From the Field--
“THE EXECUTION TO-DAY”:
An Editor's (Ambivalent) Commentary On John Brown
H. Scott Wolfe
Nearly thirty years ago, no doubt in a fit of questionable behavior, the local luminaries saw fit to install me as the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois Public Library. For those of you who might be familiar with this metropolis, you may recall it as the home of a fellow by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. For true devotees of history, it may also be known as the scene of one the great mineral rushes of the 19th century (“Galena” is the Latin name for lead sulfide, the principle ore of that heavy metal); or as the once principal Mississippi River port between those villages of St. Louis and St. Paul.
Today, we are a community of 3,500 souls which, because of our heritage and state of preservation, draws nearly a million visitors per annum to stroll our picturesque streets and drop coins into the tills of our industrious capitalists. Some of these sojourners, at least those with a passing interest in history or genealogy, often stumble into my library sanctum sanctorum, where I am able to satisfy their research needs...or, at least, invent something that is so plausible that it passes for scholarly erudition.
The heart of our archival resources consists of an extraordinary newspaper collection. In fact, we possess a complete file of Galena papers stretching back to the distant year of 1834. Needless to say, this collection is of supreme value to me...for, within seconds, I can illuminate our patrons on everything from the Courthouse speech of Frederick Douglass in 1854 (the first abolitionist speech ever delivered in this strongly Democratic town); to the details of how someone’s great-granddaddy managed to drown himself in a farmhouse cistern in 1877.
On quiet days, I find myself constantly paging through these newspapers. I am frequently indexing them. . . noting incidents that may be of interest to future visitors. Or I might simply immerse myself in the atmosphere of times long past. Such was my situation during this past week. The wind chills were minus 20 degrees outside my office...and the only potential visitor was the ghost of Admiral Peary. So I found myself perusing a Galena Daily Advertiser from late 1859. And, on the second page, I happened upon an editorial entitled simply: “THE EXECUTION TO-DAY.”
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“An event is appointed to transpire to-day. . . that will engross largely the thought and conversation of the people of the whole country. A man named John Brown. . . is to be hung at Charlestown, Jefferson county, Virginia. . . .”
|The Editor: H. H. Houghton|
So began the paper’s editor, a man with the alliterative name of Horace Hoskins Houghton. A native Yankee from Vermont, Houghton had spent his life as a printer, journalist and poet. Of a wandering bent, he had plied his trade in his native State, in New York, in Louisville, Kentucky (where he “did not like the atmosphere of slavery”) and St. Louis (where he shared a landlord with the martyr Elijah Lovejoy).
Houghton, in an autobiographical account, commented on his residence in the slave State of Missouri: “One of the first subjects that came up at the table was to sound me as to my views of slavery. I expressed myself in the moderate Vermont style. The conversation soon grew into a heated discussion. Although I know I had the best of the argument, yet others had the might on their side, and this decided me in the belief that I was too sincere an opponent of slavery, in every feeling of my soul, to make it agreeable for me to live, or attempt to live, in a slave State.”
So by the mid-1830s, Houghton removed to Galena, and began an association as newspaper editor and publisher that was to endure until 1863. A staunch Whig/Republican in his politics, he exhibited quite liberal propensities in what was essentially, due to its links with the Mississippi River, a Southern town in Northern Illinois. An example of his personal eccentricity was his employment of Henry Wagoner, a black man, as a printer in his Galena newspaper shop. Wagoner, who is a story in himself, was later (1857) to meet John Brown, serve as a correspondent for Fred Douglass’ Paper. . . and, when the Old Man conducted the liberated Missouri slaves through Chicago in March of 1859, was the man who sheltered the fugitives there.
Following the Civil War, and particularly after the 1868 election of his friend and fellow Galenian Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency, Houghton was the beneficiary of political spoils. The President first appointed him to a consulship in the Sandwich Islands (i.e. Hawaii), and then the Postmastership in Galena itself. He died there in the spring of 1879, “poor but honest,” a motto “he maintained to the last.”
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As I began to peruse Houghton’s editorial, I was immediately struck by its ambivalence in regard to John Brown. I had initially expected, due to the editor’s liberal, anti-slavery mindset, a hymn to the Old Man’s martyrdom. What I actually discovered was a heavy dose of his “moderate Vermont style.”
He began by defending Brown’s actions in Kansas, in words reminiscent of frequent commentary by Blogmaster DeCaro:
“His name was known in connection with certain bold actions during the civil war in Kansas. He had there drawn the sword under circumstances which were justifiable, if defensive war is ever to be justified as we believe it sometimes is, and report says he wielded it effectively. The bold action of Brown, and a few like him, ended a civil war that had in effect been cherished by the Administration of the General Government of the United States. . . . As far as Brown and those who acted with him in Kansas were concerned, their action was simply exercised for the public defence. They were only defending their own homes and rights from bands of lawless marauders. His cause was just and benevolent, and one in the defence of which he had a right to risk his own life with a view to save the lives of others. If misfortune came to the invaders of Kansas, as at Ossawatomie, it simply followed as the reacting force of wrong. . . . The ruffians whom he repelled had no right whatever -- except the right of simple power -- to make war on the peaceable citizens of Kansas. The action of Brown was that of DEFENCE...”
But then Houghton contemplated the issue of Harpers Ferry:
“Can the same thing be said in application to his action, in conception and result, in the purpose that culminated in Harpers Ferry? On this point, we are sure, hangs the whole moral force and enduring effect of the action for which he this day pays the penalty of his life...”
Houghton’s answer is not to justify Brown’s actions, as in Kansas, but to attack Brown’s motives at Harpers Ferry. Thus, his sentiments here are liable to provide Blogmaster DeCaro with recurring nightmares:
“John Brown is a cool and deliberate man in time of danger. . . .We shall be surprised if he does not manifest equal coolness today in the last hour and moment of his life. This, of itself, will not give great moral force or effect to the character of the man, for the worst of men have sometimes died coolly, and just as coolly have they borne themselves in times of danger as he did. . . . “He is sustained by religious enthusiasm. No one doubts that Brown thought he was doing right at Harpers Ferry. His thinking so did not make it so. Conscience may be educated to embrace a wrong. He sees a warrant for it in the principle of Christianity , which makes us to regard our neighbor’s welfare as our own. Then, to reverse the order and apply the rule, we must regard ourselves as well as we do our neighbor, or we do ourselves injustice. Did not Brown violate the law of right in this last particular? He sacrificed the life of his own best friend, to wit: that of himself, in a manner and under circumstances which, if justified by the teachings of Christ, we do not see it plainly...”
Then Houghton’s crucial point, a delineation of DEFENSIVE and AGGRESSIVE war:
|The author displays the newspaper,|
Houghton's Galena Daily Advertiser
“In Kansas he was acting on the defensive. He shot down those who were seeking his own life, perhaps, and the lives of others. At Harpers Ferry he was acting on the aggressive. He was molesting those who would not have molested him, had he not first commenced the war upon them. When we heard of a Free State man being shot down in Kansas because he was one, we felt something like a willingness to take his place; but on the contrary, we have a decided antipathy to being one to help fill the ranks of the company who fell with Brown. . . . Nor have we seen any one who craves such peculiar office, nor do we expect to find them plenty hereafter, while common sense is as common as we hope to see it. . . . To-day, as remarked above, John Brown is to be executed. Had he not shed the blood of others at Harpers Ferry, or had he not deliberately armed for such a contingency; or had he not been the undoubted aggressor, his chance of being regarded as a martyr hereafter would have been much greater than it is now. . . .”
The editor concludes:
“This Harpers Ferry affair is a serious one. It was managed badly enough by Brown, but still worse by the authorities of Virginia. What another day will bring forth, will soon be known, but the anticipation of its probable events and their influences in the above regard, are not pleasant.”
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Thus speaks the liberal as conservative. The Vermont moderate. Well, the “probable event” he mentions turned out to be the Civil War. And that was “not pleasant.” But the consequences of sectional turmoil, at the time of his editorial, could not be known to Horace Hoskins Houghton, resident of Galena, Illinois.
H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois Public Library. A veteran researcher of archives and historic sites, he has generously contributed a variety of informative and insightful pieces to this blog since 2011. His seasoned, storied, and celebrated correspondence is published under the column, "From the Field," and is popular with the readers of this blog.