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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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Saturday, November 24, 2018

John Brown's Brother: Frederick Brown Supports the Greeley Campaign of 1872

1859 Lithograph of Brown
holding Greeley's 
(Library of Congress Collection)
Horace Greeley (1811-72) is remembered as the founder and publisher of the New York Tribune, the most prominent antislavery newspaper in the antebellum era.  Greeley was a liberal Whig in politics and was despised by the slave South and proslavery Democrats in the North. Antislavery people read the Tribune, including John Brown.  In one of his memorandum books captured and published after the Harper's Ferry raid, Brown recorded having sent $3 for a subscription to the Tribune, presumably for his family in North Elba, N.Y., since he was preparing to go to Maryland under an alias.  It was Greeley's newspaper that provided the single most important coverage of Brown's last days as a prisoner in Virginia, particularly through the incognito reportage of the Tribune's theater critic, Edward H. House.

Greeley: Preparing the Way for the End of Reconstruction

Toward the end of the Civil War, Greeley was heavily criticized for opposing Lincoln’s renomination by the Republican Party in 1864, taking the position that Lincoln could not win the war. He was also criticized for contributing to the bail bond of former rebel president Jefferson Davis in 1867.  Unfortunately, he was joined in this effort by another double-minded hero of the antebellum era, Gerrit Smith, an alumnus of Brown's "Secret Six."  Greeley in particular reflected the easy backflip that many antislavery whites made after the Civil War, and which led to the ultimate demise of Reconstruction.

An 1895 sketch portrays Greeley's role in
signing the bail bond for Jeff Davis

(New York Public Library)
In fairness to Greeley, however, it is a matter of record that the first term of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant was rife with corruption, particularly the Crédit Mobilier affair of 1872-73, in which railroad company shares were accepted by various leaders in Washington D.C., bringing scandal to the Grant Administration.  But although a more generous reading of Greeley and others backpedaling from the Republican Party can be attributed to scandal, it is nevertheless the case that Greeley was on the vanguard of white society's pushback against radical Republicans in favor of the white South.

When Grant ran for reelection in 1872, Greeley joined a group of Republican dissenters who took the name of the "Liberal Republican Party," and was nominated as their candidate to run for the Presidency.  The Democratic Party, which had taken the wrong side of history prior to the Civil War, tried to do a quick fix by supporting Greeley's platform too.  But there were yet many consistent antislavery Republicans who saw through Greeley's "liberal" posture, recognizing that his politics were not just about anti-corruption but also a move away from the radical Republican position toward compromise with the former traitors and proslavery rebels of the South.  A notable opponent of Greeley was the political cartoonist, Thomas Nash, who portrayed Greeley as a sell-out willing to compromise with the racists and former rebels of the South.

This political cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly, Oct. 1872, portrays Greeley shaking hands
with a racist white Southerner, the bodies of blacks and the U.S. flag under his feet

Horace Greeley ca. 1870
(Wikimedia Commons)
One source says that Greeley was so harshly criticized that he was not sure if he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary. His effort to win the White House failed quite significantly, although he did not even live to see the complete outcome.  After losing his wife, Greeley himself fell ill and was institutionalized, dying before the counting of electoral college votes was complete.  As it turned out, he received only three of the sixty-six electoral votes that had been pledged to him.  On the other hand, his ability to win or dominate in several Southern states and capture forty percent of the popular vote foreshadowed something ugly on the political landscape--what Rayford Logan so aptly called "The Betrayal of the Negro" by the undermining of Reconstruction.

John and Frederick Brown

In the fall of 1872, it was widely reported in newspapers across the country that a family member of John Brown had thrown his weight behind Horace Greeley's campaign.  This was big news.  Although John Brown had been dead for well over a decade, the public was generally interested in news about his family.  When it became known that Frederick Brown, the brother of John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame was supporting Greeley, it was notably observed in the South and enthusiastically greeted by Greeley's supporters in the north and west.  Frederick Brown (1807-77) was noted in newspaper reports as being the only surviving sibling of John Brown, although this discounted his half-brothers and sisters born to his father Owen Brown's second wife, Sally Root Brown.
Frederick Brown (Source uncertain--
possibly Hudson Library &
Historical Society?)

In John Brown's surviving correspondence, Frederick figures only slightly, in the 1830s and early '40s.  The scarcity of letters to Frederick in the 1840s and 1850s may suggest that the two brothers did not entirely see eye-to-eye regarding John's radical antislavery measures.  Certainly there is no extant letter either from or to Frederick Brown among John Brown's jail correspondence--quite in contrast to the several letters between Brown and his younger half-brother, Jeremiah Root Brown.  I happily defer to Brown family member and family historian, Alice Keesey Mecoy, as to further biographical information or commentary on Frederick Brown beyond the fact that he seems largely absent from mention in much of the material on his famous brother's later years.

Perhaps the most famous letter to Frederick Brown from John Brown is accessible in Sanborn's Life and Letters of John Brown (the original is privately held by a collector who has not proven generous even in sharing images or transcriptions, although he should know that what is valuable to historians is not what is valuable to him as a hoarder of primary documents).  The letter, written in November 21, 1834, is notable to biographers of Brown because it marks his thought at a pre-radical phase of his antislavery thinking.  In the letter, John Brown writes of his "confident expectation that God is about to bring [enslaved blacks] all out of the house of bondage."  In the main portion of his letter, he requests Frederick to join him in setting up a school for young blacks.  He writes:
If once the Christians in the free States would set to work in earnest in teaching the blacks, the people of the slaveholding States would find themselves constitutionally driven to set about the work of emancipation immediately.1 
Of course, by late 1850, John Brown had changed his mind significantly from this point of view, instead having come to believe that slave hunters empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law had to be physically resisted.  He had already been nursing the plan of a "grand rescue" of enslaved people from the South, although after his time in Kansas this plan took on a more militant side: slave holders and their militia might have to be resisted with measured violence in order to destabilize slavery throughout the South.  The rest, including his invasion of Virginia, as they say, is history.

Frederick Brown, 1872

Thirteen years after his brother was hanged in Virginia, Frederick Brown made national news by coming out in support of the "Liberal Republicans" and their candidate, Horace Greeley.  In this regard, the Chicago Tribune picked up a fascinating report from The Cincinnati Commercial, describing Frederick as "an elderly gentleman of rather marked appearance, plain in manners, but bearing the impress of intelligence and decision of character regulated by knowledge of men and the world."  The article states that Frederick had practiced law but had retained the same love of "raising fine stock" for which his brother John was known.  Interestingly, the article--apparently based on Frederick Brown's own claims--say that he was an antislavery man before John, and had converted his famous brother by "sending him a copy of an address published by Birney"--meaning the Ohio lawyer and abolitionist, James G. Birney.

The article goes on to describe Frederick's basis for supporting Greeley: that "the shackles have been knocked off the limbs of four million chattel slaves, who are now with their posterity, forever free; and not only free, but citizens, with the same rights and privileges, including the right to vote, that anybody else has." The author of the article, still reiterating Frederick, concluded that "this should satisfy us" and "cause us to try to reconcile those who, as all men do, smart under such entire defeat."  This would avoid further hostility and "bring about lasting reconciliation and friendship between the two section," he wrote.

The article is telling, not only about Frederick Brown, but about the easy turnabout that many putative antislavery people--even in the Brown family--made after about a decade following the war.  That turnabout was reflective of greater concern for the unity and peace of white society than the considerable inequity and systemic changes necessary to complete the elevation of an oppressed people to a level of human and political satisfaction.  As Frederick Brown's pattern of reasoning exhibits, many whites were far more concerned with ameliorating white society's sense of instability; in such thinking, this instability could only be resolved by the restoration of white privilege and priority. Ultimately this is exactly what was accomplished when Reconstruction was undermined in the later 1870s--former traitors and rebels from the South were restored to power over the black populace, no real punishment was administered to the traitors, and black people were reduced to a state of "free" peonage and segregation, not to mention terror at the hands of former rebels masked and murderous.  In a real sense this betrayal of the liberated community was enabled by the likes of Horace Greeley and his kind, and also with the naive support of men like Frederick Brown--sadly, the very brother of the most militant ally of black people in US history.

The rest of the Cincinnati Commercial article chronicled Frederick's other reasons for supporting Greeley: that charge that Grant and his followers were less about earnest convictions of justice and more about "selfish ends and ambitions"; and finally the belief that Greeley was foremost among the antislavery generation for intelligence, self-sacrifice, and integrity.2 

The support of John Brown's brother for Horace Greeley made news across the country.  In Raleigh, North Carolina, the Weekly Sentinel picked up the Commercial's report with interest, succinctly noting the same three reasons for Brown's support of Greeley--noting that the "anti-slave [sic] party has already accomplished its work. . . . Grant and his Ring are not actuated by principle, but selfish interest," and "Greeley is honest and reliable."3  Even in John Brown's Kansas, the pro-Greeley editor of the Olathe Mirror relished the news, counting Frederick's support as one of the great gains of the Greeley campaign.  "Here is a family," the editor boasted, "to whose insight and devotion even Mr. Wm. Lloyd Garrison would be willing to bow.  Where John Brown's brother gladly goes, no declaration by Mr. Wendell Phillips of danger from Rebels can deter antiSlavery men from following."4

A Rejoinder from John Brown Jr.

Newspaper sketch of
John Brown Jr.
ca. 1870s
Clearly, the political direction taken by Frederick Brown was already a point of concern before it made national news in the fall of 1872.  In early August, John Brown Jr., whose politics were in sympathy for the radical Republicans (and later for leftists), could not remain silent on the subject of his Uncle Frederick's political choice.  In a letter first published in the Philadelphia Bulletin but then picked up by the New York Times, John Junior protested any use of the Greeley faction of the Brown family legacy, apparently in response to an editorial inquiry.  On August 2, 1872, he wrote:
It is a matter of surprise to me that you could for a moment suppose that I am in favor of placing in power the party which every friend of liberty and equal rights had found it necessary to oppose with all his might these many years.  If any other of my friends entertain  such an opinion of me, please do me the favor to correct their mistake.  I am still, as I ever have been, faithful to Republican principles, and to the only party in the United States which, it seems to me, fairly represents them--the party whose standard-bearers are Grant and Wilson.5 Very truly yours,
                                                                                                           John Brown, Jr.6
John Brown Jr., who probably was speaking for most or all of the family, was clear that he could not support any political agenda that could be combined with the Democrat Party's agenda as was Greeley's platform.  John Jr. was acutely aware that the concerns of the liberated black community in the US were not to be so easily disposed of, and that beyond liberation and giving the vote to black men it would be necessary to enable them to establish political and economic equality in the nation--something that tragically was never accomplished. When Reconstruction went sideways later that decade, John Jr. was among a number of former abolitionists who tried to go to the aid of blacks in the wake of another wave of white supremacy sweeping through the South.  John Jr. doubtlessly recognized that Greeley had abandoned the cause of racial justice too quickly in order to appease the sensibilities of white privilege and white supremacy in the nation.  Unfortunately, despite Greeley's defeat in 1872, the nation would move precisely in the direction that Greeley had anticipated by bailing out Jefferson Davis and shaking hands with an unrepentant South.  Shortly, in the movement that Greeley prefigured, even John Brown's legacy would suffer, along with the real black victims of the resurgence of white supremacy in the South and beyond.

If there is a moral to this story it is that the struggle for justice is always a constant and present effort, even when the greatest battles have been won.-LD


     1 See Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, pp40-41.
     2 "John Brown's Brother," Chicago Tribune, 17 Sept. 1872, p. 2.
     3 Weekly Sentinel [Raleigh, N.C.], 24 Sept. 1872, p. 3.
     4 "The Good Cause Goes On," Olathe Mirror [Olathe, Kan.], 26 Sept. 1872, p. 2.
     5 The Wilson to which he refers is Henry Wilson, the antislavery senator from Massachusetts who ran as the vice-presidential candidate with Grant in 1872.
     6 "John Brown's Family," New York Times, 23 Sept. 1872.

1 comment:

Alice Keesey Mecoy said...

Thank you for the recognition as family historian, but I don't have much to add about Frederick, as I have not really done any work on him yet. Unitl this last month I was completely focused on direct lineage, it is only now that I am "branching" out (genealogist humor) to the collateral family lines.

I did post about Frederick's gravestone recently. See my blog post here https://wp.me/p8kxZI-nr