A Letter, 12 Years to the Day Before His Death
Twelve years before his death--to the very day, John Brown wrote to his father from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was engaged in a wool commission operation. The letter to his pious father, Owen Brown, reveals some family details, but reflects Brown's thinking on matters of spirit and faith.
|Brown ca. 1847|
By December 1847, Brown and his family were well situated in Springfield; initially, he had moved to the industrial city without his wife and younger children, but eventually moved the entire family there, remaining as residents in Springfield until their departure for the Adirondacks in the spring of 1849. Popular notions of Brown's work in the wool commission operation are skewed, typically suggesting he was an outright business failure. Actually, his efforts at creating an agency that represented the interests of the wool growers were promising and purposeful. In this letter, Brown is not lying to his father when he writes that the operation was going "midling well" at this time. The firm of Perkins & Brown was intended to represent and intervene on behalf of the wool growers in Ohio, western Virginia, and Pennsylvania, who were typically at the mercy of New England manufacturers. While the wool growers were themselves slow in grasping the need to unify and collaborate, Perkins & Brown was also disadvantaged by manufacturers, which ultimately frustrated every effort to get some control on pricing and distribution for the growers.
By 1849, Brown found himself caught between wool growers clamoring for quick cash returns and manufacturers picking around their lots, holding back purchases, and in one case, even planting a subversive agent in the firm. Brown's later trip abroad to seek the European market was a last, desperate attempt to circumvent the New England market, although his venture has been trivialized by historians recounting one or two anecdotes that are typically used to belittle the sum total of his business effort. The wool commission did fold in 1849, although Brown continued to manage and cultivate Perkins' notable flock and farm in Akron, Ohio. In this 1847 letter, Brown speaks of a "greater press of business" and a "sudden change in money matters," which may be a reference to adverse influence on the market resulting from a panic that year in England, which probably impacted the wool trade. However, it may refer to another situation that had begun to challenge the firm, such as trying to pay an increasing number of growers with the immediacy they demanded. Whatever the case, there is no sense here that the firm was in trouble.
|Youthful image of Owen|
Brown, who died in 1856
at 85-years of age
Family and Faith
Besides a passing reference to the older son, John Jr. (26 years), and Watson (12 years), Brown also makes reference to his half-brother, Lucian Brown, the teenage son of his father's second wife, Sally Root Brown. Eighteen-year-old Lucian was sickly, and his decline in health did not surprise John, who seems to have been expecting his condition to worsen. Lucian died before the end of the year.
Brown's remarks suggest he wanted to play down any notion that he was gripped with a desire to become rich, undoubtedly because of the admonitions of his pious father. It may be that the elder feared his son had begun to lose focus on spiritual matters, becoming increasingly caught up in the less spiritual concerns of money and business. As this letter shows, Brown admits to as much, although he wants his father to realize that he has not forgotten the priorities of faith and spirit. His quotation, “A nobler toil may I sustain, A nobler satisfaction gain,” seems to be from a hymn by Isaac Watts entitled, “The Christian’s Noblest Resolution.” The first stanza of that hymn declares: “Ah, wretched souls, who strive in vain, Slaves to the world and slaves to sin! A nobler toil may I sustain. A nobler satisfaction win.”1 Brown's remarks suggest a thorough Protestant and evangelical outlook concerning salvation, including the interesting use of "bankrupts," which is not a reference to his financial situation, but rather to the plight of sinful humanity as being bankrupt of righteousness before a Holy and Righteous God. The only hope for such a condition was the perfect righteousness of "the Lord Jesus Christ," who fulfilled the Law in perfection and imputes his righteousness by faith to those who believe on him. Thus, Brown reveals himself as a classic evangelical in the tradition of the Reformation.
As noted, Brown wrote this letter precisely twelve years before his hanging in Virginia, although the road leading to his famous foray into the South was hardly on the horizon of his reality in 1847. Of course, he was already nurturing a plan to act in some way on behalf of the slave. Yet this was three years before the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, and nine years before the Kansas territorial outrages that drew him there in order to protect his family and advance the free state cause in late 1855.
This letter is presently held by the Henry Huntington Library, in San Marino, Calif. The transcription provided below is authentic, including some typical Brown misspellings. The original letter was clipped of its greeting ("Dear Father") and Brown's signature, which are supplied here within brackets and italics. Very likely, they were clipped by daughter Ruth Brown Thompson, or another sibling, and either given or sold as mementoes to Brown's admirers in later years. The missing words were later replaced by Ruth, who gifted the letter to Brown's associate Horatio Rust in 1894.--LD
Springfield Mass 2d Dec 1847
Yours of the 9th Nov was received a few
days since, but I have delayed writing on Two accounts
since receiving it. One is the greater press of business
& increased anxiety on acount of the sudden change
in money matters; the other, that it is always hard
for me to make out a letter without some thing to make
it out of. We have been midling ^ since I returned ex
-cept John, & Watson. John has had a short turn of
Fever, & Watson has seemed to have a number of complaints, but
both are better now. Our business seems to be going on
midling well, & will not probably be any the worse for the
pinch in the money concerns. I trust that getting, or looseing
money does not entirely engross our attention; but I am sen
-sible that it occupies quite too large a share in it.
To get a little property together to leave; as the world have
done; is really a low mark to be fireing at through life
“A nobler toil may I sustain, A nobler satisfaction
gain.” You wrote us that Lucian seemed to decline
This is not verry unexpected, but we hope that a
life still lengthened, may not all be misspent; &
that the little duty to God, & mankind it may yet be
in his power to do, may be done with his might; & that
the Lord Jesus Christ ^ be the end of the law for right-
eousness, for that which must be left undone
This is the only hope for us; Bankrupts, as we may see
at once; if we will but look at our account.
We hope to hear how you all are again soon
1 See Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Adapted to the Christian Use and Worship. Edited by Timothy Dwight (New Haven, Conn.: Samuel Wadsworth, 1821), 492.