey is making a desperate attempt to diminish Emerson and Thoreau's admiration for Brown because he cannot escape the point: Benfey looks to 19th century writers like Hawthorne and Melville, who were racially prejudiced and indifferent to the antislavery cause, as his basis for approaching Brown.  This is like using Lincoln's disparaging Cooper Union remarks to form an opinion of Brown.  It simply does not work in historical terms. Since he cannot defend Hawthorne and Melville from Reynolds' piercing criticism, Benfey can only attempt to fool the all-too-willing readers of the Review into thinking that Emerson and Thoreau were actually "uneasy" about John Brown, a ludicrous claim.

Even if we acknowledge that Emerson's "gallows glorious" remark was edited out of his published words in later years, this doesn't negate Reynolds' point.  Rather, it suggests that if Emerson later backed away from his earlier, admiring remarks as Benfey says (actually he draws this from a note in Stauffer & Trodd's The Tribunal), this only reflects the mood of the nation following the Civil War--a backing away from the abolitionist zeal of the former antebellum era.  As such, it is more suggestive of how Emerson changed in the post-war period.  A lot of white folks did, such as the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley.  Like Greeley, many whites wearied themselves over black freedom and wanted to get past the drama of slavery, even to the point of backing away from the vital concerns of the freedmen.  So Benfey's remark only takes advantage of the nation's historic backsliding.  The question, then, is which provides the more correct assessment of Brown by Emerson--the "gallows glorious" remarks of 1859, or his post-war back-peddling?

Mocking Contextualization

Another point of evasion by Benfey is made in response to Reynolds' valid criticism of his remarks on the 1856 Pottawatomie killings.  The latter rightly observes that Benfey had failed to "contextualize the incident adequately," particularly the fact that proslavery thugs had been active in murder, vote tampering, and terrorism in the Kansas territory well before Brown led the killing of five proslavery thugs in May 1856 along the Pottawatomie creek.   Reynolds concludes: "John Brown, as a journalist of the time wrote, 'brought Southern tactics to the Northern side.'"

Supposedly addressing this criticism, Benfey relies on sarcasm, writing: "Ah, contextualization, that magic wand by which so many bad deeds. . . can be forgiven. . . .  That is always the defense for atrocities. . . ."  He then quotes Willie Lee Rose, an anti-Brown writer in the 20th century who remarked that it was true enough that proslavery thugs were wicked.  "But it happens that none of those men of blood has ever been, at least to my knowledge, in the slightest danger of being canonized."

But this is wise-cracking disguised as debate.  First, it is true enough that the proslavery thugs from Missouri and the South were not canonized--except, perhaps, for Jesse James, who was of the same ilk that Brown killed at Pottawatomie.  Jesse James was in the company of "Bloody" Bill Anderson and the vile William Quantrill, and yet "American" society has "canonized" him by rendering Jesse James as a kind of Robin Hood of the old west.   But that's really a secondary issue.  More importantly, the point is precisely that John Brown is not "in danger of being canonized" either, particularly in the mainstream thinking of the nation, and in the halls of academia where some scholars like Benfey continue to denigrate him.  Furthermore, none of us--neither Reynolds, Carton, nor I--have tried to "canonize" Brown in our biographical work.  Rather, we simply have tried to help people read the fullest extent of the evidence and the argument in the certainty that he will be seen for the good and worthy man that he was.  

Still, Benfey dodges the issue by diminishing contextualization as a means to rationalize or cover crimes.  But there is a difference between rationalization and contextualization, and the point of contextualizing Pottawatomie is hardly about rationalization.  No one, especially Reynolds, has rationalized these killings led by Brown.   However, the overwhelming number of descriptions of the Pottawatomie affair have failed to present the fullest context, including the brief treatment in the recently published, Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz.  So contextualization is vital if we are ever going to fairly discuss this bloody episode.  Indeed, there is a strong argument, including sufficient evidence, that the Pottawatomie killings were preemptory, exercised in the context of absolute lawlessness and the absence of justice, amid a state of war, and in response to a conspiracy that was afoot. While the killings cannot be literally characterized as "self-defense," they were arguably far more akin to self-defense than to war-time "atrocities."  The real problem with the Pottawatomie killings in retrospect is the manner in which historians and writers--from Villard to Horwitz, and Benfey (who is not in the company of the former, to say the least) have decidedly refused to consider the evidence for Brown's desperate actions in Kansas.  Mocking contextualization simply will not do.

Fanaticism and Nuance

Finally, Benfey settles comfortably on the language of "fanatic" in his assessment of John Brown, and repeats Sean Wilentz, another ivory tower anti-Brown sniper, who criticized Reynolds' biography of spending too much time "in establishing Brown's sanity," when the "really important point is that it is entirely possible to be sane and rational and also, like Brown, a fanatic."  Excuse us, Doctors Benfey and Wilentz: the whole of the 20th century was spent by scholars impugning Brown as "insane"--but Reynolds was not supposed to address the issue?  Admittedly, Robert McGlone probably beats a dead horse in his exhaustive treatment of mental illness in his 2009 bio-study, John Brown's War Against Slavery.  Anyone who reads that great effort will certainly get tired at the lengths that McGlone goes to extend this really needless discussion regarding Brown's mental state.  But to suggest that Reynolds made too much of the issue in his breakthrough biography, John Brown Abolitionist (2005), is simply incorrect.

In the end, Benfey appeals to "nuance" in suggesting that Reynolds is unable to get past "bludgeoning 'contextualization.'"  However, in Benfey's case, "nuance" is a euphemism that allows him to suggest that calling Brown a "fanatic" is historically reasonable--that somehow he stands, along with Hawthorne and Melville, between anti-slavery “ideals” and the so-called fanaticism of "questionable physical means."  But as Reynolds' work reveals, in the antebellum era of the United States, it was the majority of white people who actually were racial "fanatics," not John Brown.  Indeed, as the abolitionist understood, the non-violent anti-slavery side was already "nuanced" to the point of inaction and lack of a real strategy to end slavery in the United States.  

Contrary to Benfey, Brown's plan for a liberation movement in the South was the finest expression of real political and ethical nuance, because he sought justice for the slave as a priority without blunt insurrection--which necessitated the killing of slave masters as a point of strategy.  As Brown put it on the last day of his life, he wanted a movement that could accomplish freedom for the slave "without very much bloodshed."  If this not "nuanced," I do not know what is.  Quite unlike David Reynolds, Christopher Benfey remains incapable of reading this story without prejudice and caricature, and his arguments smack of evasion more than fact.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Jean Libby to Lecture at San Jose University on John Brown's Black Support and Local Connections

The SJSU History Department and Burdick Military History Project present "The American Civil War," Saturday, April 27, 2013, 12:00-4:00 p.m., in the Engineering Auditorium (ENG 189)
of San Jose State University

Lecture and demonstration of cavalry kit and packing
12:00 to 1:00 in the Plaza in front of the Engineering Building
Mr. Kermit Claytor, Public Historian and Civil War Re-enactor

Introduction and Welcome (1:00)
Dr. Jonathan Roth, History Department SJSU

John Brown the abolitionist: African-American Support and Local Connections
Mrs. Jean Libby, Public Historian

The Economic and Political Aspects of the American Civil War
Dr. Jeffrey Hummel, Economics Department, SJSU

African-American Soldiers and the Civil War
Dr. Libra Hilde, History Department, SJSU

Admission to this event is free and open to the public.
For more information contact Dr. Roth at (408) 924-5505 or jonathan.roth@sjsu.edu

Jean writes:

I look forward to participating in the Symposium with these distinguished scholars from San Jose State University 

My talk on John Brown will include African American support evident in San Jose in the time of the Civil War.  The Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on 2nd Street where the first ordained African American deacon in the west, Peter Williams Cassey,  managed a mission for refugees that was a station on the Underground Railroad.  This became the first secondary school for African Americans west of the Mississippi, the Phoenixian Institute (later Academy).   The Cassey family has direct connections to support for John Brown. 

In the present day, the pastor of St. James A.M.E. in San Jose, Rev. A.R. Rollins, was born and raised in Quindaro, Kansas.  First an abolitionist and fugitives community on the Missouri River (well known to John Brown), the town was settled by African Americans after the Civil War who opened Western University, the first black college in the west.  Rev. Rollins will attend on April 27.

We call the roll for Shields Green, recently featured with Frederick Douglass and John Brown on the PBS series "The Abolitionists."  And for Lewis Leary, whose widow Mary was the first black woman graduate of Oberlin College.  She married Charles Langston, a friend of John Brown and first principal of Western University in Quindaro, Kansas.  Their grandson was the poet Langston Hughes.

Please share notice of this event among your organizations and networks as appropriate.  I will publish the presentation and other recent research.

Jean Libby
Allies for Freedom

Monday, April 15, 2013

Albert Fried, author of John Brown's Journey, Reviews John Brown--The Cost of Freedom

When my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, was published, Albert Fried was kind enough to read the manuscript and provide a "blurb" for the cover.  Fried's book, John Brown's Journey (1974), is a modern classic, and provides a unique scholarly approach.  Journey is a reflective history and historiography combined, the author writing about Brown and his times during the political crises a century later, particularly amidst the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era.  He also provides a helpful review of the books and authors up to the 1970s.   I consider John Brown's Journey one of the most important books written about the abolitionist in the 20th century.  In many respects, it is far more important than some of the cultural and biographically oriented studies written in this era, and should be read by any serious student of John Brown.  When I revisited his review recently, I thought it would be appropriate to publish it in its entirety, given the depth of Fried's political perspective.  Apart from its concerns as a review, this piece is a substantive reflection upon the John Brown theme from an intellectual and progressive with a great appreciation for and understanding of the abolitionist.--LD

"I am happy to add my brief comments to Louis A. DeCaro's important contribution to the literature on John Brown. Markedly distinguishing Mr. DeCaro's book from all the others, even the fair and objective scholarly ones, is the amount of valuable and hitherto unacknowledged data he has unearthed from neglected or overlooked sources. These reinforce the fact that Brown was, as paterfamilias, entrepreneur, Christian fundamentalist, citizen, quintessentially a man of his time, a man who had the unfailing respect of his contemporaries despite his many business setbacks (typical of his day and age). To read Mr. DeCaro is to realize yet again‑to realize once and for all how outlandish is the myth of John Brown as bloodthirsty religious fanatic and suicidal maniac whose bankruptcies drove him in desperation to embrace the anti‑slavery cause‑the myth that his numerous detractors propagated and too much of the public came to take for granted.
Albert Fried, May 2007, in New York
City (photo by L. DeCaro Jr.)

With a nice display of erudition, logic and eloquence, Mr. DeCaro takes us through all the phases of Brown's abolitionist career, from its emergence to its denouement at Harper's Ferry. We see clearly how he was from the start an abolitionist with a very pronounced difference, espousing as he did violent resistance to an evil that seemed absolutely invincible and also establishing unusually close relations with free blacks, not only prominent ones like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but also rank‑and‑file men and women whose consciousness he sought to raise and whom he helped materially, inviting a number of them, for instance, to live in his North Elba community. Brown's belief in violent resistance matured into a plan of attack when the slavery issue suddenly took an acutely critical turn in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas‑Nebraska Act. Northerners now angrily confronted the prospect that slavery, which is to say the Southern slavocracy, would expand into free territory, until then legally protected by the Missouri Compromise. Thus arose overnight the Republican Party with its ironclad demand that slavery must remain within the prescribed limits. And when Kansas exploded into open warfare between pro‑ and anti‑slave factions, John Brown and members of his family made their way there, and there he learned to play the extraordinary role history assigned him.

Here Mr. DeCaro convincingly reveals the larger policy implications of Brown's part in the Kansas civil war‑ specifically his responsibility as leader of a group of radical free soilers, for the notorious Pottawatomie massacre of five pro‑slavery activists. Over the years Brown's critics have cited these horrific deeds to justify their merciless condemnation of his character and values. They totally miss the point. What comes through in Mr. DeCaro's pages is precisely Brown's intention to exacerbate the sectional and ideological conflict, the better to advance the larger policy he had in mind. So yes, for him, given the transcendent evil against which he was taking up arms, the end did sanction the means, his deep‑seated humanity notwithstanding. (It was his humanity, as Mr. DeCaro explains, that led to his undoing at Harper's Ferry.) From his intensive study of books on guerilla warfare (amply summarized by Mr. DeCaro) Brown understood that provoking hated enemies to show their true colors, their brutality beneath the veneer of legitimacy, is a time‑honored tactic for radicalizing the moderates, the fence‑sitters, the non‑engaged, and getting them to support the insurgency. And so as the general crisis over slavery steadily worsened from the mid‑1850s on, John Brown's strategy was to devise a provocation capable of taking Americans along a path of high destiny from mere opposition to the expansion of slavery to its destruction root and branch, from Republicanism to abolitionism.

This brings us to Harper's Ferry. Brown's critics regard the assault he led as a piece of lunacy, proof of his death wish, his insensate desire for martyrdom. Nothing, as Mr. DeCaro attests, can be further his intention to overthrow the slave system by force and violence. He and his men would probably have escaped after carrying out the attack had he not wasted precious minutes in his humane treatment of the captured slaveowners. Had he and his men and the ex‑slaves gotten away (thanks to his indefatigable research, Mr. DeCaro informs us that in fact far more slaves from the surrounding region joined Brown at Harper's Ferry than any previous accounts have revealed) they would have operated as planned from their guerilla redoubt in the mountains of southern Pennsylvania. From there they would presumably have taken on local and state authorities and even the U.S. army, and if all went well they would have gained the backing of like‑minded abolitionists along with runaway slaves drawn to the insurgent cause. Now that insurgency, I assume, would have stood little chance of getting off the ground, much less of surviving for long. My commonsensical assumption, however, scarcely invalidates the project itself and certainly does not invalidate the moral conviction on which it was based‑the conviction that only a war to the death could realistically abolish slavery. For Brown and company to try to do what they could to initiate such a full‑scale war was, yes, entirely reasonable.

Reading Mr. DeCaro’s book makes us aware again of how history has vindicated John Brown's project, fulfilling the famous dark prophecy he uttered as he awaited the gallows on December 2, 1859: "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Only sixteen months later the Civil War began. And only four years after that President Lincoln, who once had nothing good to say about John Brown, in his great Second Inaugural Address‑600,000 Americans having died in battle‑fully justified that terrible gallows prophecy in words that make us shudder no matter how often we hear them. "Fondly do we hope‑fervently do we pray‑that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continues until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must it be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous.'"

Albert Fried, 2007
Author, John Brown's Journey

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April Fools! Not--
Misquoted?  Whatever!

Horwitz: notable journalist
is badly reported
Tony Horwitz dropped me a note this past week regarding his recent appearance in Lawrence, linked to in the Lawrence Journal-World  (Apr. 4), saying the article was "filled with laughable inaccuracies."  Tony was not exaggerating.   "[M]ost notably," he writes, "the alleged quote of mine saying that Annie Brown [one of the abolitionist's daughters] was 'an upscale privileged New York teenager.'"  It seems Tony actually had referred to Anne as "an upstate New York teenager who was rather provincial, having spent her previous years in a remote farming community."  Pretty annoying, to be sure.  "Upstate/upscale, privileged/provincial. Whatever," the author concluded.

A Wolfe in Man's Clothing,
Pictured Here in Hudson, O.
Reports of Harpers Ferry's Non-existence Are Greatly Exaggerated

H. Scott Wolfe, the Maitre de la librairie of Galena, Ill., and the special correspondent of our frequent "From the Field" feature, is on the historical road once again.  Herr Wolfe made a special investigation of Harpers Ferry (formerly Harper's Ferry) in response to rumors that the historic site of John Brown's 1859 raid had become non-existent.  Happily, his communication of 10 April puts the matter to rest: "This is to inform you that Harpers Ferry still exists," Wolfe writes. "This is the result of my personal observations of yesterday."  As Brown would put it, we are all most gratifyed by the report.
"John Brown Day" declaration
read by Pitt Master Bowen
(photo by L. DeCaro Jr.)

"John Brown Day" Declared in New York City (Well, in Queens, Anyway)

April 7th has been declared "John Brown Day" according to a proclamation of New York City councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of District 26 in Queens.  On Sunday, April 7, a representative of Councilman Van Bramer's office presented the official proclamation to Josh Bowen, proprietor and pitt master of John Brown Smokehouse, the home of serious Kansas City-style barbecue in the Big Apple.  The proclamation was read aloud by Mr. Bowen before a small but enthusiastic audience, and witnessed by John Brown portrayer, Norman Marshall (pictured above, left), and your blogger (not pictured).
Among those in attendance were activist Martha Swan of John Brown Lives!, the sponsoring organization of the featured program of the day, "The Afterlife of an Abolitionist."  The John Brown Lives! program featured scholars John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, co-editors of the notable publication, The Tribunal.  Prof. Trodd was also present for the presentation of the "John Brown Day" proclamation afterward.  As yours truly pointed out to the audience, New York City was not one of Brown's favorite cities, probably due to its prominent racism and economic and business ties to slavery in the antebellum era.  Interestingly, after his hanging in December 1859, his body was briefly held over in New York City en route to burial in the Adirondacks.  It is a little known fact that during the stop over, Brown's remains were prepared for burial in a rented facility on Bowery Street by an anti-slavery mortician before being shipped to its final resting place in present day Lake Placid, N.Y.   It seems that April 7 has no special relevance to the John Brown story.  However, Norman Marshall pointed out that it is the birthday of jazz great Billie Holiday.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Author, Author--
John Brown "Debated" in Lawrence Program

According to a report by Giles Bruce of the Lawrence Journal-World online, an authors' "debate" on John Brown took place last evening (Thur., 4 Apr.) in the Liberty Hall Cinema of the Lawrence Public Library, in Lawrence, Kansas.  The program was presented as part of the institution's commemorate observation of the 150th anniversary of the massacre--a so-called "raid" carried out in that city by pro-slavery terrorist, William Quantrill on Aug. 21, 1863.  
Jonathan Earle, author of
John Brown's Raid

The authors in discussion were Tony Horwitz and Jonathan Earle.  Horwitz is well known as the author of Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Holt, 2011), the latest and most discussed book on the raid thus far.   Earle, a history professor at Kansas University, is the author of John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008), perhaps not as well known a book, but a helpful handbook published in the Bedford Series in History and Culture.  

The Lawrence event, oddly entitled, “Reconstructing John Brown,” drew a crowd that even surprised the award-winning Horwitz, who doubtless is no stranger to large crowds.  According to The Journal-World, the gathering was "at least twice as large as any he’s spoken to about Brown, a historical figure the author said is as well known in Lawrence and Kansas as anywhere in the world."

The Journal-World reports that one of the two discussants--which one is not identified--made reference to Brown as “the most polarizing figure in American history.”  Of course, there is some truth in the remark, but Thomas Jefferson actually was far more polarizing, in that he both embodied and bequeathed ideas of individual human liberty and the example of a slave master to the nation. Jefferson helped to create the polarity between democracy and slavery that finally came to an explosive conclusion in the U.S. Civil War.  
Tony Horwitz,
author of Midnight Rising
On the other hand, Brown was controversial, but only so because his actions brought the polarity to the surface and helped to force the nation to a resolution (of the institution of slavery, not its racism).  It is easy to label Brown as "polarizing," but he was only struggling within the currents already working within the nation.  Was Brown really "the most polarizing figure in American history"?  After all, white folks were already "polarized" over slavery.

Horwitz made a notable point in observing that Brown's famous battles at Black Jack and Ossawatomie were “arguably the opening shots of the Civil War.”  He stated further that Brown's war against slavery in the Kansas territory “led directly to Harpers Ferry,” since it allowed him to raise money for that battle from wealthy Northern abolitionists who fawned over Brown."  True enough.  Conventionally it has been stated that Harper's Ferry was the beginning of the Civil War; but certainly the Civil War unofficially had begun in the Kansas territory in the 1850s.  The real start of the war was not the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, but pro-slavery thugs pouring into Kansas territory with the intention of violently forcing slavery upon the forming state of Kansas.

As to the perhaps inevitable discussion of the Pottawatomie killings, Horwitz stated, “I think most of us would agree he’s on the right side of history, but his means were very troubling.” Quoting historical novelist Truman Nelson, Horwitz referred to Brown as “the stone in the shoe of American history.”  As far as Brown's later trial in Virginia, Horwitz compared it to as sort of the O.J. Simpson trial of that day, “one of the first breaking-news stories in America.”

Professor Earle pointed out that Abraham Lincoln probably would not have been elected President of the U.S. were it not for Brown, who rendered William Seward--the favored Republican--unelectable.

The reporter seems to have given preference to reporting Horwitz's remarks, but it seems likely there was not much of a "debate" between the two writers.  Based upon what Earle has written, it does not seem his view of Brown, for instance, is significantly different from Horwitz's approach to the Pottawatomie killings.  Both see the killings primarily as sheer murder--although Horwitz has notably rejected the later claim that Brown and his men had heard of the violent beating of Charles Sumner in Washington by an irate South Carolinian politician.  In his book, Professor Earle conveys the conventional story that this news drove Brown's men "crazy." Neither Horwitz nor Earle sufficiently recognize the actual danger faced by Brown and his family in May 1856, nor do they evidently credit the ample evidence stating that the killings specifically targeted a circle of pro-slavery conspirators.  To both Horwitz and Earle, the men killed at Pottawatomie were more victims than dangerous foes, and the killings led by Brown essentially are vengeful and vindictive.  

According to the report, Horwitz concluded his part in the discussion by stating that Brown “forces us to ask the question, do the ends justify the means?”  

Of course, the answer is "yes."  Anne Brown, a daughter of the abolitionist, would probably have disdained such a question, since the answer should be obvious to anyone standing on the right side of history.  "Moral suasion and non resistance are excellent doctrines to preach in times of peace," she wrote in 1908.  "But often in troublous times, some one has to fight for peace--and fight hard too.  And then endure the remarks that are made by the carpet knights and quill-drivers who were not in the fray but stayed peacefully at home enjoying the after benefits derived from other's exertions."

See Giles Bruce, "Historians debate 'the most polarizing figure in American history," Lawrence Journal-World (LJWorld.com), 4 Apr. 2013.

*     *     *

Larry Lawrence, chairman of the John Brown Society in New York City, recently issued a statement regarding Midnight Rising that raises a perspectival issue worth noting:
The contradiction that I believe that Horwitz faces is that he mainly wrote his book for a Civil War military history audience. That audience of active book buyers is as large, or probably larger, than the audience for 19th century abolitionism on its own. The main interest of the military audience is to see Kansas and Harpers Ferry principally in the light of the military meaning of both as military-only preludes to the greater conflict. We have always had this problem in the US with the war. The racial, social and political has always been slighted for the military. (This implies nothing at all about the real politics of Mr. Horwitz of which I know nothing. I presume that he is a leftist, as I am, sympathetic to racial justice.) 
(Larry Lawrence, 25 March 2013)


Monday, April 01, 2013

Well Versed--
Langston Hughes: "Shame On You"

Many are aware of the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and his admiration of John Brown. Hughes' grandmother was Mary Patterson, the widow of Harper's Ferry raider, Lewis Leary.  After Leary's death in 1859, she remarried Hughes famous forebear, the abolitionist orator Charles Langston.  Young Langston Hughes was reared with a great respect for Brown and his black and white raiders, and sometime in the 1920s he authored his wonderful poem, "October 16" ("Perhaps you will remember John Brown").  

Less popular perhaps is another poem by Hughes, written about two decades later and published in Phylon, the Atlanta University's publication founded by W.E.B. DuBois.  This poem is entitled, "Shame on You," and expresses Hughes' disdain for the failure of historical memory in the nation at large, as well as that of the black community.  Its brief verses go:
The Lincoln Theater, 1930s
If you’re great enough 
And clever enough 
The government might honor you. 
But the people will forget 
Except on holidays. 

A movie house in Harlem named after Lincoln. 
Nothing at all named after John Brown. 
Black people don’t remember. 
Any better than white.  
If you’re not alive and kicking, shame on you!

The former Lincoln Theater today,
The Metropolitan Church in Harlem
According to the fascinating blog, Harlem + Bespoke (2 Mar. 2010), the "movie house in Harlem named after Lincoln" to which Hughes referred was the old Lincoln Theater, located at 58 West 135th Street in the heart of Harlem.  The blog says that the Lincoln Theater was the "first theater in Harlem to cater to an African-American audience."  It was opened in 1915, when Harlem was still "vastly white."  Later, it became a notable venue in the Harlem Renaissance for entertainers like Bessie Smith and Fats Waller.  In the following decades, the Lincoln Theater became a movie theater, as shown in Harlem + Bespoke's 1936 photograph.  In the 1960s, the theater was purchased by the Metropolitan Church and was given a new facade, although Harlem + Bespoke says that the interior theater was preserved.  Maybe the closest John Brown got to The Lincoln Theater was the showing in 1955 of "Seven Angry Men," a mediocre film about the abolitionist and his sons in which Raymond Massey reprised his role as Brown from the terribly distorted portrayal in "Santa Fe Trail" (1940).

The Hughes poem, "Shame on You," appeared in Phylon, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1950), page 15.