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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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Walt Whitman Didn't Understand John Brown

I will leave it to the literary scholars to address this one, but I thought it an interesting observation that the celebrated poet Walt Whitman, not only disdained John Brown, but evidently held to his stubborn prejudice again the abolitionist for years.  According to the diary of Horace Traubel, published in With Walt Whitman in Camden, Brown was one of Whitman's "weak spots."  It is probably the case that race and black equality were also points of weakness with Whitman, as it was with other 19th century literary figures--including those upheld recently in the deplorable response to David Reynolds by Christopher Benfey in The New York Review of Books.  Regardless, here is the segment from Traubel's reminiscence:
W[alt Whitman] instanced the case of Emerson's acceptance of John Brown. "When Emerson did come out it was with the power, the overwhelmingness, of an avalanche: I, for my part, could never see in Brown himself, merely of himself, the evidence of great human quality: yet Emerson said when they killed Brown: 'Now you have made the gallows as holy as the cross.' That was sublime, ultimate, everlasting: yet they will not permit us to say Emerson was extreme." I said to W[alt]: "You have a few very weak spots: John Brown is one of them: you never show that you understand Brown." "That's what William used to say: he would sometimes say to me: 'Walt, you let off the God damnedest drivel on some subjects!' Brown was one of these subjects: I don't seem to like him any better now than I did then." I said: "Emerson and you are alike in one remarkable respect: you both resent argument: you simply take your positions and stay there." W[alt] said: "That would be a great virtue were it so: is it so?"

Source: Scully Bradley, editor.  Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, January 21 to April 7, 1889 Vol. 4 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 293,  Journal entry for Thursday, March 7, 1889.

. . .But Dick Gregory Understands
"'This man John Brown is real,' said the comedian and social critic Dick Gregory addressing the nearly 300 people attending John Brown Day 2013 commemoration held at the State Historic Site on Saturday, May 11. 
'Every year on my birthday October 12th I go to Harper's Ferry, and every 2nd of December I go to Charles Town, West Virginia and hug the tree next to where John Brown was hung. I hug the tree for the white man who gave up his life for a black man. John Brown took his two sons with him. Then the whole world changed thanks to John Brown. I came here to say thank you. On the ride up from Albany my driver pointed out all the trees you have here, this vast forest that surrounds us. There are trees all over the world. Lots of other places have trees. What they do not have that you have here is John Brown.'"
Source: Naj Wikoff, "On the Scene: John Brown 2013," Lake Placid News  [Lake Placid, N.Y.], 23 May 2013. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In the News--
Jean Libby on Quarles' Black Abolitionists; Kate Clifford Larson, Tubman Biographer

Jean Libby
Jean Libby is the radio interview guest on Lesley Gist's American History through Black Literature series, The Gist of Freedom, on May 9 at 8 p.m. EDT.  The program will reprise the reading of the last chapter of Benjamin Quarles' Black Abolitionists discussing John Brown beginning at 7:30 p.m.  Libby will describe how Professor Quarles research and encouragement was formative in her John Brown studies beginning in 1977 and continuing with naming the ad hoc group which wrote and published John Brown Mysteries in 1999 "Allies for Freedom" in his honor. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thegistoffreedom

Kate Clifford Larson

The John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York, is holding its annual commemorations on May 10 and 11, 2013.  Of particular interest to John Brown scholarship, Kate Clifford Larson, a biographer of Harriet Tubman, will discuss the Tubman-Brown friendship.  That program begins at 2 p.m. at the John Brown Farm.  For further information call 518-962-4798.  

The Spring 2013 newsletter at the John Brown Farm has Jean Libby's article, "Recent Discoveries Relating to the John Brown Raid," detailing the Dauphin Thompson rifle acquired by Mick Konowal of Washington State and the photograph of John Brown with a pasted signature that is inscribed on the back by John Brown's daughter Ruth (probably) to Dauphin:  "I would not speak of love even to (or tho) my father ..."  The photograph was found in the collection of artist Louis Ransom and documented with essays by archivist Warren F. Broderick.  The writing was identified by Marcel Matley, handwriting expert of San Francisco and librarian for the American Handwriting Analysts Foundation.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

From the Field--

“His Then Present Dwelling Place”: THAT CHAMBERSBURG STONE QUARRY
H. Scott Wolfe

Every April I find it a personal necessity to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park. This is not only to satisfy my innate interest in the American Civil War, but also to serve as my annual physical examination. This aged veteran of the Truman administration devotes an entire day to a seventeen mile saunter about the battlefield. And if I survive, I feel that I am good for another year.  But if, perchance, I neglect to sojourn in Gettysburg, I begin to exhibit bizarre behavioral symptoms such as: 1) making a special effort to obey my wife; 2) gnawing on granite paving stones; and 3) deriving keen enjoyment from broadcasts of the Fox News Channel. Needless to say, I was there this April past.

My customary itinerary is from the west, following US Highway 30 (aka, the “Lincoln Highway”). It is not the quickest of routes, there being many ups and downs and, in some places, it is as crooked as a Chicago election. But in this way I am able to approach Gettysburg as did the Confederates of long ago. And twenty-five miles short of my destination, I roll through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Now I would swear on a tall stack of John Brown biographies that if you grabbed your copy of Webster’s and looked up the words “urban sprawl,” you would find a colored picture of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It is not a tremendously large city, but it seems you encounter its western outskirts just east of Toledo, Ohio. Shopping malls, fast food outlets and stoplights abound. Alas, while navigating its streets, it seems that the community embraces about nine hundred square miles.

Still Standing: the site of Mary Ritner's
boarding house in Chambersburg
But wait! Let us set the present aside and consider Chambersburg’s past. Not only did General Robert E. Lee’s legions occupy the place on the way to Gettysburg…Not only did a vindictive General Jubal Early burn the town the following year…But, as we all know, antebellum Chambersburg possesses tremendous import for those tracing the career of John Brown. The physical connections are twofold:
First, on East King Street can be found a simple, two-story frame dwelling (suitably designated with a historical marker) that once comprised the boarding house of Mrs. Mary Ritner. This location served as a staging area for the Harpers Ferry incursion, and from its confines both men and materiel were forwarded to John Brown’s hideaway, the Kennedy farm in Washington County, Maryland.

And second, on the southwest side of Chambersburg, where Highway 30 (now called West Loudon Street) crosses a creek known as Conococheague, was once a stone quarry…where the Old Man, “disguised” as a fisherman, attempted to convince a notable companion to assist in hiving the swarming bees. A historical marker, set at the eastern end of the bridge, provides the background of the meeting:

The two abolitionists met at a stone quarry here, Aug. 19-21, 1859, and discussed Brown’s plans to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He urged Douglass to join an armed demonstration against slavery. Douglass refused, warning the raid would fail; the Oct. 16, 1859 attack confirmed his fears. Brown was captured with his surviving followers and was executed Dec. 2, 1859.
Douglass himself, in his autobiographical Life and Times (1882), interestingly describes his approach to the quarry:
I  called upon Mr. Henry Watson, a simple-minded and warm-hearted man, to whom Capt. Brown had imparted the secret of my visit, to show me the road to the appointed rendezvous…I approached the old quarry very cautiously, for John Brown was generally well-armed, and regarded strangers with suspicion. He was then under the ban of the government, and heavy rewards were offered for his arrest, for offences said to have been committed in Kansas. He was passing under the name of John Smith. As I came near, he regarded me rather suspiciously, but soon recognized me, and received me cordially. He had in his hand when I met him a fishing tackle, with which he had apparently been fishing in a stream hard by; but I saw no fish, and did not suppose that he cared much for his ‘fisherman’s luck.’ The fishing was simply a disguise, and was certainly a good one. He looked every way like a man of the neighborhood, and as much at home as any of the farmers around there. His hat was old and storm-beaten, and his clothing was about the color of the stone quarry itself – his then present dwelling place.
Douglass was accompanied by his friend Shields Green, the Old Man by his “Secretary of War,” John H. Kagi. Seated amidst the rocks, Brown revealed his “settled purpose” to capture Harpers Ferry, and inquired as to Douglass’s opinion of the scheme. The latter continues:
I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me, such a measure would be fatal to running off slaves... and fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government, and would array the whole country against us…I told him, and these were my words, that all his arguments…convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would never get out alive; that he would be surrounded at once and escape would be impossible. He was not to be shaken by anything I could say, but treated my views respectfully, replying that even if surrounded he would find means for cutting his way out; but that would not be forced upon him; he should have a number of the best citizens of the neighborhood as his prisoners at the start, and that holding them as hostages, he should be able, if worse came to worse, to dictate terms of egress from the town. I looked at him with some astonishment, that he could rest upon a reed so weak and broken, and told him that Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky high, rather than that he should hold Harpers Ferry an hour.
This humble observer, at the risk of censure, has always taken this last account with a healthy grain of salt. It is too perfect. If true, Frederick Douglass should have received the Congressional Medal of Prescience. Written long after the Old Man was a-mouldering (by the meeting’s sole survivor), it essentially tells the story of the Harpers Ferry raid…that “perfect steel trap;” being “surrounded at once;” and taking “the best citizens of the neighborhood” as hostages “to dictate egress from the town.” Was it 20/20 hindsight? Or could it have been justification for his non-presence?

In years past, while interviewing the descendants of those of Brown’s recruits who evaded the steel trap, I picked up a consistent thread. These men, in later life, did not want to talk about their association with the Old Man.

“Why not?” I would inquire.

“We don’t know,” the families often responded, “perhaps they still feared arrest.”

Perhaps…but I always adhered to another theory…and it consisted of a five-letter word which starts with G and ends in T. That word would be GUILT.  While their beloved comrades had either been shot to pieces in the streets of Harpers Ferry…or suspended from gibbets at Charles Town…these men had been allowed to reach a ripe old age and die upon crisp sheets and fluffy pillows. How or why had they escaped from such a fate? Were they cowards to have lived long, happy lives with their families? There were certainly psychic consequences.

Yes, Frederick Douglass minutely described his visit with John Brown at the Chambersburg stone quarry. Perhaps his warnings of impending doom at Harpers Ferry were literally true. But one solid fact is indisputable: Douglass declined to accompany the Old Man and his Provisional Army. And I would surmise that, in 1895, Frederick Douglass died on crisp sheets and fluffy pillows.


I passed over the West Loudon Street bridge on a hazy, balmy (at least for us warmth-starved Midwesterners) April 7th.  While my eye was fixed upon the blue and yellow plaque of the Douglass/Brown monument…the attention of my nuptial companion was upon the large CVS Pharmacy looming in the distance. So while she purchased sundry sundries meant to enhance her natural beauty, I wandered down the hill to take a closer look at the old quarry site.

The scene I witnessed cannot be termed bucolic. Urbanization has virtually consumed the Chambersburg stone quarry. While still swiftly flowing beneath the cement bridge, Conococheague Creek seems to be channeled more through a drainage ditch than through any natural, free-flowing meanderings.

And a quick look about reveals not just the CVS. The vista now reveals the  “Southgate Shopping Center;” the “Minute Car Wash;” the garage of “Expert Tire,” offering “everyday discount prices” on brakes, alignments and shocks; and the “Rent-A-Center,” a popular source of furniture, appliances, electronics and computers.

Perhaps if I slid down to the stream bank I could picture the Old Man with his fishing tackle. So there, among the jumbled rocks where the famous conference is said to have occurred, I noted the following objects: a crumpled package of Newport cigarettes; a large plastic cup (with straw) from a Sheetz convenience store; a green bottle of Sprite (half full); a colorful package which once harbored “Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs;” and a small canister of “Grab and Go” Pringles potato chips. Not exactly relics to conjure up visions of Shields Green saying: “I b’leve I’ll go wid de old man.”

But I had visited the spot…and, as I scrambled up the bank amidst last year’s shaggy weeds, I spotted a small patch of color…pink and pale lavender. There, peering from beneath a chipped cement sidewalk, was a cluster of freshly blooming blossoms of the spring beauty. Nature’s last bastion along Conococheague Creek. And with that simple floral tribute in mind, I found myself smiling as I headed down the road toward Gettysburg.

H. Scott Wolfe

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District.  He is a regular correspondent of this blog, and considering his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes, I am most grateful for his  contributions.--LD