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, May 31, 2015

Extra, Extra!
Freedom's Dawn Published this Month

I'm happy to announce that Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia will be released this month.  Readers can download a discount flyer pdf by clicking on this link.  The two-page flyer features an order form that you may use to get a 30% discount from the publisher's price for both Freedom's Dawn and its forthcoming companion volume (due out in August), John  Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown.  You're also invited to visit the Freedom's Dawn Facebook page to get a preview of the cover.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Point of Clarity--
The Historical Values of this Nation, not John Brown's Legacy, Are "Complicated" 

In the weeks following the 215th birthday celebration of John Brown, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (12 May 2015), a newspaper published in the vicinity of the abolitionist's farm and gravesite, featured an insert soliciting reader responses.  The "web poll" states that Brown "left a complicated legacy when he was hanged in 1859," and then asked readers if "on the whole," they were "in favor of what he did."  This is a point I've addressed on this blog before, and one which I recently discussed in my brief presentation at the birthday celebration in Lake Placid as a guest of the organization, John Brown Lives!

The notion that Brown was a "complex" man, or that his legacy is "complicated" has no real substance for any one who is willing to tell the truth about the history of slavery and the United States.  Indeed, what is "complicated" is the way in which white society has treated slavery.

The facts are that this nation was built on chattel slavery, that both the North and South grew rich on stolen black labor, and the constitution of our nation contained with it the provision for this gross injustice.  The facts are that the vast majority of whites in the "free states" were indifferent to the human rights of enslaved people, and that a dense culture of racism formed throughout white society as a result of black chattel slavery.  The facts are that even a majority of people who claimed to be "anti-slavery" were against the brutal system in theory, but were far more willing to tolerate it rather than see the nation split over it.  Black people never had but very few actual allies among the whites, and the only reason why slavery was ended was because the South was so determined to pull out of the Union, and the North was in large part unwilling to let the South, its profits, and the Union be taken away by the slave holders' rebellion.  The facts are that many whites did not oppose slavery until it became clear that the Civil War had to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all, and it was only the circumstances of the war that finally drove white society to resolve the defeat of the South and the end of chattel slavery.

This 1865 image mocks the defeated rebel leader,
Jefferson Davis (in female attire).  Although Davis
was not Brown's "hangman," the artist understood
that it was the nascent spirit of the Confederacy
that had executed Brown in 1859
(Library of Congress image)
Yet having defeated the rebels, the North shortly reinstated the rebels, allowed many of them to run for and take public office, and exacted no political penalty from them for the rebellion.  The rebel leader, Jefferson Davis, served but a short time in jail and was freed.  Only one so-called Confederate officer was hanged, and that was because of his criminal role in the case of the hellish Andersonville Prison, were many Union soldiers died cruel deaths.  Not only were former rebels allowed to rejoin the Union with but a mere slap on the wrist, but within a decade of the end of the war, blacks were essentially sold back into the power of white supremacy in the South and the long reign of terror, the Klan, and the rise of Jim Crow all came forth because of the "complicated" nature of white society in regard to black people.

These are not popular words, but they should be written because the notion that John Brown was complicated is such a farce, a kind of straw man that some whites continually raise up and knock down for reasons that can only speak to the need to further evade the truth--whether or not they even realize it.  People are not stupid, so the fact that they never arrive at the plain facts of history suggest a problem of the heart more than the intellect.

When was John Brown ever complex, and where is his legacy "complicated"?  Brown was always for human rights, always against slavery, always for black equality, always against slavery's brutality, always ready to fight slavery's terrorists, always trying to find a way to destabilize and undermine the "arrant whore" of chattel slavery.   Where is the "complicated" nature of his legacy?  Is it his minimal resort to violence?  Why is this so complicated for a  nation of white people who glorify violence in their history of domestic and foreign wars?  Is his belief in the Christian gospel "complicated" because he was no pacifist?  But the vast majority of self-professing Christians in this nation have never been pacifist, and the vast majority of Christians in this nation have condoned wars and military actions that resulted in far worse atrocities than Brown ever accomplished in killing five proslavery thugs.

Why is the legacy of Brown so "complicated"?   The answer is that it is not.  The answer is that the legacy of the United States--born as a slaveholding democracy--was a walking contradiction from the start.  Where in the world can one find people like Thomas Jefferson--full of the ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality, a "liberal" in the classical sense, and yet also a racist and slave holder?  Is that not "complicated"?   The same applies to George Washington and so many others.   What of Lincoln, no slave holder to be sure, but one quite willing to subordinate the rights of blacks to the priorities of white society.  Why do we not hear of Lincoln's "complicated" legacy?  Why is it that the man with the most single-minded commitment to ending slavery and promoting human rights is branded "complicated"?

The answer is because the public mind of this nation has yet to come to terms with its own nation's guilty history, the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of its national heroes and founders, and the flawed and failing manner in which it has repeatedly dealt with the rights of minorities.  To the lying mind, truth is always "complicated," while the liar finds comfort in the entangled half-truths and deceptions of its own making.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise is asking the wrong question in its "web poll."  The question the editor of that paper should be asking is, "Was John Brown right in trying to arm enslaved people to win their freedom?"  I would not be surprised, of course, that many would respond in the negative. After all, this is the United States, a complicated place.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

More from the North Country--
PBS Report by Derek Muirden--Your Editor Interviewed; the Bogus Claim of HF's Seized Weapons

Derek Muirden of the Mountain Lake (NY) affiliate of PBS was on the ground at the John Brown Farm on John Brown Day last week, and kindly included an interview with me in his report.  The video is posted below--just look for the guy referred to as "Louie."  I should add, for the sake of clarity, that while I appreciate Mr. Muirden's fine report, I do not agree that Brown intended to seize the guns from the Harper's Ferry armory.  I cannot blame him, because this is one of those hackneyed claims that has adhered to the raid narrative since 1859. I take up this false claim in my forthcoming Freedom's Dawn.  

To the contrary, guns were not taken from the arsenal, but it seems rather that they were guarded to prevent others from getting to them.  Brown afterward clearly stated that he did not want the arsenal weapons because he brought superior firearms with him to Harper's Ferry, the Sharp's repeating rifles were five-times as effective.  The seizing of the armory was purely a political demonstration (he said so) and the reason for it is likewise provided in my forthcoming book.  
If Brown were trying to seize the arsenal weapons, where were the wagons to load them?  Where is the evidence that he took these rifles when he had ample opportunity to do so? The answer is no evidence exists of the kind.
In reality, the notion that the arms were to be seized for the slaves comes from sensationalist, propagandistic claims made by proslavery reporters.  These false claims bolstered Sen. James Mason's mission to use his 1860 senatorial committee investigation to impugn Brown and exploit the raid in order to interrogate and ensnare antislavery leaders in the North.   It is a point of history that besides Brown's sheer denial that he was interested in the arsenal stores, none of the Harper's Ferry weapons were removed and loaded throughout the entire, extended occupation of the Ferry by Brown and his men.  One wagon was brought into the Ferry by Brown, but it was already loaded with Brown's supplies.  If he were trying to seize the arsenal weapons, where were the wagons to load them?  Where is the evidence that he took these rifles when he had ample opportunity to do so?  The answer is no evidence exists of the kind.  Indeed, the only valid testimony to be believed is that a couple of Brown's men opened a couple of cases and looked at the rifles--so did Brown invade Harper's Ferry to seize two cases of rifles?   The facts are plain enough if you can get beyond the hackneyed press reports from the proslavery side, which unfortunately many historians have not discerned.

You can also read more about the John Brown Lives! event in a report by my friend, Naj Wikoff, in Thursday's (14 May) Lake Placid News.   Naj also provides an excerpt from my succinct presentation, as follows:
Certainly John Brown, as the single-minded man on the right side of history, who has been dismissed time and time again, keeps coming back. Why? Because you can't bury the truth, because his life was not a life of reinvention, because if you study his life you see that he is really the same man throughout. He did not believe slavery would be uprooted simply by moral suasion. John Brown saw that every road to ending slavery was blocked by power. He felt it had become something that had to be resisted. 
The government was on the side of the slaveholder. There was no hope for peaceful emancipation. There was only one man in 1859 who took action, and that was John Brown. He is significant to us because he really represents the ideas and principles that we say we believe in, but often times we as a nation to this day continue to have a double standard and a mythology about what our country is. John Brown does not allow that mythology to exist. He demands that we revisit the history of our country and tell the truth.
Lastly, for the record, Mr. Muirden's closing quote of Bruce Olds fairly well illustrates the most extreme anti-Brown view in contemporary culture.   However, Olds is not to be taken seriously in and of himself as a narrator of Brown's life, not even in fictional terms. Like many novelists who tamper with historical figures, he screws up royally.  But unlike novelists such as Russell Banks, Olds lacks even a basic sense of fairness, rationalizes his putrid narrative in the name of postmodernism, and is really a character assassin.  Only the malignant fringe of Brown haters would take the work of Bruce Olds seriously, and despite its association with postmodernity, Olds' novel represents one of the last cries of the defeated view of Brown that reigned throughout most of the 20th century.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Gravestone Selfie
John Brown Day 2015--
A Visit to the North Country

Pan Shot--The John Brown Farm: to the left, the Joseph Pollia statue (1935) of John Brown; center, the tent for the program; to the right, the great rock, the grave site, and the Brown farm house
I haven't been able to visit the John Brown Farm and burial site in Lake Placid, NY for a good many years, mainly because my academic obligations generally have me seated at Nyack's all school graduation ceremony on the same day.  This year, thanks to the forthcoming publication of my two John Brown books, I was able to get some time off and join the annual observance of Brown's birthday, now made possible through John Brown Lives! a non-profit organization that supports human rights and social justice issues in honor of the abolitionist.  JBL's indefatigable leader, Martha Swan, the founder and guiding spirit of the organization, kindly included me as part of this year's program, which remembered Brown and the late Yusuf Abdul Wasi Burgess, an activist and environmentalist who died late last year.  Besides the moving program in remembrance of Burgess, the featured speakers were Dr. James Carter, who was among those who marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, and yours truly.  You can find press accounts of the day on JBL's face book page.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

From the field--

H. Scott Wolfe

Last month, while returning from a sojourn at the old collective community of Amana, Iowa, I instinctively decided to pause in what I call “John Brown Land”...the little village of Springdale. I, of course, felt compelled to pay my respects at the site of the Maxson farm...that obscure locale (yet of such immense importance to the Old Man’s story) that I have so (too) frequently discoursed upon in these columns.
The Maxson monument with its new 
neighbor, 19 April 2015 (Wolf photo)
Normally, as one approaches the farm from the west, the summits of the numerous grain bins, barns and equipment sheds become visible long before one reaches the spot. So, as my consort and myself passed the “North Liberty” graveyard, (still a mile distant from our destination), I suddenly blurted: “Something is amiss out there!” “Uh-huh,” she yawned. “Seriously,” I shouted, “there is something different about those roofs at the farmsite!” “Uh-huh,” she sighed, as she continued to peruse a brochure on eastern Iowa antique shops.

All was tension (at least on MY part), as I pulled up astride the Maxson monument near the roadside. It was then that I let loose with: “Holy ************!,” and promptly received a brief lecture upon both my choice of nouns and their close relationship to the ultimate destination of my questionable soul.

There, a mere thirty yards distant, sat a freshly-minted, sprawling residence of the “McMansion” style of architecture...still unoccupied, the stickers still clinging to those brand-spanking-new Anderson windows. The garage, where soon the Nissan will find shelter, sat where the old, cast-iron windmill had stood. (This generated another ejaculation from yours truly, for that windmill had appeared in many of the Depression era photographs of the original Maxson house, then in shambles.)
The New "Maxson" Farmhouse--Yikes! (Wolf photo)

Alas, the site is no longer pristine. And those visions of drilling men in an open field are much more difficult to conjure. In my personal fantasies, I had always dreamed of someone procuring the property...building a replica of the Maxson farmhouse...and exposing the stone foundation of the original (which still lies beneath a machine shed)...to create a true historic site. “If I ever win the lottery,” I would say....(But chances of this were indeed slim, in that I have never purchased a lottery ticket in my life.)

But now we have what appears to be suburban Springdale. A latter-day family of Cleavers will occupy the site...and, hopefully, send Wally or the Beaver over to the granite monument to clear the obscuring weeds...and spare these old hands from those pesky blisters.

Progress.....Don’t ya love it?

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.