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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Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Hmmph" Department
Lecompton's Historic Hall of Shame Carries on the Tradition in a New Play

According to Hay's Post (18 Apr.), the Associated Press reports that Constitution Hall in Lecompton, Kansas, is going to feature a new play about John Brown on May 3, 2015.  According to the AP report, the play is entitled, "John Brown: Widow Maker," and will be performed by The Lecompton Re-enactors, an acting troupe that will bring to life the story of Mahala Doyle and Louisa Wilkinson. Doyle and Wilkinson were the unhappy widows of two of the notorious Pottawatomie five, slain by free state radicals under the leadership of John Brown on May 24, 1856   The killings are popularly referred to as a "massacre," although it was a preemptive strike in a politically charged civil conflict, in which the plan of proslavery conspirators to kill the Browns was thwarted by the strategic strike along the Pottawatomie creek.  Five men were killed, all of which were directly involved in an illegal proslavery conspiracy to aid invading "ruffians" and direct them against leading antislavery settlers--especially the abolitionist Brown family.
Proslavery Enthusiasm, Lecompton 1856
The AP report typically refers to the Pottawtomie killings in keeping with the hackneyed historical narrative, which claims the killings were a "retaliation" for the attack on Lawrence, Kansas, by proslavery thugs on May 21.  While the assault on Lawrence was the context for the Pottawatomie attack, Brown and his men struck with far more urgency, knowing that the fall of Lawrence to invading proslavery thugs would soon be followed by an attack on the free state settlement at Ossawatomie and its vicinity.  By strategically removing the Doyles (a father and his two young adult sons), Wilkinson, and Sherman, the strike by radical free state people at least detained the plot to invade Osawatomie, which was nevertheless accomplished later that year.  More importantly, those who had plotted and targeted the Browns were eliminated, with the net effect that hubris and presumption on the part of proslavery militants in that area was dramatically undercut to the advantage of free state settlers.  While white society's historical remembrance of the Pottawatomie incident tends to reflect a "White Proslavery Lives Matter" attitude, in reality the strike was a minimalist and strategic and exhibited none of the "collateral damage" of proslavery terrorism in the territory.

As to the story of Mahala Doyle and Louisa Wilkinson, we should be clear that making them sympathetic figures in a dramatic re-enactment is somewhere between "Mob Wives" and "The Real Gestapo Housewives of Berlin."  Mahala Doyle passively supported her husband and sons in their murderous plot, but when it backfired on them, she scolded her doomed husband and sons for their "devilment."  Barely literate, Doyle allowed herself to be used as a tool by proslavery activists in Missouri, who helped her prepare a sarcastic letter which was duplicated and sent to Brown in jail after his defeat at Harper's Ferry in 1859.   Brown seems never to have received Doyle's letter (see my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn), although he may have heard about it since proslavery people leaked it to the public, and it was known about Charlestown where the Old Man was incarcerated. Brown expressed no regret for the killings and always maintained they were necessary.   Later in life, Doyle added deception to her resentments by feeding into the animus of Brown's posthumous detractor, David Utter.  Essentially, Doyle never told the truth about her husband's criminal activities, and in later life fabricated his innocence and victimization.  Wilkinson similarly lied about her husband in official affidavits made in 1856 by proslavery politicians, portraying him as a peaceful settler.  But Wilkinson was a fervent proslavery activist and was heartily joined in the conspiracy to eliminate the Browns and drive out antislavery settlers in his neighborhood.  Their plight was naturally portrayed in the most sympathetic terms by the proslavery element, and unfortunately the mainstream of white society has bought that portrayal wholesale.
Lecompton Constitution Hall

The fact that a play branding Brown a "widow maker" being conducted in a miserable house of ill repute like the Lecompton Constitution Hall seems fitting.  The Lecompton hall was the political home of the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, a racist document in origin and revision, albeit thankfully never enforced as law thanks to the work of antislavery radicals in Kansas.  While one may appreciate the historical importance of preserving sites from Kansas history, Lecompton's Constitution Hall is a hall of shame to anyone who reads history right-side up.  That it should be used to present a play where Brown is portrayed as a "widow maker" suggests that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree."  Rather than producing dramatic and educational material that shows that slavery and its minions were the real widow-makers, this F-Troop production wants to present sentimentality and sympathy for the hearth and home of racists and conspirators.  The unfortunate widows Doyle and Wilkinson had human reason to weep, but I wonder if they would have wept had the blood of Brown and his sons been spilled all over the Kansas soil?  I wonder if they would have wept if slavery had triumphed and imported more victims into the new territory?  I doubt it.

If you haven't gotten my point, then my comments on the Hays page will sum it up for you:
An interesting angle--a play about the wives of two proslavery terrorists, both women afterward lying in misrepresenting their late husbands as innocent victims. If one doesn't want his wife to end up a widow, it's probably not a good idea to go into proslavery terrorism as a family business.


See Jan Biles, "Lecompton Reenactors to state new play: Production focuses on widows associated with infamous [sic] abolitionist." Capital-Journal online [Topeka], 25 April 2015

Monday, April 06, 2015

Harper's Ferry and the Hinges of History

Montage sketch recalling Brown’s trial, Richmond Dispatch, 22 Dec. 1901
I went through his effects which were found at the old house in Maryland he occupied, and there I found a map of Virginia and the adjoining Maryland, giving the number of slaves and white men in each county and district.  If John Brown had got into the mountains there is no telling how extensive that raid might have been.  Unquestionably a certain proportion of the slaves would have run away. 
 Alexander Boteler, Virginia State Congressman (1859-62), from an 1882 interview 

Because of the vast amount of misinformation, propaganda, and bias in the popular narrative on John Brown's raid, few people actually appreciate how close the nation came to experiencing a south wide liberation movement in 1859. While counterfactual history writing is speculative, it is not speculative to point out that the facts of history show

(1) that Brown could have made a retreat into the mountains with a starting group of several hundred enslaved people;

(2) that the US army was too small to have launched any kind of counter strategy;

(3) that any kind of resistance, whether from militia or federal forces would not have been able to stop Brown's movement once it began to move in the mountains since it would not have involved conventional warfare;

(4) that Brown's movement likely and easily would have grown and spread, being added to daily by more and more runaways;

(5) that such a movement would have spread through the South in a matter of months, connecting to areas where there were already incidents of uprising and underground railroad activity, attracting many enslaved people, free blacks, and other disenfranchised people of color as it moved into the southwestern slave states;

(6) that antislavery whites militants and sympathetic Southerners would have been increasingly drawn to join or support the movement as it grew and expanded; and

(7) that slaveholders across the South would have been panicked and the normal operations of the demonic "institution" would have been destabilized,  and would not have been able to prevent such a movement since it was not intended primarily as an insurrectionary war as a "grand rescue."

In short, on the smallest of hinges--Brown's failure to get out of Harper's Ferry on time in the early morning of October 17, 1859--the history of the nation turned toward eventual civil war. Had he made his escape after several hours in Harper's Ferry, the outcome of history might have been quite different, and the US might have developed a far more revolutionary and egalitarian orientation, rather than a conservative and segregationist orientation. But history is made of such hinges, turning this way or that, and many a story might have easily gone in a different direction based upon one decision, action, or mistake of judgment.--LD