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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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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Op-Ed: "Martyr or Madman," Again

Perhaps we should not complain too much.  In the 20th century, John Brown was simply referred to as a "madman" by many writers.  These days, journalists and bloggers have taken to using titles like "martyr or madman?"--inferring that the reader should decide on their own since, supposedly, there's just not sufficient historical evidence to come to a conclusion about the status of the abolitionist.

Currently, Kansas Public Radio (Lawrence) is featuring a brief audio commentary by Bobbie Athon, who is identified as a writer and public information officer for the Kansas State Historical Society.  Athon chose to begin a series entitled, "Remembering Iconic Kansas" with an installment called,  "Abolitionist John Brown - Martyr or Madman?"  Athon's commentary, nicely written and narrated by Athon herself, runs under two and half minutes, and she must be commended for engaging the theme in an obvious attempt to be fair both in tone and content (you can download it here).  John Brown is, after all, an important figure to Kansans, even if the consensus of opinion about him today is not as positive among that generation of Kansans who actually knew and understood the struggle over slavery in those awful territorial days.

Nevertheless, Athon's concise narrative is not without its problems.  Perhaps the most problematic is that she says Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings was "in retaliation" for the proslavery attack upon Lawrence in May 1856.  While it is impossible to separate the "sack of Lawrence" from the Pottawatomie killings that took place immediately afterward, Athon has engaged in an oversimplification at best.  Notwithstanding she had only minutes to give her commentary, it would have been far more correct had Athon stated that Brown and his men carried out the killings of five proslavery conspirators in their neighborhood because of the role these men were playing in bringing an invasion of "border ruffians" into the vicinity.  While the attack on Lawrence sparked the counter-attack by Brown and his men, in truth the killings were more distinctly based on local incidents and dangers involving the Browns and other free state people versus local proslavery thugs like the Doyles and Shermans.  It seems to have eluded Athon that the Browns and others were literally under threat of their lives by these neighbors, and given the invasion and the promised threat of attack upon them, the Pottawatomie attack was far more a preemptive strike than it was a "retaliation."  I should add, Athon says Brown "kidnapped" his Pottawatomie victims.  I suppose by this she means Brown forcibly removed them from their homes?  Of course, he only removed them from the immediate site for the purpose of executing them, not to "kidnap" them in the conventional sense.

There are a couple of other technical problems.  Athon says that it was the Battle of Black Jack in June 1856 that led to the epithet, "Bleeding Kansas."  I've not made a study of the immediate origin of the expression, but I would be surprised if she were correct here.  The Battle of Black Jack was not much of a blood-letting, and it would seem to me that "Bleeding Kansas" had it origins in regard to the five murders of free state men by proslavery terrorists in 1855-56, the Pottawatomie killings following them in May 1856, and perhaps also the Marais de Cygnes massacre of 1858, in which more free state men were gunned down in cold blood.   Again, this is a technical point and I'd be pleased to be either confirmed or corrected on the point as to the specific origin of the "Bleeding Kansas" reference. 

Speaking of technical errors, Athon also mentions Brown seizing the "arsenal" at Harper's Ferry, a common mistake.  Brown seized the entire armory of Harper's Ferry, which included the arsenal.  People tend to make this error, probably because they assume the Southern fallacy that he "seized the arsenal" to take the weapons--a false notion that has no substance in fact.  (See the video, "John Brown & the Harper's Ferry Weapons: Debunking a Southern Legend" on this blog.)

But if one thing is disturbing about Athon's piece, it is this gratuitously biased title, "Martyr or Madman?"  Even based upon the content of her narrative, there is nothing discussed about Brown being either a martyr or a madman.  The title reads like some clever editor at KPR slapped it on for effect.  Worse, as noted above, the "martyr or madman" cant is tired, hackneyed, and useless. 

It goes without saying that John Brown was a martyr.  Many people today may not like Brown or want to acknowledge his martyrdom, but the fact is that in historical terms this is precisely how he was understood by blacks and whites of his own generation.   John Brown was a martyr, was acknowledged as such while he still awaited execution, and was celebrated for generations afterward.  Indeed, black people for many years remembered "Martyr's Day" on John Brown's birthday.   John Brown's birthday was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of the 19th century. 

Second, no credible writer today would engage in the biased rhetoric of the 20th century "Lost Cause" writers who fed the myth of a madman.  Even those who perhaps wish they could find sufficient proof of Brown's insanity have had to settle for equally unfounded appeals to him allegedly having been bipolar, or some other nonsense.  It has been the national past time of white writers from the 20th century, and still some today, to try to make out John Brown as mentally disturbed.  But none have been successful in this fool's errand.

I would suggest that the "martyr or madman?" choice be set aside.  It has no validity, first because all the evidence says Brown (1) was a martyr, (2) was not mad in any sense, and (3) that asking the unlearned, biased, or miseducated public to make such a hollow determination is itself just appealing to ignorance.  Those who wish to study Brown's life and legacy can do so.  There are sufficient materials and the evidence is more than clear.  Certainly, we have no use for the opinions of those who do not wish to do so, but would rather continue repeating the error and bias they've been taught. 

Let us remember that we live in a society of great historical ignorance, layered over with a stylized and agenda-driven view of slavery, the Civil War, and the epic figures of that drama.  The mass of people actually believe Lincoln was "the Great Emancipator," that the Civil War was a noble battle between two good sides, that slavery was only a terrible inconvenience, that Jesse James was the Robin Hood of the South, and that John Brown was a madman or a terrorist.   Given these pitiful circumstances, we can only adopt Brown's own optimism and hope that we have more writers like Bobbie Athon, who has at least gotten it half right.--LD