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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, March 27, 2018

"Legends & Lies," and Some Errors Too

Last evening, the first installment of season three of “Legends & Lies”premiered on the Fox News Channel.  According to Fox News Insider: “The 12-episode miniseries, hosted by Brian Kilmeade, vividly recounts America’s epic struggle over slavery and freedom through the stories of the war’s greatest heroes and villains, including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth and Frederick Douglass.” 

Overall, “Legends & Lies” (heretofore, L/L) has much to commend it.  For the most part, its dramatic representations of history are nicely done, and despite some notable errors, the guiding narrative scripted for Kilmeade leans toward fairness, and in some places is quite satisfying in comparison to the documentaries on Brown that have preceded over the past twenty years.  Indeed, one gets the impression from the full run of this episode that those who produced it actually recognize that antislavery violence may be justified, particularly given by the expansive evil that was “the crime of slavery.”   This is not something that has ever been stated in documentaries on PBS or The History Channel.

Despite the criticisms that follow, L/L's John Brown episode did not leave me unsettled or annoyed on the whole.  To be sure, the actor who was cast as John Brown was too young and too stout, and really did not look anything like the abolitionist.  In contrast, the producers of L/L did a much better job of casting for Lincoln, so this was a visual disappointment.   On the other hand, there were small details that impressed me.   At the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown is shown wearing some kind of fur hat, and although he looks more like Daniel Boone than John Brown, at least the producers of L/L did their homework and tried: at Harper's Ferry, Brown was described as having worn an otter skin cap.    In the execution scene, a woman wearing a bonnet is seen watching Brown’s on the gallows, although the narrator points out that no civilians were present.  As far as the visuals go, this L/L episode really merits commendation.  I was particularly impressed by the moving panorama of antebellum New York City portrayed just before Abraham Lincoln is pictured speaking at the Cooper Union.  Having appreciated some aspects of L/L, a good many things came up that merit closer consideration if not criticism.

Juxtapositions: Pottawatomie, a Boyhood Memory, and the Sumner Caning Fiction

At the onset of the episode, the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856 are juxtaposed with John Brown’s experience as a traumatized twelve-year-old, forced to watch a white man brutally beating a young black man with a shovel, an incident that Brown recalled in a letter when he was nearing sixty years of age.  It is an important juxtaposition, although it would have been fair more accurate to have simply contextualized the killings in the political violence that had been unleashed by proslavery terrorists prior to the Pottawatomie incident.  Nevertheless, L/L goes further than any documentary I’ve seen by showing that antislavery people in Kansas were met with violence from the proslavery side.  Of course, L/L does not adequately explain how the Pottawatomie killings were specific to a local threat looming over the Browns as radical abolitionists.

Following the conventional narrative, L/L also connects the Pottawatomie killings to the beating of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina on May 22, 1856, in Washington D.C.   This mistaken notion was addressed on this blog by my able associate and contributor H. Scott Wolfe in 2011 [Aug. 6], when he wrote with well-place sarcasm:

The ruffians sack Lawrence on the 21st, right? Sumner is caned in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of the 22nd. How does Brown, on the plains of frontier Kansas, learn of it on the same day? Did the New York Tribune rent a Space Shuttle? The telegraph ended at St. Louis…and the tracks to St. Joseph would not be finished until the ‘60s. What did they do? Hire an Olympic swimmer at St. Charles and have him paddle up the Missouri with a message in his trunks?”

 As Wolfe pointed out, the connection of the caning of Sumner to Pottawatomie was fabricated by Brown’s son, Salmon, later in life, but was not really questioned until 1971 by Brown biographer Jules Abels.  As Wolfe concluded, it is clear that Salmon Brown had used the Sumner caning incident to “embellish” his narrative in 1908—an error which ended up in Oswald Villard’s 1909 biography and spread into much of the 20th century literature.  In the same blog entry, too, the reader will find that Salmon had made no mention of the Sumner caning as an influence on Brown when he wrote a detailed account in 1901.  In 2011, Robert McGlone, who is far too inclined to deny incidents in Brown’s life, fortunately took the correct side in challenging the Sumner caning as an influence on the Pottawatomie affair. (As I wrote in 2011: “What surprises me about McGlone, however, is that he does not bother to trace [the Sumner-Pottawatomie link] to Salmon Brown, nor to raise his “memory” thesis, in which he points out the distortions and revisions that sometimes take place in later accounts provided by eyewitnesses.”)

In the Pottawatomie portion, L/L also features some interesting misrepresentations of a secondary nature.  First, the episode shows an enslaved man cowering on the edge of the scene as Brown’s men kill their victims.  Secondly, it also shows Brown shooting one of his fallen foes, who lies moaning at his feet.  The man allegedly shot was James Doyle, one of the local proslavery thugs who intended to attack Brown and his sons but was surprised when his intended victims struck first.

Bullet to the Head

The claim (based on one unreliable source) that Brown killed Doyle by shooting him in the head, actually flies in the face of evidence and testimony, and the most intensive scholarly investigations have found to the contrary.  There is no doubt that Brown actually shot the head of Doyle’s corpse, but the motivation for the act and its meaning to Brown even eluded his sons.  The best discussion on this point is found in McGlone, John Brown’s War Against Slavery (pp. 139-41).  Even Oswald Villard, who was absolutely critical of Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie, concluded that the old man had shot Doyle’s corpse. We may only speculate as to why Brown would shoot a corpse.  One theory is that Brown’s single shot in the night was a signal to the others, still out in the darkness, finishing the bloody work at Pottawatomie.  Another theory is that Brown might have been gripped by the sudden notion that Doyle was still alive, and he shot him to put him out of his misery.  However, I would prefer to think that the shot in the head of Doyle’s corpse was a personal and ceremonial act of desecration—a statement, as it were, from one father to another.  Doyle and his two sons had plotted to kill the Brown boys for their outspoken abolitionism, but the good father had intervened and killed the bad father.   Perhaps the bullet to Doyle’s corpse punctuated the conclusion of the matter as Brown saw it.  He thereafter repeatedly and denied that he had taken part in the killings, and one should understand his claims in the most literal sense.  He was present and commanded the attack, but he had raised his hand against no man alive nor taken a life.

In the end, L/L’s use of the Pottawatomie affair is somewhat better than it has been presented in other TV documentaries, although we have yet to see a television narrative that appreciates the extent of danger that the Browns were facing from proslavery invasion in May 1856.  What was interesting was not that Brown escaped being compared to a terrorist, but that he was described as “equal parts prophet and terrorist.”

Miscellaneous Errors

One important misrepresentation of this L/L episode was the historical premise that following the revolution, the United States had become two nations within one.  According to L/L, the North had become dependent upon industry, and the South had become dependent upon cotton.  This is a skewed and misleading statement and is only true insofar as it reflects the cultural differences that continued to define the contrast between industrialized northern cities and rural southern life.  However, economic and political terms, there was no such contrast.  Northern industry and commerce was directly linked to and dependent upon Southern slavery.  This was no more evident than in the case of New York City, where proslavery interest in business was rife.  As I’ve shown in Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown, the uproar against Brown and against possible southern secession (i.e., for the sustenance of the status quo, including slavery) was fueled largely by political and economic interests in the North.

Another error is made in Kilmeade’s narrative about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, when he says that “few know that John Brown was part of the same organization of abolitionists.”   Of course, the underground railroad was not an “organization,” but a collaborative system at best.  The underground railroad had no organizational structure, nor officers, nor political documents.  The abolitionist organization that did exist most expansively was William Lloyd’s Garrison’s American Antislavery Society, and John Brown was never a member of this or any organization. (A minor detail regarding Brown and Tubman in Canada is the misspelling of “St. Catherines,” which actually is “St. Catharines” (but now I’m being picky).

Tubman and Brown

Interestingly, perhaps the worst feature in this episode of L/L pertains to Harriet Tubman.  It comes in the form of a frankly stupid, biased, and gratuitous interpolation by Kirk Ellis, the screenplay writing “historian” who is included as one of the program’s “talking heads.”  Ellis’ remark comes in relating the mysterious dream that Harriet Tubman had prior to meeting John Brown, in which she saw the old man and his sons defeated.   Tubman’s dream was symbolic, and in “Fire from the Midst of You,” I have offered an interpretation of the strange imagery of that dream, in which she saw an old, bearded white man as a serpent in the wilderness (see p. 263).  

In L/L, Ellis contorts this religious dimension in Harriet Tubman’s life, referring to her premonitory dream of Brown as a “vision,” which he attributes to a head wound that she had sustained years before while in slavery.  “As a result,” Ellis opines, “she was subject to what we now think was temporal lobe epilepsy, which would give her these stunningly realistic premonitory visions.”   I wonder, who the “we” is who “now think” that Tubman’s spirituality can be summed up by a head wound?   This is a silly speculation, and the subject matter—Harriet’s prophetic dream of John Brown—would have been better left as a mystery of her biography. 

Harper’s Ferry and Some Weak Links

As to the Harper’s Ferry raid, L/L’s screenplay-historian Ellis reiterates the old Virginia myth that Brown intended to seize the arsenal weapons in order to get guns for the slaves.   He tag-teams this nonsense with David Eisenbach of Columbia University, who then rants: “[Brown is] going to send out his men, they’re going to liberate the slaves, give them guns, and then those slaves are going to go out  and take over more plantations and get more slaves with guns, he’s going to build this sizable army and then they’re going to march into the South armed to the teeth.” To the contrary, John Brown was not trying to build an army and march into the south “armed to the teeth.”  He was trying to build a growing movement of associated armed cadres  that would conduct armed rescues throughout the south, leading enslaved people off and destabilizing slavery from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico--without large military conflicts.   But Eisenbach can be forgiven because he is the weakest link in the program.  As an accomplished scholar of contemporary history and culture, Eisenbach simply doesn’t know jack-squat about John Brown—his specializations apparently being the pornographer Larry Flynt, the gay rights movement, and media studies.   

The Raid and Civil War "Experts"

Overall the portion about the Harper’s Ferry raid presented by L/L is an extremely condensed version, but not badly done. In L/L, Kilmeade’s commentary properly observes that Brown wanted to connect his effort with the claims of the founding fathers, showing the consistency of his liberation movement and the inconsistency of slavery.   L/L also shows how the men at Harper’s Ferry—who actually were mostly drunken—fired upon A.D. Stevens under a flag of truce, nearly killing him.  On the other hand, however, there is no reason to believe that John Brown was inside the engine house in the last moments of his stand, barking to the enemy outside, “God is on our side!”

Far worse, L/L includes a bona fide Civil War scholar, Brooks D. Simpson, Ph.D., who predictably weighs in on the raid by stating: “Brown’s raid caught people by surprise, it was so audacious, it was so daring, and yet it was so badly planned that it was doomed to failure from the beginning.” What can one say to such expertise?  To borrow a line from Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again!”  Since the 20th century, Civil War military historians have often been drawn upon as experts on John Brown, although typically scholars like Simpson know next to nothing about him.  The tendency to mistake Civil War scholars for John Brown experts is a perennial problem and Professor Simpson is the latest example.  Although he’s a brilliant and prolific writer, Simpson suffers from a proximity presumption.  He imagines that because he studies the Civil War, he is competent to speak to John Brown’s plans—a very questionable conclusion.  Contrary to Simpson, John Brown’s plan was well made, and only the deity could say that it was “doomed to failure.”  Far worse plans have succeeded, and perhaps far more certain plans have failed.  But Simpson, lacking an indepth study of Brown’s plan and purposes, is simply in no place to make such judgment, and instead seems to be speaking from unstudied prejudice.

As to the man who became the 16th president, L/L is fair enough in showing that Abraham Lincoln was moderate, and that he defended slavery’s right to remain in slave states on the legal basis of the U.S. Constitution, and that he was a gradualist in his view of removing slavery.  This honest portrayal of Lincoln surprised me.  He was not candy-coated.  At the Cooper Union, he separates himself and his Republican party from John Brown, his presidential victory sparks a rebel reaction because, as L/L rightly observe, the southern slaveholders wrongly assumed that Lincoln was another John Brown.

The Hanging

For dramatic effect, no doubt, L/L features JB speaking from the gallows, as he was made to do in Santa Fe Trail (1940).  L/L overplays the presence of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, being in Charlestown, although it is true that he did join a Virginia militia group in order to participate in the execution.   L/L portrays Booth as having words with Brown in jail, and although this is possible, it is nowhere documented (not even by Booth).  L/L places Booth at the execution of John Brown, but says he stole a uniform to get there, which is not the case.  Booth actually was friends with certain Virginia militia men and was enabled by this connection to join them and go to Charlestown.

Not a Bad Conclusion

At the conclusion of L/L, Kilmeade makes a thoughtful assessment that frankly surprised me. “Now from its beginning, America is celebrated as a land of opportunity, and to many it is.  But while some prosper, millions of African Americans are robbed of their freedom and their humanity.  And when rational argument and appeals to human decency fail to end the horrors of slavery, it takes a violent demand that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness be fulfilled—at any cost.  John Brown’s cry to purge the land with blood is ultimately answered by the most brutal and bloody time in American history.”   This is worth one good “Amen.”--LD

1 comment:

patrick said...

I love and appreciate this analysis and really enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for putting in the work!