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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, June 27, 2016

A Commendable Effort, But John Brown Was No Insurrectionist: My Letter to Bio.com 

 [27 June 2016, electronic communication]

 To Whom it May Concern:

 I am a scholar of the life and letters of the abolitionist John Brown, and I’m writing to express appreciation for the tone and content of your bio on his life. I have written several books on Brown and am often frustrated by unfair and inappropriate portrayals of the man in various media. I’m writing because I believe that your website is true to its word in striving for accuracy and fairness. My only suggestion is that you might consider revising the notion that Brown wanted to launch an “insurrection.” This is a prominent belief, although it originated with slave holders and proslavery reporting at the time. Brown actually denied this charge repeatedly, although a jury of slaveholders and slaveholding prosecution brought this indictment against him and found him guilty of insurrection.

Historically speaking, insurrection would have involved servile war, the idea of arming enslaved people to rise up with the intention of killing slave masters and often their families. Insurrection destroyed slavery by literally eliminating slave owners. The classic insurrection would be Spartacus in ancient Rome, or Nat Turner’s “revolt” in antebellum Virginia, where women and children (the children of slaveholders) were also killed. Brown had no such intention, and was acutely concerned over the possibilities of mass bloodshed, and actually wanted to avoid a full scale insurrection. He denied insurrectionary intentions in court and made it clear in a final written statement that he had hoped to avoid great bloodshed. What Brown had in mind was more like an armed rescue—which is how he described it to a journalist from the NY Tribune after his capture, or at least how this journalist relayed his words—“a grand rescue.”

 Brown did not want to use full scale violence, but wanted to fight only in self-defense and put more emphasis on eluding militia by forming small groups that moved through the mountain system. His actual plan was to render instability in the security and operation of slavery in the South over a period of time. He intended to do this by drawing enslaved people into his movement across the southern states. I have more extensively documented and discussed Brown’s intentions in my latest narrative, published by Rowman & Littlefield, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown (2015).

Thank you for your consideration and for your commendable treatment of John Brown.

Yours truly,
Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Big-Axe-to-Grind Dept.
Answers.com and a Bogus "Expert"

Several years back I came upon Answers.com, a website that alleges to provide expert answers to a variety of questions.  The question I came upon dealt with my area of expertise and I left my comments on John Brown.  More recently, I observed another--quite loaded--question that I felt compelled to address: "Was John Brown a Radical Murderer or Hero?"  I answered the question and moved on, expressing the view of the story, with which my blog and book readers are already quite familiar--of course in support of the Old Man.  The other day, I was alerted that my answer had been replaced, and when I read it, the new answer was both unstudied and hostile.  I revisited the website, removed the interloping idiocy that had replaced my first response, and wrote the following:
John Brown was among many antislavery people in the antebellum period, but he was ultimately distinguished by his determination to use force when necessary against proslavery violence. In 1855, Brown joined his sons, who had moved to the Kansas territory, which was then in a ballot contest between proslavery and antislavery settlers over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. The majority of settlers were antislavery people, but proslavery terrorists flooded into Kansas from Missouri and the South, and used violence and terrorism to force slavery. Brown's sons were avowed antislavery people and drew the hostility of proslavery neighbors who plotted against them with the intention of bringing armed terrorists against them. With no recourse to law or protection from territorial or federal forces, they were in certain danger. Learning of this, Brown and a group of men, including some of his sons, identified the key conspirators and killed them in order to thwart their attack. In modern terms, Brown's actions were taken in a wartime context and while they were martial killings, they were undertaken to preempt a terrorist assault. These facts mitigate against labeling Brown a "radical murderer," although this if often the assumption of prejudiced and unlearned people. The killings of five men had no collateral damage and were strategic, so they were comparable more to modern attacks on terrorist cells or terrorist leaders. Leading biographers and students of Brown, such as David Reynolds, Paul Finkelman, and Louis DeCaro would disagree with the conventional 20th century notion of Brown as a radical murderer. This view tended to reflect the pro-Southern revisionism that dominated historical writing during the era of the Civil Rights era. However unpleasant, there is substantial evidence that the "Pottawatomie massacre" actually was a preemptive strike that primarily involved securing the immediate security of the Brown family and other free state neighbors placed in jeopardy by proslavery conspirators in their neighborhood.
There it was--a realistic, studied, and responsible answer, including references to leading scholars, all in defense of my contention that Brown is not the "radical murderer" and non-hero that many folks still believe him to be.

Send in the Clown

Within a day or two, I received a message from Answers.com, stating:
Good News. Your question was answered by an expert!
          Hi Louis DeCaro,
Our community put their collective heads together and answered your question (pat-on-the-back).
How exciting.  The corporate mind of Answers.com had informed me that they had come up with an "expert" answer to their loaded question, "Was John Brown a radical murderer or hero?" When I followed the link and returned to Answers.com, there it was, the expert opinion--even emblazoned as such--written by a fellow named Chuck Siata.

Here was my nemesis, the anti-John Brown "expert" of Answers.com--indeed a contributing member since 2007, with (drum roll please) 5.6 thousand "confidence votes" on the website.  Who is this well-trusted "expert" to whom thousands of Answer.com communitarians look for the final, defining word on John Brown?

As his Answer.com banner proclaims, Siata is self-proclaimed political scientist with a "strong focus on US History," including both political and military aspects of the Civil War.   Further investigation yielded further proof of Siata's undoubtable "expertise" on the subject of John Brown: He holds an A. B. degree in Political Science from Rutgers College (class of 1972), which is (I guess) his qualification for referring to himself as a political scientist.  To add further weight to his expertise on John Brown, Siata did graduate level studies in 1978 at the Federal Reserve school of Banking & Finance--an institution evidently well known for its John Brown studies.   Siata is also a professional photographer, so there is no doubt that he's a thoughtful and curious type, who has marshaled his undergraduate degree in political science, his finance studies, and photographic talents toward an expertise in John Brown, and generally as the go-to-guy for Answers.com on all matters Americana.

Doctor Siata

Well, there it is.  How could I ever hope to win the long term trust of thousands of Answers.com readers, or dream of floating my quaint little theories about John Brown in the midst of such a giant of history, and particularly an "expert" on the controversial abolitionist?

Notwithstanding, Doctor Siata's many contributions to Answers.com and his much touted expertise (the likes of which apparently muted anything further to be added on my part), it is well worth publishing his expert answer concerning John Brown here.  However, I will intersperse some comments in italics to help readers of this blog to maximize their appreciation of Siata's "expertise."

Thus, Siata begins:
John Brown and his sons committed murder in Kansas. Brown and his sons traveled to Kansas from his home in Connecticut in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856. 
Of course, this is always where any historical discussion begins concerning Brown by the "experts."  No historical background is provided except "the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856."  Of course, one would expect an "expert" like Siata to know that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854.  Furthermore, Siata is incorrect in saying that Brown traveled to Kansas with his sons.  In fact, his sons went to Kansas on their own, and Brown only went there to help them under the looming threat of proslavery violence in the fall of 1855.   Siata further tells us nothing about Southern intrusions, and the terroristic murders of free state men, the lack of governmental protection for free state people, or the particular threat that brought John Brown and others to the extreme point of making a preemptive strike against proslavery neighbors, or the fact that these neighbors were plotting the killing of the Browns.  But keep in mind, this is Answer.com's "expert."
Brown was a radical abolitionist and left an infamous record in Kansas due to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre. 
Siata is at least correct that Brown was a "radical abolitionist," although Siata probably thinks "radical" synonymous with evil and violent.  His use of the term suggests a bias that runs deep in popular discourse, particularly common among conventional and hackneyed summaries like this one made by ill-informed and prejudiced whites.

Whether or not the Pottawatomie killings really was a "massacre" is open to discussion.  Certainly it was an episode of gross violence; but if it was a pointed, carefully executed strike made against a small and specific number of terrorist associates, we might not see it as a massacre, which usually involves a mass killing of innocent people.  It is quite arguable that all five men killed by Brown's men at Pottawatomie were criminals, conspirators, and thugs caught in the very snare they had intended for the Browns.
There Brown and his sons invaded the home of a pro-slavery family and dragged them outside. They shot the father in the head and hacked and mutilated his sons with broad swords. These were deemed ritual murders and committed in front of the families female members. 
With "Experts" Like This,
Who Needs Trolls?
Yes, Brown and his men forcefully removed these thugs from their homes and killed them.  Yes, these men were dispatched with swords.  The father in question--a proslavery thug named James Doyle--was only shot in the head by Brown AFTER his death, the reason for which is not clear, although the evidence weighs heavily against any notion that Doyle was shot first.

Contrary to our "expert," the swords used as implements of death were done to minimize noise and the "mutilations" were defensive wounds--that is, arms and hands were cut because these men reflexively blocked the lethal blows.   Over against Siata's ridiculous assertion, these killings were NEVER "deemed ritual murders," nor were they "committed in front of the families['] female members.

The hogwash that Siata offers here to Answers.com is deplorable and idiotic.  It is a demonstration of how gross error and prejudice becomes memorialized in the public mind as a result of the jingoistic nonsense of bogus "experts" like Chuck Siata.  This ham-handed and erroneous "answer" suggests that Siata might stick to taking pictures of trees or old wagon wheels rather than opining on John Brown.

Alas, the lies continue:
In 1859, Brown, somehow escaping prosecution, bought a farm under a false name in Maryland.
No, Mr. Expert, Brown RENTED a farm in Maryland.  He did use a pseudonym.
There he plotted a slave revolt and left a paper trail as to his intentions.
No, Mr. Answers.com, Brown had been planning his move upon Virginia and the South for years.  He never planned on a "revolt" or insurrection, which he understood as entailing widespread killing of masters--something he wanted to avoid.  To the contrary, Brown intended to launch what he described as an armed "rescue," which drew enslaved people away, and armed them only to fight in self-defense as they drew away other enslaved people.

No, Mr. Final-word-on-the-subject, Brown left no "paper trail"--the notion of which suggests he thoughtlessly left documents that led authorities to him.  Brown left no trail of papers, although he deliberately seems to have left certain key documents as a self-testimony, where they were found after the raid at his rented farmhouse, but all this was after the fact.   Amazingly, despite all of what Brown left behind, we know little of his intentions thanks to proslavery interference and the poor, hackneyed writing of biased 20th century historians--apparently the ones that Siata read some years back, and has foggily attempted to reiterate for Answers.com.
He needed weapons to start the revolution and so took over the US arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. 
Perhaps Siata the expert might want to read my THIRD book on John Brown, where I expose the fallacy that Brown invaded Harper's Ferry for weapons.  This is simply not true.  Brown boasted having had superior weapons than what was available at the arsenal, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he made any attempt to remove any of the Harper's Ferry weapons.  Indeed, he explicitly denied doing so after he was arrested.

By the way, Doctor Siata, Brown seized control of the town of Harper's Ferry, and occupied the entire armory works, NOT JUST the arsenal.  
His scouts could find no slaves willing to join the revolt. 
Here the expert demonstrates what a hack and bumpkin he is, repeating the erroneous claims of slaveholders rather than what is stated by eyewitnesses.  Brown found sufficient response from the enslaved community and actually was quite pleased.  The problem was NOT lack of response from enslaved people, but his own tactical delays in the town.
After a few more innocent people were killed, Brown was captured by then Colonel of the Marines, Robert E. Lee. 
Yes, one of the "innocent" people killed in the fighting at Harper's Ferry was a slaveholder who had murdered one of his enslaved people.  Well, for the most part the "innocent" people were armed and shooting back, except for the mayor of the town, who probably should not have been walking around during a gun fight--and a free black porter, who seems to have been desperately trying to get away in order to alert his white slaveholder friends.  But they were all "innocent," I suppose, at least as far as a Slave State can call a man innocent.   

Robert E. Lee was not a colonel of the marines.  He was a member of the U.S. army, but was dispatched to supervise the marines who had been called over from Washington D.C., the marines also having their own officer on site.
Brown was found guilty of treason and hanged. 
Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason by a court presided over by slaveholders--especially the jury and the prosecution.   Brown had invaded federal property and should have been handed over to the federal government, but was instead tried by a proslavery state that refused to give him up.  The notion of his "treason" was highly contended, and can only be justified in a very specific sense not commonly associated with treason.   Brown committed no murder in Virginia and explicitly denied that he wanted to launch an insurrection.

His last words testify that he had hoped to end slavery without widespread bloodletting.
He was certainly no hero, and clearly a traitor and murderer.
Well, Chuck Siata, you are entitled to an opinion, although you should be reminded that not all opinions are equal, and yours certainly is neither equal to nor worthy of John Brown.

Defamers and Disclaimers

In the end, Chuck Siata answers Answer.com with feeble and flawed details, with an attitude toward Brown evidently fueled more by bigotry and prejudice than expertise.  By this kind of regular and long-term oafish contribution over twelves years, Siata has been able to win his reputation on Answer.com.  Thus, when it comes to venting his bias and ignorance against John Brown, he is declared "expert," all further discussion is closed, and his answer is reckoned as right and final because of his confidence rating!

It is probably fitting to close by pointing out that the real villain here is not a self-inflated history buff who hates John Brown, but Answers.com, which works like a public toilet, since apparently anybody can take a whizz in their facilities in the name of providing "answers."  No wonder the fine print tells the story under the website's "Terms of Use":
You are darn right you don't, Answers.com.  When you allow a photographer with a Bachelor of Farts knowledge of John Brown to offer such a shabby, error-ridden screed in the name of a historical "answer," you had better issue a disclaimer.  I don't know what else Chuck Siata knows about history, but as one of the contemporary experts on John Brown, I know this kind of pretended expertise is not only wrong, but it is insidious and destructive to any kind of broadening and deepening of the public's understanding of history.

Answers.com does not provide answers, but rather a vote-based "expertise" tallied according to readership.  As far as Chuck Siata the "expert" is concerned, I can only close with another question for Answers.com: "With John Brown experts like this, who needs trolls?"

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Take Note--
John Brown in the News

John Brown Medal for Sale on Antiquarian Booksellers of America website

"Commemorative medal, in white metal, DeWitt SL-1859-1, cleaned. n.p., n.d.. 1" diameter.  Fine condition.  Obverse pictures a bust of John Brown circumscribed ""SLAVERY THE SUM OF ALL VILLANIES"" (sic). Reverse pictures John Brown hanging, flanked by the words ""JOHN"" and ""BROWN."" Clockwise around the gallows: ""GIVE ME / LIBERTY / OR GIVE ME / DEATH"" Circumscribed ""RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD 1859""At the July 10-13, 2014, Summer FUN US Coins Signature Auction held by Heritage Auctions in Orlando, a similar DeWitt SL-1859-1 John Brown medal sold for $1,997.50. " (Inventory #: 60655)

Former Deputy Mayor of Akron Lectures on John Brown in Summit County Program

On Thursday, June 23, David Lieberth, the chairman of the Summit County Historical Society, is lecturing on the life and legacy of the abolitionist John Brown.  Brown, a native of Ohio's Western Reserve, spent a good many years living in Akron, particularly during his association in business with the ill-starred Ohio magnate, Simon Perkins Jr.  Lieberth, who is also the former deputy mayor of Akron, is speaking in a summer long program that focuses on the famous Ohio county's relationship with the 19th century movement to abolish slavery and the modern history of civil rights.  Throughout the summer these events take place from 4-6 P.M. at the John Brown House, 550 Copley Road, Akron.  For his presentation,  Lieberth also will be joined by artist and sculptor Woodrow Nash, who will speak on working as an artist in the Maple Valley neighborhood of Akron.

Source: Akron Beacon-Journal, 17 June 2016.


A New Commemorative Quarter Features the Harper's Ferry Engine House, Site of John Brown's Last Stand

"This new [Harper’s Ferry quarter] recognizes one of the most historic towns in West Virginia – known for its significant role during the Civil War. The quarter’s reverse side depicts John Brown’s Fort, the site of John Brown’s last stand during his raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory.... 

Thomas Hipschen is the artist behind the design of this new quarter. Hipschen is a member of the Artistic Infusion Program at the United States Mint and has been a regular visitor to Harpers Ferry for the past 40 years. This is the first time one of his designs will appear on a circulating coin, and Hipschen says he chose John Brown’s Fort because it’s so iconic.

'It’s the only part of the original arsenal that still exists,' Hipschen explained, 'It’s a major point in history; it was almost a trigger point for the Civil War. Later on, it became a meeting place for black groups that turned into the NAACP organization. It just has so many different points in history that makes it important.'

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is one of four other national park sites in West Virginia and one of 411 sites in the country."

Excerpted from Liz McCormick, "New Quarter Featuring John Brown's Fort Released in Harpers Ferry."  West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 9 June 2016.

Also see Rachel Charlip,  "'John Brown' Quarter Released, Public Spends Thousands."  Your4State.com (Hagerstown, Md.), 8 June 2016.

Sculptor of Harper's Ferry Commemorative Quarter is Descendant of Hector Tyndale, Who Escorted Mary Brown to Virginia in 1859

"Philadelphia-born sculptor Phebe Hemphill created the image that adorns the new quarter. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she has worked for the U.S. Mint for 13 years.

And though she has never spent time in Harpers Ferry, she does have a unique tie to John Brown. In a phone interview, Hemphill recounted that she’s a descendant of Hector Tyndale, a Philadelphia businessman who agreed to escort Brown’s wife to Charles Town in late 1859, for a final jail visit and then to recover his body following his execution for treason."

Excerpted from Christine Snyder, "Harpers Ferry coin to be unveiled at Wednesday ceremony."   The State Journal [Charleston, W. Va.], 6 June 2016.


The Harper's Ferry Commemorative Quarter: History versus Portrayal

"Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is being celebrated with a quarter featuring the firehouse used by John Brown during his history-changing October 1859 raid. The image on the coin is an accurate depiction of the current firehouse and its location in the lower town of Harpers Ferry. However, the firehouse and its location are very different from the actual building and setting that ignited America’s Civil War. This is the challenge for historians and park personnel. In his famous book, Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields, Edward Tabor Linenthal, provides examples of how we change our history by the ways we preserve and honor it."