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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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Monday, February 23, 2015

Take Note--
The Press and Misinformation on John Brown

According to an Associated Press (AP) report dated Feb. 23, the city of Charles Town and the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority are negotiating a deal to provide transportation for the city's John Brown history tour.   If the agreement is struck, the agency will also take participants from Charles Town to Harpers Ferry. Charles Town, where John Brown was jailed, tried, and hanged in 1859, has been providing a historic tour of sites related to Brown since 2014.

The AP report concludes with the following sentences: Brown attacked a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. He had planned to seize weapons and start a revolution to end slavery. The uprising was quashed within 48 hours. He was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

While this brief AP report is of passing interest, it is worth noting how the concluding three sentences function to extend the errors of John Brown authors (I won't call them scholars) who in turn have functioned to yield confusion, misinformation, and error in their narratives about John Brown's raid. For but three sentences, this AP summary contains a number of errors and something of a slight that is totally misplaced.

First, John Brown did not seize the armory in order to take the armory weapons.  

This has become a virtual mantra among John Brown "experts," tour guides, historians, journalists, and anyone else with an opportunity to publish an opinion about the Harper's Ferry raid.  The trouble is, it's wrong.

As the record shows, only one or two cases of rifles were even examined throughout the whole time of Brown's occupation of the armory and town of Harper's Ferry.  None of the testimonies of Brown's captives, especially the armory employees, shows that he had an interest in the rifles.  Indeed, he posted guards at the arsenal.   For as long as he stayed (too long) in Harper's Ferry, he did not take the arms.  I address this more extensively in my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn, along with his real intention for seizing the armory, and the most plausible explanation based upon evidence.   The notion of Brown seizing the arsenal to get the weapons is based upon slave holders and Virginia politicians like Senator James Mason, who portrayed Brown as an insurrectionist and inflamed fears of an uprising allegedly attempted by Brown.  This was propaganda and fiction.   To those who insist that Brown meant to take the weapons, my challenge is clear: prove it by fact.  He did not bring wagons to load them, made no attempt to load them, and explicitly stated (repeatedly) that he did not want the Harper's Ferry weapons.

Second, Brown did not intend to start a "revolution."  

He nowhere employed such language, and was quite aware of the political significance of "revolution" as well as "insurrection."  The best language--based on interviews with him--to describe his intention is "rescue."  His strategy was to lead as many enslaved people away as possible and support them in their movement to evade capture and swell the numbers of those who would join them across the South.  Brown hoped to collapse the operations of slavery without igniting a full blown revolution or uprising; he understood what was at stake, and hoped to make his movement as fluid, defensive, and evasive as possible.

Third, as there was no "uprising," it was not "quashed within 48 hours."

The phrasing of the AP remark suggests Brown's effort was so feeble that it was crushed "within 48 hours."  This is hardly the case.  In fact, Brown afterward pointed out to Governor Henry Wise that despite having inferior numbers and being accused of taking on an impossible venture, he had held Harper's Ferry for nearly two days before the forces of Virginia had been able to stop him.  The incredible thing about the story of the raid is not that it was "quashed" so easily, but rather that Brown was able to embarrass Virginia and hold a town with only a handful of men.  This point is made notwithstanding the fact that Brown violated his own plans and tactically failed by remaining in town.  The defense of Harper's Ferry was not a battle that Brown should have engaged; but the fact that he did, it is still interesting that it took both local militia and the marines to finally "quash" his actions.   This is in part due to the fact that Brown and his men had superior weapons, another reason why he had no interest in seizing the arsenal contents of inferior rifles.

Finally, he was tried and executed in Charles Town for treason.

Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason by a jury of slave holders in a court presided over and overseen by the proslavery interests.  The facts show that the charge of murder is weak, that Brown neither authorized nor knew of any act of murder.  Further, in reaction to the raid, the people at Harper's Ferry were far more guilty of committing acts of murder.  A number of the raiders were killed in cold blood out of malice, including an execution style killing by the son of the Prosecutor Andrew Hunter.   The younger Hunter's act of homicide was revealed during testimony although he was never brought to trial.

Brown consistently denied his role as an insurrectionist and the facts bear this up.  However, slave holders made no distinctions insofar as he was endeavoring to free their enslaved "property."  Any act of armed effort to liberate enslaved people was deemed "insurrection," although the nature of insurrectionary violence is distinct, and Brown clearly wanted to avoid insurrectionary violence--that is, the categorical killing of slaveholders and their families, whether in armed conflict or not.  Brown was no Spartacus, not withstanding the famous allusion made by Victor Hugo.

Finally, the idea that Brown was guilty of treason was a device of Brown's prosecutors.  His defense sought to overturn the charge, but Hunter and the State of Virginia pushed the idea that because Brown had received legal protection, technically, as a guest of the state, then any act of subterfuge against Virginia could be called "treason."  The authority on the trial, Brian McGinty, says the point was arguably true, and conservatives in the North supported the treason conviction.  However, in the most logical sense, the charge of treason was self-serving for Virginia to kill Brown.  It signified how the State of Virginia had already endeavored to supersede the federal power, and such a charge reflects the hubris of the slaveholders that ultimately led to secession.  Indeed, Brown had broken the law to liberate men, while they would commit insurrection and treason against the government in 1861 for the most ignoble reason of keeping men and women in slavery and profiting from their labor and stolen bodies.

It is a point worth noting, that even an unidentified AP writer can continue to miseducate the public with only a few short, ill-informed and prejudiced lines.


Unknown said...

Hi Louis, I completely agree with the posting in your blog. I actually live in Harpers Ferry and had no idea that the AP was publishing such misinformation. Perhaps they should have conferred with experts and scholars who have studied and researched John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid for many years, like yourself, instead of blindly concluding their story with those last three sentences! Would love to discus this and other interesting John Brown discoveries with you if available!
Linda McDonough trhouse1@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I can't wait to read Freedom's Dawn.