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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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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.

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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)


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