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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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Sunday, December 06, 2020

John Brown, Philadelphia, & A Decoy Coffin



Conventional historical narratives have typically presented the Harper’s Ferry raid as a quixotic, ill-planned, and essentially hopeless endeavor driven by fanaticism and ignored by enslaved black people.  In fact, there is substantial evidence to show that Brown was fairly well received by locally enslaved blacks in Jefferson County, Virginia, when he invaded Harpers Ferry on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859.  

Similarly, his plan was reasonable and feasible: to move into this threshold southern county, begin to gather up enslaved people, arm them, and retreat to the nearby Allegheny Mountains.  In the mountains, Brown’s men would train enslaved people to move onto plantations and farms, similarly leading more enslaved people away, likewise training and arming them.  No actual insurrection was intended, which is to say that no political agenda for killing slave masters was devised, only fighting in self-defense when necessary.  For the most part, Brown hoped to minimize fighting and concentrate on leading away sufficient numbers to the point that his movement could spread, county by county, and then state by state, until the South was thrown into a panic. Brown had no intention of launching a south-wide massacre; he wanted to attack the slavery system itself by destabilizing it to the point of paralysis. 

His seizure of the government armory, although not part of his original plan, was likewise not as desperate as many have assumed.  The armory actually was under civilian operation and the town of Harpers Ferry and the armory were meagerly guarded and could be held for a reasonable amount of time as long as he moved quickly and deliberately. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown took a small force of men, white and black, into Harper’s Ferry and began to take prisoners and collect slave masters.  He also began to attract local slaves to join him, although subsequently Virginia slave masters denied the support of their slaves in interviews with the northern press.  It was essential to the ideology and psychic stability of the South to believe that “their” slaves were loyal and faithful.  Of course, the existence of slave patrols throughout the South put the lie to such self-serving fiction.  Unfortunately, northern politicians and journalists—many of them moderates like Abraham Lincoln or conservatives with racist sympathies, preferred to believe that Brown had failed in attracting enslaved people to his side.  In late 1859 and early ‘60, many northerners were far more concerned about persuading the offended South that they had not supported Brown than they were to understand the realities of what Brown had accomplished on Virginia soil.  

Actually, John Brown failed at Harper’s Ferry because he did not follow his own plan.  By his own admission, he failed to move in and out of Harper’s Ferry with expedience and was still in town by mid-morning the next day, October 17.  Brown’s delay was based on too much concern on his part for parleying with captive slave holders and comforting his hostages.  He also let a passenger train pass through Harper’s Ferry, enabling the engineer to spread word of Brown’s invasion.  A terrorist would have left Harper’s Ferry strewn with dead slave holders, white southern corpses, and a derailed train.  As a result of his delay, Brown got bogged down in fighting and finally was forced to withdraw into the armory fire engine house with several of his men and his hostages, and after repelling assaults and ongoing gunfire  for the rest of the day, they were overtaken by U.S. marines the following morning, October 18. 

Only a handful of Brown’s men escaped.  Most were killed in battle, some of them being murdered by angry Virginians after capture or surrender. Lewis Leary, one of the two black men from Oberlin, Ohio, was wounded, captured, and murdered--his throat cut by an angry white man. Only one reporter on the ground recorded the murder and then it was covered by the Southern press so effectively that the murder was not known until I located it in the pages of the Baltimore Daily Exchange after reading the reminiscences of its young reporter, Simpson Donavan. 

The surviving raiders, including Brown, were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.  John Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason against the State of Virginia.  His trial was rushed for political and strategic expedience, and after being sentenced on November 2, he had but one month to settle accounts with God, humanity, and history.   Despite being stabbed, cut, and bludgeoned to unconsciousness, Brown received no mortal wound and recovered.  

It did not take long for him to realize that he had another chance to strike at slavery.  As he put it, God had taken the sword of steel from his hands and given him instead the sword of the spirit. With Bible, pen, and paper, he devoted his last days to reading, prayer, and answering letters from friends and strangers as well as penning epistles of comfort and advice to his family. Despite his failure at Harper’s Ferry, he wrote to his wife Mary, he could make the most of his defeat “by only hanging a few moments by the neck.”             

After they hanged him, John Brown's body was cut down and dumped into a coffin.  The doctors who presided at the gallows were not satisfied that he was dead, even though he had hung, swaying in the December breeze, for half an hour after the trap door had swung out.  Adjourning for an afternoon repast, they made their final inspection later in the day, officially declaring that Brown was dead.  To underscore their contempt, they left the noose around his neck. 

Mary Brown, widow of the abolitionist, set out from the family home in North Elba, near present-day Lake Placid, N.Y., with the intention of seeing her husband in his Virginia jail cell.  She was warmly received in Boston on November 3, where she was given gifts and money by Brown’s supporters and admirers.  She proceeded  by rail to Philadelphia and was greeted by the city’s abolitionist leadership, especially James Miller McKim, president of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.  But when she reached Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Brown received a telegram from her husband’s lawyer, George Sennott, demanding on her husband’s behalf that she not come any farther into the South.

Frustrated and disappointed, she was obligated to turn around and go back.  But instead of going home, Mary went back as far as Philadelphia, where she shuttled back and forth between the homes of abolitionists William Still and Lucretia Mott, and Rebecca Buffum Spring in Perth Amboy, New Jersey while awaiting the day of her husband’s execution on December 2.  

 Brown’s hesitance about having his wife come down to Virginia seems to have been a blend of practical apprehensions and painful emotions, not the least of which was that he was thinking of the expense of her travel given the long winter ahead after his death.  Before learning that she had begun to make her way southward, he had written on November 8 appealing that she not come to Virginia at all.  Afterward he wrote to a close associate, asking him to persuade Mary to remain at home for a time, at least until he directed her otherwise–which probably meant that he was hoping to receive monetary support for the family’s expenses.  Perhaps too, Brown was being a bit selfish, writing that Mary’s presence would only “deepen my affliction a thousand fold,” worried as he was that she would lose her composure and go “wild” on his account, as he put it.

Whatever the case, he changed his mind by November 16, when he wrote to Mary, allowing her to visit under the condition that she could “endure the trials and the shock” she might encounter in Virginia.   Meanwhile, from Philadelphia, she wrote a letter to Governor Wise of Virginia requesting the mortal remains of her husband and their two sons, Watson and Oliver, both of whom died from wounds sustained in the battle at Harper’s Ferry.  With the approval of her husband and the governor, Mary set out for Virginia in the company of James Miller McKim and his wife, Sarah Speakman McKim, and Hector Tyndale, another abolitionist. 

On December 1, the day before the execution, John and Mary Brown were permitted a few fleeting hours together, being allowed to enjoy a final meal and discuss family plans and concerns.  After being denied permission to spend their last night together, Mary was escorted back to her hotel in Harper’s Ferry.  The next day, she remained there with the McKims and Tyndale, who held hands and prayed with her at the hour of execution.  After the hanging, Tyndale received Brown’s coffin at Harper’s Ferry, causing something of a stir when he demanded that it be opened for inspection.  A rumor was going about that the southerners were going to steal Brown’s body and replace it with another corpse, perhaps that of a dead black man.  Observing the hatred and contempt that Virginians expressed toward Brown, Tyndale later said the incident brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the experience. 

The widow and her brave friends thus escorted the coffin by rail from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia with the intention of being met by an undertaker, who would duly prepare John Brown’s body for its final interment outside the family home in North Elba, New York.  But Philadelphia was already bubbling with protest, and it would have been impossible for the Old Man’s body to have rested peacefully over the weekend in the city without significant demonstrations taking place.   


On the day of the execution, the Reverend William H. Furness, pastor of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, along with other members of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, held a vigil in support of Brown at National Hall on Market Street.  Mayor Alexander Henry, fearing an explosive conflict between pro-South hecklers and enthusiastic pro-Brown African Americans, called out 120 policemen to oversee the event.  According to the Philadelphia Press, a crowd of whites and blacks had begun to assemble outside of the Hall an hour before the doors opened and a definite “turbulence” was in the air.  Recognizing that an element of whites were present with the intention of disturbing and contradicting the program, the Philadelphia Press reporter also estimated that about a fourth of the attendees were black.   

While the black representation at National Hall was by no means scant, black Philadelphia held other vigils for John Brown on the day of his hanging, most notably at the Shiloh Baptist Church, located at South and Clifton Streets, where Jeremiah Asher was pastor.  One of the several speakers in this program was the eloquent Jonathan Gibbs, the Dartmouth graduate and pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, whose eloquence so impressed the racist reporter from the Philadelphia Press that he declared Gibbs’ oratory “almost entirely free from the ordinary peculiarities of Negro speech.” Expressing the deepest sympathy for John Brown  “that brave man,” Gibbs decried the doctrine that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, and in a booming voice lifted a prayer of such anointed proportions that the Press reporter found the scene at the church had become almost excitingly frightening, with shrieks and cries, “Lord hear us!  Hear our prayer!  Remember old John Brown!  If he must die, remember his soul!”  Another speaker was Jabez Campbell, pastor of the Wesley Church, also known as Little Wesley, on Hurst Street below Lombard.  Campbell, who would later become a renowned bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained that he did not himself open his church to a John Brown vigil because his congregation was already under suspicion of authorities for “being engaged in a treasonable work,” probably referring to underground railroad activities.  “Now,” he declared, “if praying to God to enable Brown to pass out of this world leaning on the arm of Jesus be treason, then we are engaged in treason, and I am proud to be numbered with you in hearing this approach!”  After an equally powerful prayer, Campbell looked to a clock in the church and finding it close to the noon hour declared, “John Brown is now, just near about launching into eternity.”  Invoking a legion of angels to carry Brown’s soul to heaven, he prayed aloud: “Lord grant that he may have a quick passage, yes Lord, so quick that he may not know anything from the time the prop drops until his soul is safe with Jesus at the right hand of the Eternal!  And when the prop falls today, it will be like an earthquake, and slaveholders will tremble.”  With such words, the congregation exploded into responsive shouts, noted the Press reporter, “long, loud, and more boisterous than ever.”  Campbell was actually  late in pronouncing Brown dead since he had already swung out on the gallows at half-past 11 o’clock A.M.  But he was absolutely right that a kind of John Brown earthquake was only beginning. 

Over at the National Hall, the police kept the meeting from violent outbursts from white hecklers and other racists, although there was little ability to prevent the clash of competing remarks and  sentiments.  Throughout the program, sympathetic tears and cheers were contradicted by jeering, hissing, and loud cursing.  The Reverend Furness, a seasoned anti-slavery warrior, spoke first, boldly declaring that “out of the grim cloud that hangs over the South, a bolt has darted, and blood has flowed, and the place where the lightning struck”—speaking of Virginia—“is wild with fear.”  William Still later recalled these fiery words, admitting that he and other abolitionists feared that Philadelphia, the foremost black center in the United States in that era, “would be selected as the spot where Slavery would make its first mortal onslaught, and the abolitionists there the first victims.”  As noted by a reporter for The Republican Compiler, when Furness concluded his speech by declaring that “Today, [John Brown] has bequeathed his blood in which to write the great act of emancipation  for four millions of slaves,” his words were greeted with blended applause and hisses.  Then, two competing waves arose, the first of hisses, then one of applause.  Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia and Theodore Tilton of Brooklyn likewise spoke with similar responses from the mixed audience.  But when the black abolitionist Robert Purvis arose to speak, the sound of hisses and moans nearly drowned out the applause.   Racists in the audience reacted more strongly to his words than to the other speakers by making loud hisses, groans, and cries which added to the confusion of the competing spirits in the Hall. Undaunted, Purvis concluded by predicting, “the time shall come when John Brown shall be looked upon as the Jesus Christ of the nineteenth century!”  This final remark nearly caused an uprising of such confusion that the journalist from the Compiler could not record the rest of his speech for the noise filling the Hall. 

The explosive event at National Hall on the day that Brown was hanged is instructive in reminding us that white Philadelphia , like the majority population of New York City, was largely sympathetic to the South and the interests of the Union over the concerns of enslaved blacks.  No wonder, as Russell Weigley tells us, the “storm center” of Philadelphia for decades was the black community, which in the 1850s had grown to about 12 percent of the total population.  Although the white population was significantly larger, African Americans lived “immediately adjacent to the business, commercial, and upper-class residential heart of the consolidated city,” thus being quite visible and capable of bringing disquiet to the city.  Blacks were disdained by Philadelphia’s elite families, which were closely knit to the South in social and economic interests, just as they were despised by lower class whites as well as the Irish immigrant community.  In fact, not long after the pro-Brown event at National Hall, a counter-event was held in Philadelphia which drew 6000 whites, all of them declaring disgust over the Harper’s Ferry raid and their full support of the constitutional rights of southern slave holders.   Similar so-called “Union Meetings” were held in New York and other major and secondary cities by conservative whites in the northeast, attended by both businessmen and blue collar workers.


John Brown’s brief, posthumous visit to Philadelphia was not the first trip he ever made to the city. Among those appropriate to our story, the first took place between March 9-16, 1858, when the Old Man was canvassing for African American support for his intended raid into the South.  While in the city, Brown was a guest in the home of Stephen Smith, who lived on Lombard Street in Philadelphia.  In John Brown’s era, the black population was especially concentrated around Lombard Street, going east and west through the fifth and seventh wards of the city.  Not only would Brown have considered this a prime area for recruiting support, but it was logical for him to have sought out a successful black entrepreneur like Smith, who along with his partner, William Whipper, had built a lumber and real estate empire with other notable business holdings and an interest in underground railroad work as well.  Smith, joined by William Still, hosted Brown, John Brown Jr., and New Yorkers Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, along with other black Philadelphians in this strategic meeting, although Brown seems to have conducted other meetings with black leaders during his unusually lengthy stay in black Philadelphia.  No record exists of the discussion on Lombard Street that day in 1858, but undoubtedly it involved the Old Man’s efforts at enlisting black soldiers to accompany him into Virginia.  Interestingly, Frederick Douglass, though not from Philadelphia, is key to the unfolding story of Brown’s involvement in this city. 

In his third and final autobiography published in 1881, Frederick Douglass wrote that he learned of Brown’s intention of attacking Harper’s Ferry during a secret meeting that took place within three weeks of the raid on October 16, 1859.   In fact, the meeting took place nearly two months before, when Douglass met with Brown in a quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late August 1859.  As Douglass fashioned the story, it was during this meeting that he first learned of Brown’s determination to make an attack on Harper’s Ferry as a preliminary move in his mountain-based campaign.  Despite Brown’s urging, Douglass wrote,  he had refused to join the venture and warned the Old Man that he would be caught in a “perfect steel-trap.”  Douglass did acknowledge that Brown had previously spoken of raiding Harper’s Ferry but had “never announced his intention of doing so” until the Chambersburg meeting, a claim that has never been questioned by scholars.  However, Douglass seems to have conflated the developments of 1859 in his memoir, entirely overlooking a clash with Brown that took place during a meeting in Detroit in March 1859.  Indeed, there is good reason that Douglass’ dissent from Brown’s plan originated at this point, and not seven months later as the former recorded in his autobiography.   

Given that their association dated back to the 1840s, it seems that Douglass had supported Brown’s plans as long as he had kept to the original strategy of initiating raids on plantations and establishing a mountain-based campaign in the South.  When Brown adjusted his plan to include the seizure of Harper’s Ferry, Douglass began to back off.  Brown’s ally and biographer, Franklin Sanborn, would agree, suggesting that Douglass knew of the Harper’s Ferry plan earlier than he portrayed in his autobiography.  This is significant because it explains a number of things about the John Brown story, most notably that despite their ongoing friendship, Douglass was steadily opposing Brown’s plan throughout 1859, and to some degree dampened his ability to gain black recruits.  Douglass’s friendly dissent was certainly no secret to other black leaders, and this dissent evidently took its toll in Philadelphia.  

 Just prior to meeting Brown at Chambersburg on August 20-21, 1859, Douglass stopped in Philadelphia and, according to historian William McFeely, Douglass held a secret meeting in a local church and found the attenders fearful of bearing retaliation for what Brown might do.  Unfortunately, McFeeley misses the full meaning of the incident, which is born out in a memoir of black leader William H. Johnson.  According to Johnson, Douglass’ secret meeting would have followed immediately the events that had taken place in Philadelphia on August 15-16.  Johnson writes that a newly formed “colored military company” had scheduled a parade in Philadelphia which involved men who were already enlisted by Brown.  Johnson recalled that Brown was disturbed by news of this public display of “armed and disciplined” blacks, fearing that their demonstration would draw undue attention from authorities.  Johnson says further that Brown came up to Philadelphia on August 15, in the hopes of discouraging the parade.  But he felt further undermined that evening during a public meeting at the Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church (or possibly the Shiloh Baptist Church–Johnson’s account seems to confuse the two churches).  The guest speaker was another one of Brown’s black collaborators, J. J. Simons of New York City.  According to Johnson, Simons “made a speech in which he commended the Negroes of Philadelphia for organizing a military company and stated there was a grand project on foot to invade the South with an army of armed northern Negroes.” He then called for recruits from Philadelphia’s black community who would “march through the South with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other.”  Johnson says that Brown was present at this meeting and was appalled by Simons’s lack of discretion.  Later that night Douglass and Brown called an emergency meeting at the home of Thomas J. Dorsey, a famous caterer and another leading figure in Philadelphia’s black community.  Johnson was in attendance at this meeting and remembered Brown as having a “very kindly face” although shaded with “deep sorrow” because of Simons’s indiscrete remarks at the church.   Despite efforts at damage control, Johnson says that the incident created irreversible problems for Brown.  Always reticent about his plans, Brown believed the whole affair had jeopardized his operations and might possibly bring the authorities down upon black leaders in the city. 

When these realities hit home for Philadelphia’s black leadership it is understandable that some began to worry over the possible repercussions of their association with the Old Man.  Yet, incredibly, there remained sufficient interest in Brown’s plans among some black Philadelphians.  According to Franklin Sanborn, in late September 1859, “certain colored citizens” wrote a letter to Douglass urging him to support their efforts to join Brown.  “We think you are the man of all others to represent us,” they wrote, even pledging to support Douglass’s family if he himself would join Brown’s efforts.  “We have now quite a number of good but not very intelligent representatives collected,” they concluded in their appeal.  These events not only demonstrate the extent to which Brown looked to Philadelphia’s prominent black population for support, but also cast light on Douglass’s autobiographical stylizations.   Evidently, he had no intention of joining the dangerous effort despite the appeals of Brown and his Philadelphia supporters.  Regardless of our sympathy for Douglass and our personal gratitude that he chose to live rather than die with John Brown in Virginia, there is little doubt that his dissent was far more extensive and disappointing to Brown than he was understandably willing to admit in later years.  According to the Johnson memoir, Brown and Douglass were together in Philadelphia once more, just prior to the raid, on Thursday, October 13, which seems tenable from what we know of the Old Man’s whereabouts.  According to Johnson, Brown referred to the small number of raiders he had enlisted as “the forlorn hope of what might have been a grand expedition.”  Perhaps Douglass was trying to mend fences with his old friend; or he was going along grudgingly with Brown out of a sense of personal obligation.  He had hesitatingly introduced but one man to Brown, a fugitive South Carolinian named Shields Green, but seems to have been displeased when Green decided to join John Brown’s raiders.  

In the last Philadelphia meeting, Johnson says Douglass held a list of young black Philadelphians, but apparently none of them finally chose to join Brown in Virginia.  To what extent Douglass negatively impacted black enlistment in Philadelphia we will never know.  Interestingly, John Brown’s family thereafter had no friendly words for Frederick Douglass--the prominent sentiment among them being that he had broken his long-standing promise to support their father when the trumpet was blown.  Perhaps this drama is concealed in his famous words written in tribute to Brown years later, to the effect that while he could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.  Frederick Douglass clearly preferred to live for the slave as an orator, activist, and politically respected leader.  We should be grateful that he chose to do so.   Leaving for you to read between the lines of history, I would only add that I’ve yet to find a single personal letter written between Douglass and the Brown family after 1859.  Such historical silence may be very significant indeed. 


 When the train carrying John Brown’s body pulled into the Wilmington and Baltimore Station at Broad and Prime Streets, it was no secret that the Old Man was coming for his last visit to Philadelphia.  Transport of the body through the city had been wired ahead and had generated a great deal of excitement.  According to the Philadelphia Press , a large, “motley” crowd had gathered, comprised of blacks and whites of both sexes, young and old.   The crowd was eager and tense, a prime target for the city’s pickpockets, especially the  notorious Bill Oliver (who was arrested by police)  and one known only as “Mysterious Jim” (who got away).  The train rumbled into the station at 12:45 P.M. on Saturday, December 3, the day after the execution.  Disembarking from the train was one described as a “stout,” “elderly,” and plain woman wearing a plaid shawl, who was undetected by the crowd as being Mary Brown the widow of the martyr.  Actually she was only about 43-years-old, but the Press reporter was perhaps correct in saying there was “nothing very remarkable in her appearance.”  The widow evidently was not interviewed by the press and stayed overnight at the home of anti-slavery man Edward Hopper on Arch Street.  Leaving the depot she was visibly leaning upon the arm of abolitionist Hector Tyndale, who was seething with disgust over Brown’s hanging and their experience in Harper’s Ferry afterward.  Greeted at the station by an abolitionist committee headed by the Reverend William Furness, Tyndale finally vented his rage, talking loudly and waving his arms in disgust.  “A miracle has happened, Dr. Furness,” Tyndale exclaimed.  “A miracle has happened!  The earth never opened to swallow up those fiends!”  The old abolitionist tried to calm him down, gently patting Tyndale on the shoulder.  But he would not easily forget his resentments toward Harper’s Ferry and its belligerent citizens.  A few years later, as Major Hector Tyndale, he probably took a measure of satisfaction when he returned to Harper’s Ferry and burned down a number of buildings in the town in the course of fighting Confederate snipers.  Afterward, he would  set up his office in the same hotel where he, the McKims, and the new widow of John Brown had waited to receive his body. 

With the arrival of the body in Philadelphia, Mayor Alexander once more had to deal with possible explosions of protest and riot.  He rightly anticipated that large numbers of the city’s black population would turn out, being both curious to see the coffin and tense with their own feelings of resentment.  Likewise would come the white hecklers, many of them southern medical students and other pro-slavery sympathizers.  With Brown’s body in the station, the scene could easily explode into a kind of urban civil war.  Alexander was intent on avoiding any such outcome and so dispatched a strong force of officers who made no exception in blocking all entrances into the depot.  Not content to merely shield the coffin from the crowd, Alexander then refused to allow the body to be delivered to the waiting Philadelphia undertaker, instead ordering that the coffin should be moved out of the city without delay.   

The mayor’s final measure, afterward called a “deception” by the Philadelphia Press , was to create a decoy coffin–actually a large industrial toolbox covered with blankets–which was carried by six police officers into the depot yard and placed on a wagon driven by other policemen.  Of course, the ploy was designed to draw the crowd away from the depot and it was quite successful.  As the wagon carrying the decoy coffin pulled out, it was immediately followed by what one writer called an “almost frenzied throng.”  The Press reporter described the movement of the crowd as “one of ludicrous description.  It seemed,” he wrote, “as if all the boys and Negroes in town were in full speed,” and a number of women pursued the wagon too, likewise joining in “the hue and cry.” One reminiscence of the event says the decoy coffin was taken in the direction of the headquarters of the Anti-Slavery Society, but the Philadelphia Press report published on December 5th says that it was brought directly to the Walnut Street wharf to create the impression that it was being shipped on to New York.  In the mean time, the real coffin was quietly and quickly placed in a furniture wagon and driven to the Camden depot, where it was temporarily locked in a baggage crate and promptly shipped out after the crowd had subsided.  John Brown’s body would thus be prepared for burial by an anti-slavery undertaker in downtown Manhattan, finally being carried northward by railroad toward its final destination in the Adirondacks. 


At the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Frederick Douglass had returned to Philadelphia for a speaking engagement at National Hall, the same site where the uproarious John Brown meeting would take place in December after the execution.  As it happened, however, on October 18, the day that Brown was defeated at Harper’s Ferry, Douglass gave what would become one of his most well-known lectures, entitled “Self-Made Men.:  Perhaps he had thought of his old friend Brown when he had prepared that lecture, perhaps not. But as history would have it, news of the Harper’s Ferry raid broke the day of his speech, and telegraphs carried the news that Brown’s invasion of Virginia had failed and his effort to launch a liberation movement had been halted. Defeated and captured, the blood-crusted Old Man was now a prisoner of the State of Virginia.  

Although Douglass should have expected to be implicated in Brown’s raid and fled immediately, he strangely lingered in Philadelphia long enough to enjoy a reunion with  Amanda Auld Sears, the grown daughter of the white man who once held him as a slave.  When further news prompted the warnings of friends in Philadelphia, Douglass was jolted back to reality.  Now, in flight mode and overwhelmed with fear, he nervously boarded the ferry at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street wharf, crossing the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey.  Typically, travelers would have preferred the railroad from Camden northward  to New York City, but Douglass, so fearful of being apprehended, took a painfully slow ride by steamboat into Manhattan so that he could arrive in the city late at night.  From there he was finally able to return to his home in Rochester, New York, and then fled into Canada to avoid being arrested.12   

By not going to Virginia with Brown, Douglass had seemingly dodged a bullet, although he was still reduced to flight.  Two months later, John Brown’s body traveled northward following along the same route Douglass had taken, exiting Philadelphia by ferry to Camden, then by steamship to New York.  It was as if his dead friend had followed his trail.  Indeed, judging from Frederick Douglass’ many retrospective speeches and written reflections about John Brown, the Old Man never stopped following him.—LD

This episode is based on a presentation that Lou made at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on Dec. 2, 2009 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Harper's Raid and John Brown's execution.


1 See Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 35-36.

2 John Brown to Mary Brown, Nov. 10, 1859, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

3 “I have heard Gen. Tyndale say that his insistence on seeing the body brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the affair.” Justice James T. Mitchell to Oswald G. Villard, Nov. 27, 1907, in J.B. Funeral & Burial Folder, Box 3, John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library, New York.

4 See my narrative of John Brown’s execution and aftermath in Freedom’s Dawn

5 Sources for this section: William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 763; “Execution of John Brown; The Feeling in Philadelphia; Intense Meeting at National Hall,” Philadelphia Press, Dec. 3, 1859, 2; “John Brown’s Execution,” Republican Compiler [Gettysburg], Dec. 12, 1859, 1. Also see “Grand Union Mass Meeting at Jayne’s Hall,” Philadelphia Press, Dec. 8, 1859, 2.

6 See Russell F. Weigly, “‘A Peaceful City’: Public Order in Philadelphia from Consolidation Through the Civil War,” in Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, Eds., The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower Class Life 1790-1940 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 158-60.

7 On the so-called “Union Meetings” in opposition to John Brown, see Freedom’s Dawn, 341-49.

8 Still, The Underground Railroad, 735; W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown (1909; New York: Modern Library, 2001), 147; Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1910, 1929), 323. 

9 Freedom’s Dawn, 25-30.

10 Sources for this section: William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), 1996; Franklin B. Sanborn, Recollections of Seventy Years, Vol. 1 (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1909), 153-54; Autobiography of Dr. William Henry Johnson (Albany, N.Y.: The Argus Company, 1900), 194-96.

11 Sources for this section: “The Arrival of John Brown’s Remains” and “The Doings of Pickpockets,”  Philadelphia Press, Dec. 5, 1859, 2; Russell F. Weigly, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865,” in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 389-90; Henry J. Kilbourn, “When John Brown’s Body Came Home: Events That Hastened the Civil War,” The Congregational World (ca. 1905), in J.B. Funeral & Burial folder, Box 3, Villard Papers, Columbia University Library; Weigly, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865”; Rebecca Hemphill to Oswald G. Villard, Feb. 26, 1908, in J.B. Funeral & Burial folder, Box 3, Villard Papers; John McLaughlin, A Memoir of Hector Tyndale (Philadelphia: Private Printing, 1881), 7-9, 118; Villard, John Brown, 561; Still, The Underground Railroad, 763. 

12 David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 305-06.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Pottawatomie, 1856: The Political and Personal


Thanks to the misinformation and harping of writers who actually know very little about Brown, he is all-too-often remembered first and foremost as the man who led the Pottawatomie killings—massacre, as they call it--in the Kansas territory, which took place overnight on May 24-25, 1856. The story of the killings of five pro-slavery Southern settlers has been recounted ad nauseam and often in an unbalanced and even distorted fashion—always to John Brown’s disadvantage. In these narratives, the men who were killed by Brown and his party are typically presented as having been guilty of nothing more than holding proslavery sympathies. In some narratives, they are “innocent victims.” In other narratives, they are portrayed as having been almost randomly chosen as targets of Brown’s alleged vendetta strike against proslavery people.  We have heard it and seen it time and again: they say John Brown is the original “American terrorist”—as if terrorism in this nation originated in 1856, rather than in the violent and intentional acts of racist aggression unleashed by whites upon indigenous and African people in North America.  As the legal historian Paul Finkelman has observed, no, John Brown was not a terrorist.  John Brown did not fight against human freedom. He fought people who were trying to deny democratic and human rights.  I prefer to put it this way. John Brown was not a terrorist.  He was a counter-terrorist.

In the frequently distorted Pottawatomie scenario, the five men killed—William Sherman, Allen Wilkinson, James Doyle and his sons William and Drury—are victims virtually above reproach, while John Brown and his men are adjudged as murderers and terrorists.  Often, too, narrators speak of the Pottawatomie killings as if Brown did them all alone, and that his men were held under some sort of spell. In fact, every one of the Pottawatomie killers joined in this mission because they understood what was at stake. In fact, this flattened, sterile reading of the Pottawatomie killings cannot be presented without (1) misrepresenting the real facts of the incident; (2) ignoring the historical-political context; and (3) overlooking the moral and political "big picture" as it existed in 1856. 

The Real Facts

First, the real facts of the Pottawatomie episode are that Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles were not mere “victims,” nor were they killed because they were proslavery men, or because they were Southerners. While John Brown did not agree with proslavery settlers in Kansas, he interacted with them peacefully from late 1855 when he arrived in Kansas, until the heated circumstances of the spring 1856, when proslavery terrorism began to mount its bold assault upon free state people. Brown had regularly traded with pro-slavery Missourians and co-existed with proslavery settlers because, first, he was first a peaceful man, not someone with a “unslakable thirst for violence”, like one biased, Lincoln-worshipping academic has put it. Second, Brown wanted the democratic process to play out—the voting of settlers that was supposed to determine whether Kansas entered the Union as a free or slavery state.  Third, Brown and his sons would have abandoned Kansas had it been won by a majority proslavery vote, although in fact the superior number of settlers were free state. The question for Brown seems never to have been if the free state side was going to triumph in the democratic process, but whether the South would acquiesce to a free state victory at the polls, of if they were going to attempt to thwart it by illegal means.

Unfortunately, most popular narratives of Brown’s role in Kansas virtually begin with May 1856 and the Pottawatomie killings. But Brown had been in Kansas since the fall of the previous year and his correspondence is filled with optimistic expressions that Kansas would enter the union through the democratic process without interference by proslavery thugs.  It was only when things took a turn for the worst that Brown took up arms. The idea that he was looking for an excuse to kill proslavery people is patently incorrect, not only in terms of the record, but in terms of his own biographical profile overall.

Of course, it is true that Brown went to Kansas with weapons in late 1855; but he did so only because he was asked to do so by his sons, who had settled in the territory the year before, and were worried about the possibility of a worsened political scenario. From his arrival, Brown monitored political matters in the Territory and over six months of residence in Kansas, he never lifted a finger to oppose, threaten, or harm a pro-slavery person. 

So if the “Pottawatomie Five” were not killed because they were proslavery men, why were they killed? Well, simply put, the men who were targeted by John Brown and his party were part of a circle of Kansas territorial settlers who were actively engaged in conspiring to assist and support the overthrow of the democratic process in the territory by any means necessary.  Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles were local allies of invading proslavery so-called "Ruffians" (that is, domestic terrorists) who began to invade the territory in the spring of 1856 with the clear intention of using violence and intimidation to seize power from the majority free state settlers. These terrorists were particularly hostile toward pro-black abolitionists like the Browns.  In their eyes, it was bad enough that Northerners did not want slavery in Kansas; it was far worse when some of those settlers were outright abolitionists who did not hesitate to declare their belief in black equality.  To no surprise, it did not take long for the Browns to become distinguished in the eyes of their proslavery neighbors like the Sherman brothers and Allen Wilkinson, who was a proslavery political leader in Kansas.

While some of the “Pottawatomie Five” were low-life types, this was not the reason they were killed. Nor was the fact that the Doyles had formerly been slave hunters in the South the reason for their being targeted. Rather, the basis of all of these men having been taken from their homes at night and killed was that they were discovered through reliable sources to have been conspirators and collaborators with invading terrorists, or “hordes,” as Brown referred to them. Specifically, John Brown had been given good information that these men were connected with locally encamped invaders, and that these terrorists would be directed against the Browns by the likes of the Doyles, especially because of their pronounced antislavery and pro-black position. According to Brown family testimony, John Brown went so far as to conduct an investigation himself to make certain of the conduct and intention of his proslavery neighbors. When he was certain of their intentions to lead an attack upon his family, there was no doubt left in his mind that waiting passively would only give them the time and opportunity they needed to bring destruction upon his family. 

It is important to stress that the typical free state person was not an abolitionist who believed in black equality.  Most of the free state settlers in Kansas really were pro-free white labor, not pro-black. Many of them did not want a black presence in Kansas, which was a point of contention for the Browns. To put it another way, many free state settlers from the North were conservatives. Like the moderate Abraham Lincoln, they wanted the nation to be a white-first nation; blacks should be free, but priority and prerogative should be given to white people.  

At best, Brown thought this position was half-right because it was antislavery. But he was a “radical abolitionist,” not because he picked up a gun but because he demanded immediate emancipation, preached the equality of all people, and believed black people had as much right to use violence to win their liberation as did the founders of the United States. In Kansas, this made the Browns a minority among free state settlers. One should also remember that when Brown went to Kansas, he was already deeply connected with the leaders of the black liberation movement. Frederick Douglass was sipping tea in the Brown homestead over a decade before he was ever invited to Lincoln’s White House. The Browns read black newspapers, entertained black guests in their homes, and hosted a number of major black leaders before they ever thought about going to Kansas. Such openness was not typical of free state people, and the Browns were quite outspoken and even defiant in upholding their social and political views regarding the equality and empowerment of blacks. This is a key factor in understanding the political background to what happened at Pottawatomie Creek—and what might have happened had the Browns not struck first. 

The Historical-Political Context

As to the historical-political context, this is another reality that is typically overlooked when John Brown's alleged "terrorism" is discussed in popular commentaries and on TV documentaries. First, we must remember that by May 1856, a de facto civil war was already underway in the Kansas territory. Although there was no formal political division of the United States until secession in 1861, there was actual political division manifested in the Kansas territory in 1856. At that time, it was the free state side that was grappling with the federal government, which was dominated by proslavery interests. Later, in 1861, it was the proslavery side that was struggling against the federal government, which was then under the control of the Republicans, who wanted to delimit—but not abolish—slavery. Unlike John Brown and a small number of abolitionists, in 1856 much of the North was still enamored with the idea of political compromise with the South. Many free state settlers were extremely conservative and expected the federal government to handle Kansas affairs in a democratic fashion; as to defending themselves, they were timid and hesitant. 

It’s no small matter that Kansas in 1856 was a territory, not a state in the union. Given that the Kansas territorial war was technically outside of the United States, the distance, in terms of geography and information was exploited by proslavery forces. In other words, because the Kansas territory was literally on the frontier, on the “outside” of the political United States, proslavery terrorism targeting a largely benign and unprepared majority of free state settlers met no initial resistance. 

In his correspondence, John Brown’s letters reflect the "outside" reality of the Kansas territory. For instance, in a letter to his wife dated January 9, 1856, he wrote: "We get no News from the States of account to satisfy our hunger which is very great"; and again on March 6, 1856, he wrote: "It seems that those of our friends who write us, take it for granted that we know of all that happens in the United States." Free state and proslavery settlers alike shared the experience of being removed from the nation in a manner that had practical and political implications. 

Certainly, there was a deficiency in information and communication that separated free state people from the United States. Interruption of and/or tampering with the mail and news reporting initially enabled proslavery interests to work behind a veil of political ignorance and naivete in the free states of the union. With the support of proslavery interests in Washington D.C., the initial siege of the territory by proslavery thugs, including the first attempt to seize the town of Lawrence, a free state center, could be carried out to a significant degree because it was “outside” and away from the ready sight of the free states. 

To no surprise, the record of Kansas territorial governors in this period reflects the power of pro-slavery interests and the relative impotency of free state interests. Indeed, what passed for "law and order" in the Kansas territory was pro-slavery domination at best. At worst, there was such a fragmenting of the rule of law that neither peaceful proslavery nor peaceful free state settlers were safe, a point later made by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1860. To put it plainly, the idea that John Brown was acting as a vigilante is an unstudied presumption that suggests he had recourse to legal protection. A vigilante is one who takes the law into his own hands. But in territorial Kansas in May 1856, the law was under the boot of proslavery thugs and the Browns had recourse neither to federal protection nor local to constabulary support. They knew that if they did not take action for themselves, they could not look to the government to protect them.

Free state settlers (who were in the majority) went to Kansas without the means of war, being fully confident in the just oversight of the federal government regarding the democratic process. As it turned out the most definitive presence in Kansas was that of the so-called Border Ruffians—armed domestic terrorists from Missouri, as well as other proslavery thugs streaming into the territory from the South. As free state settlement increased, so did violent and aggressive proslavery forces, and this came to a head in the spring of 1856. 

Meanwhile, federal and territorial officials failed to insure the civil rights and democratic freedoms of settlers, especially free state people. Brown had brought guns and swords to Kansas, but he never would have broken them out of the crate had the threat of terrorism not begun to explode after the spring thaw. The notion that he is somehow the prototypical “domestic terrorist” is pure nonsense. If prototypes of domestic terrorism are to be found in the Kansas story, they are found in “Border Ruffians” from Missouri and proslavery “hordes” from the Deep South, some of which carried banners proclaiming, “The Supremacy of the White Race.” These thugs were threatening free state people before John Brown arrived in the territory and they killed five free state men in different instances all before the Pottawatomie incident took place. Certainly, the conspiracy and malicious intentions of proslavery invaders constitutes the real prototype of domestic terrorism in the Kansas story. That John Brown should be labeled a terrorist for making a preemptive strike against men aligned with terrorists simply has no basis.

The Big Picture

Brown’s lethal response to the plotting and conspiracy of pro-slavery collaborators in his vicinity must be viewed against the backdrop of free state settlement and proslavery expansion, which is a vital part of the “big picture.” 

As noted, the free state settler movement was politically conservative at first, somewhat passive, and apparently naïve regarding the intentions of the federal government and the power of proslavery interests. Since the free state movement was fundamentally conservative, free state leaders and settlers in the territory were not initially willing to use a militant response to proslavery intrusion. Free state settlers were not political radicals, and some were compromisers—take for instance, the Pennsylvania publisher, George Washington Brown—or G.W. Brown—(he was no relation to John Brown), who published two versions of his newspaper in Kansas, one to send back east, and one to shield himself from proslavery contempt. True enough, free state settlers expressed a political opposition to the expansion of slavery; but they were willing to tolerate slavery in the South as long as it did not expand, and as long as it did not come into Kansas. 

Now, in contrast, pro-slavery leaders were about the business of expansion. The introduction of “Popular Sovereignty,” as it was called, gave proslavery politicians a basis to further their interests in the expanding nation. Indeed, proslavery leaders would not vote for a transcontinental railroad unless the government included proslavery options into the opening of new territories, including Kansas and Nebraska  (in 1854). Actually, proslavery interests were determined to expand slavery by any means necessary, but were willing to go along with the democratic process as long as it worked in their favor.  This is why, when Lincoln was elected in 1860, proslavery leaders were quick to move toward secession. It was not slavery that was at stake for them; it was the expansion of slavery.

John Brown was a careful student of proslavery politics and he believed that the South was not going to relent without militancy, an insight that was proven correct in history. In the 1850s, he believed that pro-slavery interests were exploiting federal resources and quietly planning to break out of the union if they were not successful in expanding slavery westward. He further understood that Kansas was a watershed in the destiny of the nation as far as slavery was concerned. Journalist William A. Phillips recounted a conversation with Brown in early 1859, when the Old Man, in Kansas, told him that civil war was on the minds of some of President Buchanan’s cabinet members; and that “for years” the military’s resources had been manipulated and maneuvered to the advantage of the South; and that other proslavery officials in the military and administration were preparing to ravage the federal government’s resources in the event of secession. Phillips was skeptical of Brown’s gloom-and-doom reading of antebellum intentions at the time, but he recorded Brown’s prophecy: 

“No, the war [in Kansas] is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth.*  

Although Phillips recounted these words in an 1879 recollection published in The Atlantic Monthly, we have no reason to doubt the fundamental integrity of his reminiscence. Brown had corresponded with him and Phillips had interviewed Brown three times, this last statement being made in early 1859, the year of the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Furthermore, Brown’s remarks as recalled by Phillips are consistent with his letters and other recorded words. It is clear that he understood the significance of the territorial civil war in Kansas, especially the fact that it was only an opening skirmish in what he believed would become an unprecedented tragedy in the young nation’s history. Beyond this, he seems to have alluded to Pottawatomie as the jumping-off point of his own militancy: He drew his sword, he said, in what he perceived as an attack upon himself and his family in conjunction with the larger free state presence. 

By pointing, too, out the lack of understanding among what Brown referred to as “the best of our people,” he was criticizing the politically conservative and ill-prepared leaders of the North who were so caught up in political business-as-usual that they did not see the naked reality of the proslavery power. Not perceiving proslavery leaders as actual enemies, Northern conservatives and moderates persisted in the belief that the South could be placated and bartered into cooperation with the North. Meanwhile, the South was playing a political zero-sum game, quietly making provision for secession and war. 

John Brown knew well that pro-slavery interests were fundamentally violent and hostile to both democracy and human rights. But in the Kansas territory he also had to contend with a large segment of free state people who were, in his own words, “besotted”—muddled and stupefied by their own belief that somehow the nation could find a solution by political compromise. By settling in Kansas, many free state people were not only establishing new lives and expanding the white frontier, but they were hoping to bring Kansas into the union as a free state based upon the assumption that the South would actually cooperate if defeated at the ballot box. Not only were they entirely unrealistic about prospects of “Popular Sovereignty,” they were reactionary and critical of the more militant voices on the free state side, voices like that of John Brown. Indeed, not a few free state leaders were unwilling to use force and were quite critical of any talk of militancy in the face of proslavery aggression. This non-militancy among the free state settlers not only accounts for the 1856 sacking of Lawrence, but probably also the ruthless assault on Lawrence that took place again during the Civil War. Had John Brown, or men like John Brown, been in charge of Lawrence, neither of these proslavery invasions would have taken place with such ease, and many proslavery thugs would have died in the process.

Of course, John Brown, ever the optimist, characterized the free state position as “half-right,” for he was happy to find agreement as to the exclusion of slavery from the new territory. However, he wanted Kansas to enter the union as a free state for whites and blacks to live together in equality. This was the family philosophy of the Browns, and their outspokenness in this regard even strained their relations with free state people. Needless to say, if the unabashed egalitarian views of John Brown’s family troubled free state allies, then their gospel of black equality was downright infuriating to proslavery settlers, including neighbors like the Doyles and Shermans. Indeed, the Browns’ reputation as lovers of black people was broadcasted by the Browns themselves, usually in a tone of defiance. And although he refused to follow his father in the case of the Pottawatomie killings, it’s interesting that meek John Brown Jr. himself attempted to liberate an slaved person by force in 1856, but was obligated by his free state colleagues to return the victim to his master, something that his father would never have done. 

In conclusion, it has often been claimed that it was the Pottawatomie killings that incited war in Kansas. This is a frank misrepresentation of the facts. Violence, terrorism, and warfare were the mainstay of proslavery thugs—armed men, who were themselves nurtured in a culture of violent repression of black people, who had no intention of losing Kansas to the free state side. 

The shelling and sacking of Lawrence in May 1856 was the natural result of proslavery politics in Kansas, although it has become a mainstay of historians to claim that Brown struck at Pottawatomie in retaliation for that invasion. But if there was an element of political retaliation in the Pottawatomie attack, this was not the reason for the killings. The motivation behind the Pottawatomie killings was preemptive. The Browns knew that the same forces that had attacked Lawrence were soon coming for them, and that their proslavery neighbors were going to help bring this about. Osawatomie, the burgeoning free state community closest to the Brown settlements was marked for assault whether or not Brown took action. But the Browns themselves were in the crosshairs of the Shermans and the Doyles and there is every reason to believe that had Brown not taken action, he and his sons and their families would have been either killed or driven from their settlements in May 1856. 

By striking first, Brown deprived the invading forces of assistance and derailed an attack, at least for the time being.  The proslavery attack on Osawatomie three months later was not a result of the Pottawatomie killings, but rather a regrouping of the proslavery faction’s original intention. It is ludicrous to argue that the attack on Osawatomie in August of 1856 would not have taken place if the Pottawatomie killings had not taken place in May 1856; rather, it is reasonable to conclude that Brown’s bold actions at Pottawatomie delayed that attack for three months in a political context where there was a clear lack of federal and local protection for free state people including especially the radical abolitionist Brown family.
As would be the case in 1861 for the entire nation, so matters in Kansas had to come to the climax of war in 1856 because proslavery interests were determined to have their way. Blaming “bleeding Kansas” on John Brown is no more valid than is crediting him with starting the Civil War by his actions at Harper’s Ferry. The reactionary, bellicose and determined proslavery faction were decidedly secessionist and were intolerant of anything less than getting their way. After losing Kansas territory to the Union, the most militant Southern leaders were tracking for secession and looking for any excuse to secede. But if Lincoln had lost the election of 1860, the South would not have seceded, regardless of the Harper’s Ferry revolt.  

In 1856, pro-slavery interests were advancing with determination into Kansas; they saw it as a first step toward achieving the territory they intended to take. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out what would have happened if proslavery terrorism had not been checked in the Kansas territory; nor did the Slave Power easily surrender. But after Brown was hanged and buried, even the most conservative people in Kansas probably wished that he were resurrected to face off against the likes of original American terrorists like Quantrill or “Bloody Bill” Anderson. 

The Personal

When John Brown and his men pulled the Pottawatomie Five from their cabins in the dead of night and hacked them to death with broadswords, their actions were terrible, bloody acts of a kind that would make anyone sick. There’s no way to beautify the Pottawatomie killings: but they are a reminder that the advance of evil can sometimes become so great that even good men are driven to extreme measures of violence in order to stop it. There is no basis to suggest that John Brown ever regretted the Pottawatomie killings, although he evaded association with the episode because he knew that politically na├»ve people, without real understanding of the reality of things in Kansas, would merely be horrified by the killing and miss the point that the Browns were facing dire circumstances and had to act or be targeted themselves.   Did John Brown and his men overreact? Was the Pottawatomie incident literally overkill? It might be easy to criticize Brown for the violence of the strike at Pottawatomie, but if one tries to step into his shoes, he had no idea of what would happen, and waiting may very well have given his enemies the advantage they needed, especially if the Doyles and others were involved in leading an army of terrorists to their doorstep. 

After the Harper’s Ferry raid, when the widow and mother of the slain Doyles wrote to Brown in his Virginia jail cell—partially to gloat and partially to express her sorrow—he evidently read her letter but said nothing. What could he have said? Had he not lost three sons himself in the war against slavery? The only difference between the two parents was that Brown grieved over sons slain in defense of human rights while Doyle’s husband and sons died as terrorists, or at least, as abettors of terrorism—caught in the snare of their own making. By her own words at the time, she had warned her husband about getting involved in “devilment.” 

Like any group of combat veterans, the Pottawatomie killers themselves had different feelings about the incident, although the prevailing attitude among them leaned in Brown’s direction.  The ill-fated Frederick Brown, who was murdered not long after the Pottawatomie affair, felt regret for his role.  But feeling badly about killing an enemy does not necessarily mean one feels he has done wrong.  In my first pastorate, I became quite close to an elderly leader in the congregation who had served in World War II and did his share of killing Germans. There were stories he could relate to me, like the time he jumped into a fox hole and saw a dead S.S. officer, standing before him, eyes open in a grim death stare. But there were other things that he would not talk about—the horrors of war and killing and death that stayed with him all of his life. According to the daughter of Henry Thompson, Brown’s faithful son-in-law and one of the Pottawatomie killers, Henry carried those killings with him all of his life. Yet he always defended the strike and John Brown he upheld as the noblest man he had ever known. Similarly, savagely slaying his Pottawatomie neighbors may have broken Owen Brown’s heart, but neither did he ever renege on the necessity of the bloody deed. None of them were coerced into the action of killing their neighbors, and Brown cast no spell on them as whimsically stated by Stephen Oates in his biography. All of the Pottawatomie killers followed John Brown’s lead because they understood what was at stake at that hour. In the early 1900s, when she was conducting interviews of Brown’s family for Oswald Villard’s biography, Katherine Mayo summed up Henry Thompson’s belief that the Pottawatomie killings were as “essential’ as they were “horrible.” 

Of course, any skeptic can argue that this hardly proves the Pottawatomie killings were right. My response to skeptics and headstrong devotees of the so-called “John Brown terrorist” school is then tell the whole story. Look at the political and social context of the Kansas territory and quit presenting the Pottawatomie incident in a vacuum. Don’t breeze over the fact that five free state men were murdered in the territory before Pottawatomie; don’t pass over the fact that throngs of armed southern thugs and terrorists were invading the territory with the intention of subverting the democratic process, even at the cost of murder and mayhem. Don’t overlook the fact that John Brown always conducted himself in a peaceful manner, that he advocated peaceful coexistence with proslavery people throughout the democratic process, and never took up arms until it was clear that free state rights were being trampled upon, and that proslavery invaders were threatening the lives of free state people.  Anyone who starts their commentary with the Pottawatomie killings with “terrorism” is clearly being selective and biased. As I have written in my first biography, the first question that one might ask, particularly knowing the character and conduct of John Brown up to 1856, is simply this: “What kind of circumstances would drive exceptionally moral and religious people like the Browns to such desperate measures?”

If we truly value freedom and oppose tyranny, then the Pottawatomie incident cannot be viewed as a case of domestic terrorism. To the contrary, the awful slaying of five men along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 must be viewed through the lens of political and historical realities. John Brown used blunt but measured force to excise a real threat; his actions were counter-terroristic, surgical, and specific to a particular case where all forms of law and justice had broken down, and where the power of thuggery and terrorism threatened to swallow up everything sacred to freedom. Furthermore, John Brown saw his own family personally overshadowed by such evil and so he struck first. He did not lift his sword to initiate terrorism, but to answer it. And he did so with finely honed steel. 

And evil men trembled. --LD

*William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879): 743-44.] 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

White Messiahs and Black Resentments: What About John Brown?

 This evening I re-watched a part of the highly fictional movie, "Emperor" (2020) including a particular dialogue that the screenplay writers presented for the Chambersburg quarry meeting between Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Shields Green. While the portrayal of Douglass by the wonderful actor Harry Lennix is far better than was the petulant prima dona version of Douglass portrayed by Daveed Diggs in SHOWTIME's "The Good Lord Bird," there is a similar ideological inclination in both stories. My sense is that this inclination reflects a certain contemporary black critique that really has no precedent in black history. Indeed, it is not in any sense the black viewpoint, since African Americans are not a monolith any more than any community. However, a certain view has become more commonly expressed and it has repeatedly found John Brown as a target.

To the point, in both "Emperor" and "The Good Lord Bird" television series, the charge of white privilege and/or the complaint of the "white savior syndrome" is associated with Brown's life and legacy. The gist of this charge is that John Brown, being a white man, gets more credit from black people than he should, since black heroes deserve more credit. Likewise, Brown's intentions were indicative of his "white privilege" and even paternalistic racism. It was easy for him, goes this view, to speak of invading the South. But couldn't he see the trouble he was causing to poor, enslaved black people, who would suffer the consequences of his bold plan?

I have already addressed the latter view as it has been espoused academically by Kay Wright Lewis in a chapter about John Brown in her book, A Curse Upon the Nation. (Read my response to Wright Lewis on this blog, "Did John Brown Really Make a Mistake?") However, resentment toward Brown along these lines clearly has it proponents in popular culture as well. Take for instance a 2017 piece published in The Atlanta Black Star written, presumably, by a black author named Gus T. Renegade.

In this piece, Renegade complains about black admiration of John Brown in an article entitled, "White Savior Syndrome: Even in Fight Against Racism, Black People Are Falling Victim to It" (May 21, 2017). In his screed, Renegade begins by criticizing the great admiration that the late Dick Gregory had often expressed for John Brown:
Dick Gregory and generations of Black people have been inundated with hymns and propaganda praising Brown or any white person who’s alleged to have lent a hand to end racism. Frequently, these helpful whites garner greater attention than the Harriet Tubmans, Nat Turners and thousands of Black counter-terrorists who invested their complete existence in Black liberation.
Renegade then points out how W.E.B. DuBois wrote a reverent biography of John Brown too, but concludes that DuBois really wanted to write a biography of Nat Turner but was prohibited by "whites" from doing so. But like the rest of his article, Renegade is half correct. In fact, DuBois wanted to write a biography of Frederick Douglass for a publisher's series but was prevented from doing because Booker T. Washington already expressed the desire to write it (and he did). His intentions being sunk by a black leader, DuBois then proposed that he write about Nat Turner, and here was refused by the publisher's white editor. Still, the fact that DuBois's third choice was to write about John Brown somewhat undermines Renegade's point. Black people have always prioritized their own leaders and leadership, including DuBois.

Renegade's insistence that black people have been "inundated" with propaganda for generations in terms of white saviors has truth to it for sure. But the only real white savior that was propagandized by whites for blacks was Abraham Lincoln, and often the same white people who advanced Lincoln have been intent on demeaning John Brown. Renegade is ignorant of this history, and ignorance clearly is the father of prejudice in Renegade's case. In fact, Dick Gregory and other older black people were not propagandized by whites into admiring Brown and allegedly putting him above black heroes.

If Renegade were not driven more by petty jealous than by history, he would have realized that it was black people who held forth on behalf of Brown from the beginning. If an appreciation of John Brown is propaganda, then black people were themselves the propagandists, not the targets of it. Renegade picks his facts like cherries from a tree or else he would have known better. For generations it has been African American activists, authors, artists, and historians who have consistently upheld John Brown--even in the face of the Lincoln propaganda that constantly came forth from white society.

Renegade then goes on to write that the "orchestrated and disproportionate focus on the handful of John Browns is designed to promote Black glorification of and immense gratitude for “good white people.” His ham-handed treatment of history allows him to slop Brown into the same category with 20th century white liberal civil rights activists and even the tragic Georgia politician, Tom Watson, who started as a liberal and ended an enemy of black people in the late 19th century.

To top off his work, Renegade then cites the notable white anti-racist, Jane Elliott, who contends that what she does as an activist does not take courage, even though she’s been "assaulted and her life and the lives of her children threatened." According to Renegade, Elliott says that it takes more courage for black people "to rise daily to endure and oppose racial terrorism."

Jane Elliott, A Heroic
Anti-racist Activist 
Elliott is an admirable woman, but her point is principial not literal. Elliott may deny that that it takes courage to stand against white racists, but I'd suggest her point is made in humility and with the intention of not allowing herself to be praised to the exclusion of the principle she represents, which is to confront and challenge whites for their racism. If Elliott says that she's been attacked and threatened along with her family, then she must be, humanly speaking, a courageous woman to continue doing what she does everyday. John Brown would make essentially the same point, but that does not mean that his life did not require courage. One might go further and ask if Elliott is actually less courageous than every black individual in the United States because she is a so-called white.

In principle, as Renegade seems to miss, Jane Elliott's single life as an activist cannot compare to the vast experience of oppression and assault at every level that the black community faces daily, even hourly, as well as systemically. Of course, no single white activist's suffering can compare, which is Elliott's point. But it is ridiculous to deny that she is not courageous, and it is petty and stupid on Gus T. Renegade's part to deny her that salutation, just as it is petty and stupid for him to suggest that any admiring word for John Brown by black people is the result of propaganda.

Renegade's "White Savior" article is thus a kind of slop that has blended truth with bitterness, prejudice, and even a kind of jealousy. In fact, this is really Renegade's bottom line: apparently he is of that stripe that doesn't want any white person--not even John Brown--credited by black people for fear that black heroes will be shortchanged. This speaks to a selfish soul, not a point of justice.

Of course, on one level, one cannot blame Renegade as a black man for resenting how whites will typically turn any opportunity into a means of patting themselves on the back and alleviating their guilt at black people's expense. Malcolm X did not publicly praise John Brown for this reason; but he never demeaned him either; instead he passively saluted him by insinuating that Brown was the only white man who might be able to join his organization. This was the sentiment of other strident black critics like James Baldwin and John Oliver Killens in the 1960s and '70s. But you never read Baldwin or Killens or any other intelligent black "radical" diminishing John Brown. When they do, it suggests either a streak of petty jealousy and prejudice--or perhaps senility.

Some years ago, I was invited to attend the reading of a play about John Brown's black Harper's Ferry raiders that was beautifully performed at the Audubon Ballroom in upper Manhattan. After the reading, I was invited to participate as a panelist in talking about John Brown and his black raiders. Toward the end of the discussion, Amiri Baraka, the late great poet and author, who was seated on the front row, suddenly spoke up. I do not remember precisely what Baraka said, but the gist of his words was the complaint that John Brown gets too much attention, and that more attention should be paid to Frederick Douglass.

The late great Amiri Baraka
Now, I must admit that I was put off. Despite my admiration for Baraka's literary legacy, I was frankly appalled at how petty he sounded. Was he even serious that John Brown got more acknowledgment than Frederick Douglass? The truth is that Douglass has been far more celebrated and memorialized than John Brown ever has been. Unlike Brown, Douglass was mainstreamed, even during his life; after his death, Douglass has had no anti-literary tradition. His stature has only grown more monumental over the generations (and rightly so). Indeed, Douglass's political and personal foibles and flaws are fairly well covered and excused by historians.

To the contrary, John Brown is not mainstreamed, and his legacy has been constantly criticized and attacked since the late 19th century. Brown's imperfections have been exaggerated to the point of monstrosity, and the considerations granted to war heroes and other national figures, no matter how racist, is never extended to John Brown. Douglass is remembered in grand biographies, statuary, and so forth across the country. Where I live in Manhattan, there are two statues of Frederick Douglass within a mile of my apartment, including a beautiful circle with his words in illuminated stone, a housing project bearing his name, and a subway station decorated with a lovely montage in his honor. Douglass is the most celebrated black man in the history of the United States, and it is striking to me that Amiri Baraka would make such a jealous and unfair complaint to John Brown's disadvantage, especially since Brown has considerably fewer allies and cultural lobbyists than Douglass. Perhaps it was Baraka's advanced age, or his fatigue at living in a racist society. But he was as wrong on the point as he was unfair, just as Gus T. Renegade of The Atlanta Black Star is wrong and unfair.

Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi) and Frederick 
Douglass (Harry Lennix) from the "Emperor"
Obviously, these individual black critics are as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else, just as they are as likely to engage in revision that reflects contemporary readings and reflexes. This must be particularly true in an era when Trumpism has given overt permission to white society to vomit up its worst bigotries once more without shame.

Still, the historical question is worth stating.

The fact is that nowhere in the historical record does Frederick Douglass or any other black contemporary of John Brown throw up white privilege in his face, or use it as a way of marginalizing his legacy from the narrative of liberation as we see it done in both "Emperor" and "The Good Lord Bird" television series (I cannot address McBride's book in this regard, as I have not read it and probably never will read it.)

In the unsuccessful movie, "Emperor," the marginalization of Brown is vivid and layered: While the movie is Shields Green's ostensible story (it is 95% fiction and very unfaithful to the little that we do know about Emperor), John Brown is treated as a kind of co-star in "Emperor." In the movie, Brown wants Emperor to "be the spark" of the liberation movement, which was not the case. If Brown wanted anyone to be a spark in his movement, it was Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, and neither of them supported him in the hour of crisis.

Shields Green (Quentin Plair), Frederick Douglass (Daveed
Diggs), and John Brown (Ethan Hawke) in SHOWTIME's
"The Good Lord Bird"
In the movie, Emperor rides side-by-side with Brown, calls him "John" (something that none of his men would have done). In shabby Harper's Ferry "raid" scene, the movie makes Shields Green into an almost de facto leader. This may simply be the writer's means of centering Emperor as the hero, but it effectively diminishes Brown's leadership. Even in the movie's end credits, the closing text lists Shields Green "and John Brown." However, Green was never a co-leader, let alone a leader among the raiders. He was a brave soldier and fighter, and while he had his own agenda and ideological purpose for following Brown, Shields Green was following Brown just like the other raiders, white and black.

I should add that I am well aware that historically, at least in books about the Harper's Ferry raid, more attention has been paid to Brown than to his men. I have just published my own book about the real Shields Green, and this point is made quite clear. It is important that all of Brown's men receive historical attention, both the black and white raiders, because they were all noble men who paid the ultimate price for freedom. Still, we do not correct historical errors by fabrications and distortions of history.

As I've said, in "Emperor," the attitude that Lennix's Douglass shows to James Cromwell's Brown in the quarry meeting is completely foreign to the real Frederick Douglass' memoir--and Douglass repeatedly recounted his differences over strategy with Brown in later years. The notion that he would so boldly impute a careless disregard of black lives to John Brown is without basis and is quite unthinkable given all that Douglass has written about John Brown. This resentment of Brown is not historical at all: it is a contemporary prejudice among certain black artists and writers, and it is historically unfair, and to some degree even perfidious.
First, it is unfair because every black person on record, leader or otherwise who knew John Brown, also knew that he willingly sabotaged his own white privilege in order to oppose slavery. Brown was not a self-elevated white liberal who was exploiting black lives. He gave three sons to the cause and then happily died for it himself. He asked nothing of any man that he was not more than willing to give himself. To be sure, John Brown was not perfect, and there is room to criticize him for his strategic errors at Harper's Ferry as does the black raider Osborne Anderson in his 1860 classic, A Voice from Harper's Ferry. But even Anderson did not strike such a low blow.
Secondly, Brown was well aware of the consequences that blacks faced for participating in any kind of liberation movement. He was not indifferent to those consequences, but he believed that it was better for black people to suffer the consequences of rebelling against oppression than to continue to remain oppressed. I do not see how this makes him a paternalistic racist as the historian Kay Wright Lewis seems to think.

My own sense is that Wright Lewis and other black artists and journalists who call Brown's sense of racial parity into question are playing at the historical version of the "Monday morning quarterback," and that they are doing so from a critique that is more about the 21st century than it is about 1859.

John Brown believed that any human being who was not willing to live and die for liberation and justice was not worth his or her life, period. His standard was simply that oppressed people themselves ought to prefer to fight and suffer for freedom rather than remain oppressed. He was aware that there were consequences, but he believed that such consequences should be faced if liberation was going to be attained.

Furthermore, Brown was both encouraged and energized in this opinion by listening to the more militant black voices of his generation, especially men like Henry Highland Garnet and Jermain Loguen, whom he admired greatly. Unlike Douglass, who had to wean himself off of breast of Garrisonian pacifism, other black leaders held forth the same view that influenced John Brown in his own militancy. So, to suggest that Brown was functioning primarily from a paternalistic or racist orientation is quite unfair and not substantiated from the record. To diminish his work on the basis of his access to "white privilege" is a peculiar rebuff.

Of course, John Brown had white privilege. But he used it to oppose slavery and racism, and he took up arms when even comfortably situated black men like Frederick Douglass balked.
From the late 1850s, this was the reason that many in the black community viewed John Brown as their foremost ally, and why black people have floated some admiration for Brown ever since then--until now, that is. For contemporary black voices to diminish Brown on the basis of "the white savior syndrome" is really indicative of a contemporary misapprehension. On one hand, if John Brown had not taken up arms or made an attempt in Virginia, he could be easily dismissed as yet another "talk-only" white liberal as were so many in his day. Yet, on the other hand, because Brown dared to take up arms and invade the South, he is then criticized as a "white savior," or as someone who devalued the life of black people and placed them in jeopardy.

It is hard not to believe that underlying this kind of thinking is just plain old prejudice and a small-hearted kind of jealousy on the part of the black people espousing it. I am hesitant to write these things because it may offend some people, but it should be said nonetheless. Some people are so jealous and prejudiced that they find it much easier to be resentful than to listen to the narrative that their own ancestors and heroes wrote for them.

In all of this, I am reminded finally of a certain parable of Christ, about a musician who complained about the fickleness of his audience: "We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn." I wonder what kind of ally these black critics would want in the retrospect of history--one who made speeches and preached sermons, or one who gave all that he had, and even in failing gave his life for the cause of justice? It seems a kind of malignant absurdity that it has come to this. Those who will not either dance or mourn are themselves an unpleasant lot. Perhaps they do not deserve allies after all.