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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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Personal Note: Older Than John Brown

I started the serious study of John Brown in the later part of the 1990s, and while I was no longer a young man at the time, I was able to speak of him as the "old man" in a manner that corresponded to my own age.

I don't have the citation for this, but somewhere along the line I read that Brown was first called "Old Brown" in Kansas, to distinguish him from John Brown Junior.   But John senior also had aged in appearance by the late 1850s: his hair mostly grayed, and his long beard--which he wore from 1858 until his execution in December 1859 (although it was cropped much shorter at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid)--was quite gray.   He looked like a man in his late sixties, and this was probably more so because his complexion was worn, his health was beset by the ague, and he walked with a slight stoop in his later years.  So even in John Brown's lifetime, people took him for an older man and called him "old man" or "Old Brown" because he was older in appearance than many of his associates in the field.  This is nowhere more evident than his little army at Harper's Ferry.  Most of that brave association were young men, the oldest being Dangerfield Newby, who fell at the Ferry being no more than forty-four years of age.  The rest of the Harper's Ferry raiders were truly young men, and to them Brown was an old man, even if he was wiry, tough, and active.

For twenty years, my role as a "lifetime" student of John Brown has allowed me to speak of John Brown as "the old man" without a second thought.  But this week I turned sixty years of age, and now I'm older than John Brown, who is forever fifty-nine.  I know that I'm not alone in this experience, and a choir of witnesses have preceded me likewise in this experience, including the late Clarence Gee and Boyd Stutler, who exhausted their aged years by studying the "old man."

Still, when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake the other day, the Old Man crossed my mind for a second.  He did so last year too, when I turned fifty-nine, and being John Brown's age all year was sort of an aside for me throughout the year.  But as of this week, it's official.   I'm older than John Brown.

But don't get it twisted: there's only room on this blog for one Old Man.--LD