History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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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

1 comment:

mitchjf said...

I'm an old friend of Albert Fried. I've been trying to find him on the web, but have had no luck.
Will anyone who knows Al please let me know he is and how I can get in touch with him. He is a great historian, the breadth of whose studies is extensive.

Maurice "Mitch" Freedman