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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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Advance Notice--
New Book to be Published on Harper's Ferry Raider John Anthony Copeland

The John Brown bookshelf has been greatly enhanced in recent years by new works by legal scholars, especially Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial, and Steven Lubet's John Brown's Spy.  This contribution is now amplified by another related work by Lubet, who is the Williams Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Strategy Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Ill.  Indeed, Lubet has yet another "Harper's Ferry raider book" forthcoming, a substantially researched and well-written book about one of the African American raiders who joined John Brown and his men, and one of those hanged after the execution of their leader in December 1859.

Steven Lubet
I am confident that "The Colored Hero" of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery is going to prove to be a definitive contribution to the much neglected literature on Brown's men, especially his black raiders.  Lubet provides important background on the story of the the African American men who came from Ohio to support Brown's effort, and likewise brings clarity and correction to the record.  He presents a poignant, insightful, and instructive work of scholarship, one that has taken one hundred and fifty years to manifest.  It will be a "must have" for everyone interested in the John Brown story.
Frontispiece and cover page, courtesy of Cambridge University Press

The Colored Hero" of Harper's Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery is produced by Cambridge University Press and will be published in the fall of 2015.  The frontispiece image, which is published here by permission of Cambridge University Press, features an original sketch of Copeland from life, made by Harper's Weekly illustrator, David H. Strother.  Like this important work on Copeland's life, this is the first time the image is published.

Of course, congratulations go to Professor Lubet, as does our appreciation for his noteworthy contributions to the John Brown bookshelf.

Monday, January 12, 2015

An Update from Jean Libby on the Updated JB Photo Chronology: You Can Help Too

Dear friends,

The journey of identification and classification of the photo portraits of John Brown the abolitionist is moving to completion in the year 2015.  

The lifetime process continues collaboration with new parameters.  Rick Moss, Chief Curator at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (California) is publishing the entire collection of reproductions online.  Response to his requests for permissions from archives is immediate and gratifying.  The archivists who have worked with me in creating the chronology are glad to see coming to a permanent and stable web presence that can be accessed without charge.  

Development and publication of the John Brown Photo Chronology has always been collaborative.  The Harpers Ferry Historical Association was there from the beginning with support and representation.  The physical exhibition remains at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where it was installed in 2009.  One of the purposes of the FotoFund grant is to create four new panels printed in fine-art manner and mounted with revised descriptive legends.   

There is regular collaboration with John Brown scholars since the first conference at Pennsylvania State University in Montalto in 1994.  It is so fine to participate with so many who are writing and publishing about John Brown.  In particular I would mention Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., who was a new John Brown scholar at that conference.  His 'Fire From the Midst of You', a religious life of John Brown (NYU Press 2002) was the first historically documented and published biography since Stephen Oates and Richard Boyer in the 1970s.  He has two books forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield, one on the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's prison experiences and exaltering execution, the second a companion volume of letters and documents.  Lou has contributed essays to Allies for Freedom publications in 2006 and 2009 as well as a frequent correspondent.

Like it or not we cannot write about John Brown without learning and interpreting his Kansas activities and adventures.  The most thorough collection of reproductions of the original daguerreotype sittings of John Brown is at the Kansas Historical Society archives.  Many are available on Kansas Memory in a general catalog.  My photo research at the KHS archives began in 1978 with archivist Pat Michaelis, who is now the Director.  Through the years I have collaborated with Kirke Mechem, the composer and son of Kirke Mechem the KHS Secretary in the 1920s-1950s, who is now writing his autobiography with Scarecrow Press.  Since 1998 collaboration has grown with Douglas County author/historian Judy Sweets.  At the present revision of the chronology her research contributions about the artists and photographers of John Brown are essential. 

Anyone who has researched daguerreotypes is familiar with the work of  John S. Craig and his Daguerreian Registry.   When I published the John Brown Photo Chronology in 2009 Craig corresponded with me about the last photograph of John Brown that was taken before he grew his famous beard.  I am correcting that description in the revised chronology.  Sadly, John Craig passed away in February 2011.  It is my honor to let you know that Jill Krutick Craig, his wife and a retired Administrative Law Court Judge, is continuing Craig's Camera business and website.  She remembers well conversations about John Brown through the years.  It was of special interest because their home is in Torrington, Connecticut, the birthplace of John Brown.

All of you on the Allies for Freedom email list of events and publications about John Brown and his African American supporters that I began in 2000 at a conference in Harpers Ferry are collaborators with the chronology.  I seek your support for published revisions to the catalog and the production of new panels to be completed in Spring 2015.  

With gratitude and cooperation,

Jean Libby
author and curator
John Brown Photo Chronology

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ad Nauseam--
Another "Terrorist" Shrieker and the Guelzo Connection

Tracy Moran thinks JB is
"America's Favorite Terrorist"
This morning I was disappointed to read another "John Brown Terrorist" piece on a website called OZY, in a well-intended piece by author Tracy Moran.  The article, "America's Favorite Terrorist," is short and skewed, but largely because Moran is clearly drawing from the poisoned well of Allen C. Guelzo, one of the foremost and prolific Lincoln scholars of our day.

In this case, I  would not primarily blame Moran, who probably just read something by Guelzo and got a bright idea for a blog piece.  She seems to lack the historical grounding to make any knowledgeable assessment, except that a gun in the hand of child is no less dangerous.  Her treatment of Brown as this nation's "favorite terrorist" is still an ignorance that cannot be overlooked.

The link for her little article is here (or here: http://www.ozy.com/flashback/americas-favorite-terrorist/38373).  You can also read my response, which I will not republish here.  In summary, let me just say that her piece is one of those typically skewed rants--you know, "Brown was a failure in everything, he was a terrorist, and  extremism is never good."  Her piece apparently makes sense inside the bubble in which she selectively understand Brown, but otherwise lacks no sense of the history, context, or political realities that Brown and the abolitionist movement faced--and more so, the reality that black people faced.  The bigger problem is that Moran uses Guelzo has her historical compass, which is always a mistake when it regards Brown.   Guelzo is not just unqualified in speaking of Brown; I believe he's actually prejudiced against him.

Before I continue, I should say that I personally regard Dr. Guelzo and do not want to be unduly harsh toward one who merits both professional respect and (in my case) the regard inherent in Christian relationships.  He is doubtless a man of notable accomplishments and abilities.  Guelzo is a leading scholar, prolific author, and one who shares a similar orientation with mine--that is (based upon Wikipedia), he is a man with a background in biblical and theological training, and he brings this into his reading of 19th century history.  This is important, especially since so many historians of the Civil War era today either reduce the study to military history, or speak from the predominant secularism of academy, and thus tend to view the era of Brown and Lincoln in only political and social terms.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo

Notwithstanding this commonality, I have "ought against" Dr. Guelzo, who seems to loathe John Brown.  I have not attended closely to his work, but every time I catch even a snippet of something he's written about the Old Man, it has been of the most questionable and prejudiced sort.  In this sense, he seems to be of the old 20th century stripe of Civil War scholars, the kind that JB aficionado Boyd Stutler mocked as "scientific historians."

The question is, why does Guelzo so disdain John Brown?  I can only conclude that his politics and view of history--especially his view of Lincoln--must be inherently hostile to Brown.  I'm not sure what is first in the man, his politics or his devotion to Lincoln, but regardless, he understands that in order to elevate Lincoln, John Brown must be suppressed.

In this case, he is correct.  Despite the old school Republican and "Nixonian" tendency to see Lincoln as Jesus, and Brown as John the Baptist, the reality is the two men represent different positions--Lincoln, a benign form of white supremacy, and Lincoln, a radical and evangelical egalitarianism.

The facts of history are clear: in order to elevate the Lincoln "religion" that has predominated in this nation for over a century, John Brown's historical presence must be depreciated, diminished, and even denigrated.  Why?  Because Lincoln was NEVER as devoted to black freedom and equality as the "American myth" has made him out to have been.  Douglass said it in the 19th century, DuBois affirmed it in the early 20th century, and in more recent years, Lerone Bennett Jr. laid bare the real Lincoln in his despised tour-de-force, Forced into Glory.   The real Abraham Lincoln cannot fill the shoes of mythical "Great Emancipator."  So if the latter is going to be protected and preserved in the civil religion of our culture, John Brown must be banished to the margins of history.   And this is the role that Guelzo in no small part has played as a historian.

Let me reiterate: The record of Lincoln as the hero of emancipation and equality is a well tailored myth, and the fabric that has been cut away in shaping this myth involves the truth of Lincoln's racism, his failure to prioritize black freedom, and the meaning of John Brown according to the real facts of history.

So Dr. Guelzo, whether with malice aforethought or simply by instinct of his nature as a Lincoln idealist, knows that to appreciate Brown is to threaten Lincoln's apotheosis.   If Lincoln is to remain the "Great Emancipator" in the gospel of "American" civil religion, then Brown must be the fanatic, the terrorist, the dangerous extremist.

. . . if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.  
But if John Brown is seen in the light of history as the man he was in fact, Lincoln shrinks--he is a politician more concerned with white priorities, preservation of the Union, and only a moderate commitment to black people's concerns at best.

If you think I'm overdoing it, this April is the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln.  This is the time for men like Guelzo to put on their high priestly robes and light up the incense.

Of course, this is but another reminder that to be a student and admirer of John Brown means we are constantly engaged in a conflict that others do not have to deal with.  The worst opponents of the John Brown community are not the neo-Confederates and other right-wing racists who make a pretense at doing history.

Our worst opponents are the Lincoln worshipers, who despise John Brown because he represents the radical nature of the antislavery struggle, the real sensibility of the oppressed, and a willingness to question even the prerogatives of white supremacy in the quest for justice.