History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Monday, February 13, 2017

Nothing to Marvel At: An Independent Civil War Historian Gets Brown All Wrong

To my knowledge, it was Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown scholars, who was the first (and probably the only) to find an interesting albeit minor connection between Brown and Abraham Lincoln in the person of Edwin M. Stanton.  Stanton is remembered as the disagreeable Secretary of War in the Lincoln administration, who served from 1861-65.  Famously, it was also Stanton who sat by the assassinated president on the early morning of April 15, 1865 and spoke the memorable words, "Now he belongs to the ages"--although he may actually have said, "angels."  (You can ask the Lincoln scholars about that one.)  

Wool Business

Stutler probably discovered that Brown had known Stanton when he obtained the business letter books of Perkins & Brown, the wool commission operation that Brown ran in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1846-49. As I have briefly documented in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, Brown partnered with his wealthy Akron patron, Simon Perkins Jr., becoming his partner in a venture that was well needed, but still ahead of its time (Brown was in advance of his generation in more than one way.)   Contrary to the hackneyed narrative that unfortunately is embraced as fact, Perkins & Brown posed a real threat to the New England manufacturing establishment because Brown introduced weighing and pricing on the producers' end.  Throughout the three years of operation, the firm was beset by resistance and challenge from the manufacturers, and Stutler believed that an operative was even planted in the Springfield office to undermine operations.  Normally, the failure of the firm is blamed solely on Brown's blundering, but in fact he was waging a classic battle against a powerful union of manufacturers and learned the lessons of capitalism the hard way.   Worse, the wool growers themselves were not sufficiently matured as a community to look beyond their personal interests, and so they squabbled, cheated, and nagged Brown over cash, making his work that much harder.  In fact, it seems to have taken another generation before wool growers in their region could effectively organize and seize control of pricing their own wools for market. 

Edwin M. Stanton
A Pittsburgh Lawyer

Although the firm closed its doors in 1849, Brown and his partner were tied up in litigation for several years, and in some cases their legal controversies were covered by local papers in the northeast. During this time, Brown restlessly presented the face of the firm in court, interacted with lawyers, and endured the drawn out and wearisome trials, although his mind increasingly drifted toward matters of slavery and liberation.  

In 1854, when working with a lawyer in New York State, he nearly abandoned the office to go to Boston when he heard about the controversial seizure and trial of Anthony Burns, a black man who was forced into slavery courtesy of the Fugitive Slave Law.  "Anthony Burns must be released," Brown told his lawyer, "or I will die in the attempt."  Brown was finally persuaded to stay, but "it took a long and earnest talk" by the lawyer.1

Among the lawyers that worked with Brown during the post-Perkins & Brown period was Edwin M. Stanton.  Stanton was from Steubenville, Ohio, and was admitted to the bar in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1847, where he relocated the following year.  As a successful lawyer, Stanton had supported the Pittsburgh and Steubenville railroad and made a name for himself as one of the city's leading attorneys, which is perhaps why Brown sought his services.2  Stanton is one of two lawyers addressed by Brown in a letter written in April 1851, relating to lawsuits involving wool growers in western Pennsylvania.3   In the same letter, Brown addressed another leading Pittsburgh attorney, Andrew W. Loomis, a native of Connecticut who came to Pittsburgh via Ohio in 1850.4  

In the firm's letter, Brown writes (and the copy exists in Brown's own hand) that he is interested in these suits so far as time, trouble, & expence [sic] of suing them in our own name are concerned; & no further."5  It seems that Brown was concerned that the lawsuits be expedited only if they involved their personal finances--this being an era when there were not yet limited liability laws.  Whatever the case, Brown's path briefly crossed that of Edwin Stanton, an associate of Lincoln, just as it did in the case of his black associate, Thomas Thomas, of Springfield.   Thomas, who was close to Brown in Springfield, Mass., also became acquainted with Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. prior to his election to the presidency in 1860.6

A Marvel in His Own Time

What prompted this entry is that in looking for information on Stanton's early days as a lawyer, I came upon a biography by William Marvel, an independent Civil War historian based in New Hampshire.  I am not particularly interested in Civil War history and was interested in learn about Marvel, who reportedly is a lifelong resident of South Conway, New Hampshire, and an independent scholar specializing in 19th-century American history. The New Hampshire Gazette reports further that Marvel "has written fourteen books about different aspects of the Civil War," and nearly took the Lincoln prize in 1995 for his book about the Andersonville Prison story.7   To say the least, Marvel is an interesting guy, the author of a good many books about the Civil War, and one who has made a name for himself without playing the academia game.  A vigorous researcher and historian with a background in journalism and a independent spirit might usually be the stuff of heroes.  

In an article for another New Hampshire publication, Marvel provides a thoughtful autobiographical reflection that casts light on his approach to doing history:
Most of my friends in this field followed an academic track. In a world where credentials are routinely confused with competence, a Ph.D. was their basic requirement for making a living. Many of them complain that academic obligations leave them little time to actually practice their craft, and when they do find time they often discover that the pressure to be politically correct can discourage them from the course of strict honesty. They wonder what slip of the tongue will destroy their careers, or what misinterpreted comment will force them into a Galileo-like public confession of error and contrition. Having no university affiliation, I am troubled by none of that.8
William Marvel
New Hampshire Gazette
Here's a scholar that I would very much like to admire, and even though I have a Ph.D., the scholars that have most impressed me in the twenty-five years of my own scholarly quest have been grassroots and independent researchers and writers who are not caught up in the academic realm.  As a teacher in a small graduate program that focuses more on teaching than publishing, I do my work largely with a solitary sense, since the school where I teach shows little or no interest in my scholarship.  This suits me fine because, like Marvel, I too believe that in veritas beatitas, "in truth is happiness," just as I believe finding a niche in which to work--one that you really love, is its own greatest reward, regardless of the recognition one may or may not receive.  This blog has lasted for over ten years in no small part because of love of the study and because there is indeed happiness in truth.

Ad Fontes!

Another phrase that serves the work is one that echoes from the time of the humanists and the Reformers, ad fontes!--to the source!  Marvel seems to get that this is essential in the work of the historian.  In another article, he recalls how as a young researcher, he had to learn "how crucial it is to evaluate sources."  He came to see that newspapers, official documents, diaries, and letters "written at the time of an event often tell a much different story from accounts written from memory decades later."  Marvel recalled doing his work in the 1950s and '60s, when so much of the primary material was still being held by collectors.  This meant that "[p]opular historians had to depend heavily on published recollections and regimental histories [of the Civil War], and inevitably they wrote the history of the war as the veterans and the politicians wanted it recorded."  Marvel says this produced
 "an unjustifiably glorified image of the era and the combatants that persisted late into the 20th century because so many in the next generation of historians used existing secondary works as the foundation for their own books — even though a multitude of manuscripts had become available for research by then."

Marvel shows a keen insight that is badly needed in the historian's craft: the ability to evaluate materials, deep research, and refraining from just recycling information culled from secondary works. As he points out, even though more primary resources became available, many professional scholars continued to build their writings on previous publications rather than doing the hard work on the sources themselves!  Marvel says this was especially true with "famous" themes, where "subsequent students simply built on those conclusions instead of reinvestigating the issue from new sources. That saved the time and expense of visiting manuscript repositories, but it only compounded earlier errors and tainted the new interpretations.
"  Marvel says that as a newspaper reporter, he found the same tendency among journalists, "to rely on the work of earlier writers and accept official interpretations of events."9 

But No Marvel This Time!

While my heart is strangely warmed by William Marvel's reflections on writing history, including how his treatment of Edwin M. Stanton upset the Lincoln establishment (!), I was quite disappointed to find that in the same Stanton biography, Marvel betrays his own claims when it comes to how he writes about John Brown.  Frankly, it is rare when a Civil War person knows--really knows--John Brown.  But based on what Marvel says about sources and research, I would have expected more. Certainly, I would have expected him to rise above the typical jaundiced, bigoted rhetoric that is common among Civil War types when it comes to describing John Brown.  But quite to the contrary, Marvel highly resembles the tendency he describes as inferior scholarship--a lack of depth in research and a reliance on secondary writings.

In his recent book, Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton, Marvel mentions John Brown twice, although he seems to be unaware that Brown and Stanton knew each other in the early 1850s. To no surprise, Marve's first reference to Brown is the Pottawatomie killings of 1856: “An abolitionist zealot named John Brown retaliated by slaughtering five unarmed and perfectly innocent Southern emigrants.”  Then, in reference to the Harper's Ferry raid, which he erroneously calls an "insurrection," Marvel writes:
John Brown—a perpetually scheming, occasionally dishonest, and invariably unsuccessful businessman—had diverted his talents to a murderous brand of social reform late in life, and he devoted his final months to a crackbrained plot to foment a slave revolt in Virginia.10
Marvel even makes the defeat of Brown by Robert E. Lee sound like an errand.  He writes, “On the second morning of the insurrection Lee ordered a few of the Marines to attack the station house, where they broke down the doors and killed or captured most of the insurgents."11  A "few marines"? Did they "break down the doors" Mr. Marvel?  Marvel does not seem aware of the difficulty that the marines had in breaking into the engine house, and that they could not break through with their tools, and fortunately found a ladder left from the previous day, which they finally used to break a hole into one of the doors?  

Needless to say, Marvel is completely off track.  Whatever genius he may show as a researcher and writer in his field is completely lost in this precious nonsense presented as the work of a historian.  Indeed, these few lines about Brown suggest how utterly unfaithful and inconsistent Wililam Marvel is, not only by loading such compact narrative sound bytes with his own bias and dismissive contempt, but by clearly failing to take Brown seriously enough to do his own research.

William Marvel, were the Pottawatomie five really "perfectly innocent Southern emigrants"?  On the strength of what primary sources do you draw this description?  And why is John Brown "perpetually scheming" instead of persistently seeking to provide for his family and fulfill his dreams as a man?  Yes, Brown had an ethical lapse as he pushed back against the probability of financial disaster in the 1830s, but it was a single incident which he owned up to, and for which he sought to make right, even to his dying day.   Was his brand of "social reform" really "murderous", and was his plan in Virginia really "crackbrained"?  Did he really wish to start a "revolt," and what does that term mean?  The number of errors, just in this short passage, along with the evident prejudice he shows, completely disqualifies Marvel by his own standards.

William Marvel may be a marvel of Civil War history writers, but there is no marvel here.  There is only shame.  A man with such clarity, discipline, and rigor should have known better and done better in regard to John Brown.   Instead, he simply wrote from prejudice and ignorance.--LD


       1 Relayed in Franklin B. Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), 80.
       2 History of Pittsburgh and Environs, Vol. II (New York: American Historical Society, 1922), 162 and 204.
       3 Perkins & Brown to Messrs. Loomis and Stanton, 18 Apr. 1851, in Gee Papers, Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.
       4 The Twentieth Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania, Vol. II  (Chicago: H.C. Cooper Jr., 1903), 830.  It is also possible that the Loomis addressed by Brown was Cyrus O. Loomis, another lawyer in Pittsburgh, but I suspect Andrew Loomis was his contact, being the leading figure of the two relatives.
       5 Perkins & Brown to Loomis and Stanton, 18 Apr. 1851.
       6 For a discussion about Brown in Springfield and his association with Thomas, see my book, "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002).
       7 "William Marvel to Speak at Portsmouth Athenæum," New Hampshire Gazette, 31 May 2011.  Retrieved from http://www.nhgazette.com/2011/05/31/marvel-to-speak-at-athenaeum/.
       8 William Marvel, "In Veritas Beatitas," Conway Daily Sun, 9 May 2016.  Retrieved from:
       9 William Marvel, "Flawed at the Source," Conway Daily Sun, 7 Aug. 2014.  Retrieved from:
      10 William Marvel, Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2015), 80-81, 112.
      11 Ibid.


No comments: