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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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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

John Brown: Six Longstanding Errors and Assumptions Corrected

John Brown
Media myth: The wild-eyed John Brown
(Raymond Massey) of Santa Fe Trail
Six Longstanding Errors and Assumptions Corrected

1. Error:
John Brown suffered from some sort of mental health problem. 


There is no historical evidence that Brown suffered any sort of mental health problem.  Brown’s alleged insanity originated when friends and family tried to get his death sentence commuted in 1859 with affidavits appealing to his “monomania.”  Brown denied these appeals and they were understood as a mere legal device that neither Brown nor his captors took seriously.

There is no evidence that Brown ever suffered from mental illness of any kind, no testimony or discussion that might lend such a notion, and there are explicit denials from his wife and others of any insanity issues.  In the 20th century, the alleged insanity issue was raised by historians and writers, who imputed mental illness or delusion to Brown but did so out of prejudice.  In more recent years, sympathetic theories of bipolar disorder, etc. have been renewed, although once more there is no evidence or testimony that even suggests Brown was mentally unstable.  This is a difficult lie to dislodge because it has become a cultural assumption despite the lack of evidence.

2.  Error:
John Brown was a terrible businessman, a complete and utter failure at everything he tried in business.


Brown failed in business, first in a series of endeavors in the mid-to-late 1830s, then again in partnership with magnate Simon Perkins, Jr.  However, failure in the first phase was not unusual in an economy without a federal bank, limited liability protection, insurance, and other financial safety nets available to business people today.  The uneven and troubled antebellum economy was particularly hard on businesses in “western” states like Ohio at this time.  Brown’s troubles in Ohio were rooted in using credit and getting deep into real estate speculation at the wrong place and time.  When he declared bankruptcy in 1842, he was among many others who lost heavily in business ventures.

By reputation and practice, Brown was actually quite successful in livestock work, and in the 1840s became nationally known, at least in the north, as a specialist in fine sheep and wool.  His expertise and knowledge about sheep breeding and wool care is documented in agricultural journals at the time.  To say that Brown was a failure in business overlooks the fact that he was actually considered an expert in that field and between 1844-46 was single-handedly responsible for the widespread reputation of the flock owned by Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio.

The disappointment in business with Perkins pertained to a joint venture in which he and Brown endeavored to start a commission house to assist wool growers.  At this period, wool growers were unorganized and lacked a consistent method of production, and at the same time were beset by the maneuvering and controls of New England manufacturers.  Brown and Perkins tried to offset this problem but were ultimately defeated by the powerful manufacturers.  The demise of their firm in 1849 has often been simplistically portrayed as a “failure,” although in fact it was more of a defeat.  Brown was actually visionary in trying to unite and empower the wool growers; this was accomplished in the same region in the early 20th century.

Finally, Brown did not turn to abolition because of bitter disappointment in business.  It is true that Brown had early on dreamt of being a kind of antislavery magnate who could use wealth to assist black people and the antislavery cause.  However, he was always interested in the antislavery movement, even during his busiest periods as a businessman.

3.  Error:
John Brown murdered five innocent proslavery people on Pottawatomie Creek in the territory of Kansas in 1856.


Brown in Kansas: Typically
misrepresented as a terrorist 
John Brown’s adult sons had settled in the Kansas territory at the time when proslavery thugs and terrorists began to seek to use violence to force slavery upon the free state majority; the Browns were outspoken in their views on black equality, which made them particularly reprehensible to local proslavery people.  A cadre of local proslavery men formed a conspiracy to remove the Browns and support the invasion of proslavery thugs in doing so.  John Brown and other free state people learned of this action, and without recourse to aid from the law, decided to do something that would end the conspiracy, save his family, and send a message to proslavery leaders about their terrorism.  Brown with the support of some of his sons and some other neighbors agreed that extreme measures had to be taken and so launched a preemptive strike against the conspirators, taking them from their homes in the dead of night and executing them with swords.  Essentially a guerilla action in the field, the killings were precise, strategic, and had no collateral damage; five of the seven conspirators originally targeted were killed, all of them being in some way associated with the proslavery designs of invaders, and all of them willing participants in some aspect of the plot.  The killings put an end to the immediate threat, and local proslavery participation in any sort of plotting against free state neighbors was pushed back significantly.  It would take three months before the proslavery invasion could be reorganized in an assault upon Osawatomie, a free state community close to the Brown settlements.

 The Pottawatomie killings were not an acts of terrorism, but rather martial killings in a context of guerilla warfare, and in a situation where the Browns had no resort to protection by local or federal law enforcement, most of which were proslavery people, or loyal to the proslavery government in Washington D.C.  The Pottawatomie killings did not initiate violence in the territory, since the proslavery thugs had already killed five free state men, and the larger arc of proslavery activity was consistently violent and terroristic, whereas Brown’s conduct in the territory had been consistently peaceful until the threat of imminent assault upon his family and free state associates became a real danger.  

4.  Error:
John Brown raided the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 in order to get weapons.


This hackneyed claim is wrong in several ways:

First, Brown raided Harper’s Ferry the town, along with the entire government operation, properly, the armory, which consisted of the works as well as arsenal. 

Brown and his men leaving their Maryland farm
to attack Harper's Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859
 Second, after his defeat, Brown explicitly denied that he wanted the Harper’s Ferry weapons and the evidence backs up his claim.  Brown brought no wagons to load the weapons, and no weapons were evidently seized throughout his whole time of occupation of the town and armory.  Brown actually posted two men to guard the arsenal—apparently to prevent citizens from gaining access to the arms during his occupation.  One armory staff person later testified that Brown’s men opened the weapons and looked at them, but none were removed or distributed, and no provision was made to do so.  Brown himself told reporters that he didn’t want the Virginia weapons because they were inferior to the Sharps rifles that he already had (his guns could fire more and reload faster than the older style guns produced at the armory). Brown had actually toured both federal armories and specifically made extended observation of Harper’s Ferry weeks in advance of the raid.  The whole idea that he sought the weapons originated in the proslavery press.

The best answer to why Brown seized Harper’s Ferry came from his own lips as conveyed through journalists: he sought to make a political demonstration.  The demonstration of seizing the armory was not part of his original plan, but became so in his thinking after what took place in Kansas in 1856—the seizure of a Missouri arsenal by proslavery people.  Brown later said that his idea of seizing the armory began that year, so this is most likely the reason, that he wanted to point out to the proslavery Buchanan administration that they had done nothing about the invasion of a federal armory by proslavery people.

Again, there is no evidence that cases of Harper’s Ferry guns were removed or loaded during the whole time of Brown’s seizure of the town and armory.  There were no wagons and no evident interest in taking the guns, so the whole notion is a myth born out of the paranoia of Virginians and the indignation of her politicians, like Senator James Mason.

5.  Error:
Brown intended to launch an insurrection in Virginia.


Brown repeatedly and consistently denied that insurrection was his intention, but he was found guilty of insurrection by a proslavery Virginia court.  The question is whether historians are interested in repeating the court’s charge or if they are interested in understanding Brown’s intention.
A 19th century sketch of the Harper's Ferry fire engine
house, where Brown made his last stand

Naturally, slaveholders and their courts would interpret any effort to incite a liberation movement as “insurrection.”  However, in historical and strategic terms, Brown did not want to incite insurrection because he understood insurrection to mean a servile war—a conflict between slaves and masters where the former are armed with the intention of destroying slavery by destroying masters.  Servile wars, whether Spartacus in antiquity, or Nat Turner in 1831, involved mass killing of the master class, including children who were qualified as property owners.  To Brown, insurrection was servile war and this he both dreaded and opposed as a strategy.

As relayed from interviews, Brown characterized his effort as a kind of armed rescue and a grand demonstration.  The emphasis of his movement was not immediate and pervasive warfare and bloodletting, but a campaign of minimalist violence—fighting in defense of his efforts to lead away enslaved people.  His major focus was building an expansive system of satellite groups in the mountains and outlying regions throughout the South, their purpose being to destabilize slavery, lead of enslaved people in increasing numbers, and spread in a southwestward direction from Virginia.

There is no doubt that Brown intended the use of force, and that he expected fighting, but he did not want insurrectionary violence, rather hoping to throw the Southern economy into panic and make it impossible for the business and traffic of slavery to operate.  This would further exacerbate the occurrences of runaways, which was already a growing problem in the South, and discourage proslavery defenders by showing the fallacies of the proslavery rationale.

6.  Error:
Brown failed to attract enslaved people to his side.


This lie can be directly traced to the immediate claims and statements of the proslavery press after the raid--a lie that was picked up Southern politicians, and unfortunately swallowed by moderates in the North.  The South relied very heavily upon the myth of black loyalty and contentment and it was critically important for Virginia authorities to portray local blacks as having been disinterested in and distrustful of Brown.  Quite the opposite is true: there is sufficient evidence that local enslaved people rejoiced and greeted Brown’s men heartily; that blacks were gathering in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and waiting for his withdrawal from the town, since the object of his plan was to retreat to the nearby hills and mountains.  Brown had made contact with local blacks and there is a great deal of evidence that local blacks were extremely interested in Brown, even after his defeat.  The local enslaved community reacted to Brown’s defeat and prosecution by acts of arson targeting proslavery jurors, by sending fiery signals in the sky, and by increased numbers fleeing slavery despite Brown’s failure.  The testimony of a locally enslaved man named Antony Hunter (whose identity has been verified in the census of 1870) made to a Union officer during the Civil War was that hundreds of enslaved people were waiting on the periphery of Harper’s Ferry for Brown’s retreat from the town.  


Rich said...

I enjoyed your last post. But, I have a question not related to it. In James Redpaths preface to his biography on Brown, he calls Richard Realf a Judas. Any idea why?

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Hi Rich,

Thanks for your comment and question.

Realf was part of JB's company until 1858. Initially, when he had problems with his hired military trainer, Hugh Forbes, Brown sent Realf to NYC to do damage control, and possibly retrieve his correspondence with the problematic Forbes. When Realf went to NYC, he did not connect with Forbes or retrieve JB's correspondence. After talking with an associate of Brown in the city, Realf took a boat to England (his homeland) without any communication with Brown and remained there for a year. When he returned to the States, he went to New Orleans and was living in the South at the time of the raid. When his name became known as an associate of Brown's, Realf cooperated with the government, somewhat appealing to his ostensible new life in the South as an honest man, and throwing himself on the mercy of the government. He literally redeemed himself by testifying before the Mason Committee, which was driven by proslavery interests. In so doing, he fully divulged all that he knew about Brown, and subsequently wrote a letter to the brother of one of the raiders in which he listed Brown's errors, most of which assuaged the Southern mentality, such as the notion that Brown overestimated black support. Redpath, who was a true blue abolitionist, naturally saw Realf as the sell-out that he was. The truth seems to be that Realf chickened out, fled to England, then when his conscience got the better of him perhaps, he came back and entered the South--perhaps to redeem himself to Brown. But when Brown failed and was executed, he could only appeal that he had lived a decent life in the South, had associated with Southerners across a number of states, and had come to appreciate their perspective. In the end, he informed on Brown and belittled his plans before the nation in order to make himself look reasonable for having abandoned Brown. If Realf wasn't a Judas, he was at least a coward and a hypocrite. Unfortunately, sometimes leaders have to rely on men of varying qualities, and Realf was a man lacking in the qualifies most needed for that hour.--LD