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