A friend of this blog has kindly made me aware of an article about John Brown in Kansas that currently is featured on a website, electoral-vote.com, referred to by its proprietors as Electoral Vote Predictor. Its proprietors claim to present a unique state-by-state tracking of polls. They also claim that electoral-vote.com enjoyed immense popularity in 2004, when it was allegedly one of the top 1000 websites in the world. However, it appears to have declined in prominence in subsequent elections.
Electoral-vote.com includes article features, with a link to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, and also features written by their own “front page authors,” Andrew Tanenbaum, a.k.a. "The Votemaster," and Christopher Bates, a.k.a. "Zenger." One of these two, apparently Bates, has published a piece entitled, "The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part VI: The Raid on Harpers Ferry (1859)." It is not exaggerating to say that this is one of the worst, most ill-informed and historically false profiles of John Brown that I have ever seen. I assume this atrocious effort is the work of Christopher Bates because it is concluded with "(Z)." Bates' use of "Zenger" apparently is an homage to John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), a German-born printer and journalist in colonial New York who has come to represent freedom of the press in historical memory. However, I doubt that Zenger himself would approve of this abusive and flawed representation of John Brown by Mr. Bates. Indeed, his work is so flawed that I've had to break down his many errors, being as brief as possible.
1. Brown was not "raised in Connecticut." He left Connecticut at age five and was raised in Ohio's Western Reserve.
2. "John Brown was a comically inept businessman, with at least two dozen failed business concerns over the years." This sounds like Bates has been reading the screed of that late fool Otto Scott. Regardless, this statement is ludicrous. Brown was a skilled worker and nationally recognized expert in fine sheep and wool in the 1840s. He is even written up in agricultural journals at the time as an expert. Of course, Brown did have failings in business among many others who relied on credit in a time of national economic insecurity but this was in a time of national economic downturn. He was not the only one who had business failures, and he had no safety nets or backups available today. This whole thing of Brown being a bad businessman is just overdone.
3."On the other hand, he had 20 children, so he wasn't incompetent at everything." This is just a stupid, sarcastic remark. Brown was widowed and remarried, and about half of his twenty children did not live to adulthood. Large families and childhood mortality were common in agrarian society in the 19th century.
4. "He was fanatically religious." Brown was not considered a religious fanatic by any of his contemporaries, and actually many people in his time took their religion far more seriously than secular people today. This charge is baseless and biased, and frankly it is just another straw man charge that has been commonly used against Brown by ignorant writers.
5. Yes, Brown "became persuaded that God wanted him to smash the institution of slavery," but Brown had no idea of undermining slavery "Old Testament style," as Bates says. Now, this is just stupid. Yes, Brown believed he had a vocational "call" to oppose slavery. Again, the idea of vocation or calling is not unusual in a religious context. However, that Brown wanted to undermine slavery in some "Old Testament style" is just silly. Again, Bates' writing reflect theological and religious ignorance prevalent among secular writers, who think they can throw these terms around and get away with it because so many of their readers are as ignorant of these things as they are.
6. "He even grew a beard, eventually, specifically so that he would look more like Moses." No, Mr. Bates. Brown grew his beard to disguise himself, and probably because he had suffered from Bell's Palsy, and so it had was cosmetic improvement. This has no historical warrant, and Bates is just engaging in creative writing and lying about it being history.
Of course, Bates presents no historical background and no evidence, and leaps immediately to the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856. His claims are idiotic. For instance, he says that because there were no guns in the Old Testament, Brown only used swords to kill his enemies. In fact, the swords were used to minimize drawing opponents to the site of the attack. The Old Testament had nothing to do with it. Bates is just generating fiction.
Then he writes: "To Brown's chagrin, the attack on Pottawatomie did not bring an end to American slavery." What? To this, I can only respond that Bates is either stupid or he is a malign liar. Let me be clear: nowhere do even Brown's worst biographers suggest that he believed the killings would "bring an end to American slavery." For Bates to suggest that Brown was "chagrined" that killing five dangerous neighbors did not bring an end to slavery is the most absurd and baseless thing I've ever read. I pity the fools who read this article and take it for history.
This knave continues: "In fact, all [the Pottawatomie incident] did was make Bleeding Kansas even bloodier, as pro- and anti-slavery forces avenged Brown's attack, and then avenged that, and then avenged that. Another 29 people died in the month or so after Brown paid a visit to Kansas."
Bates is too ignorant and willfully biased against Brown to recognize that Kansas was already bleeding before Brown raised his hand. Five free state men were murdered prior to the Pottawatomie attack, and all the latter did was force the free state side to stop allowing the proslavery side wage a one-sided war of terrorism upon them. Yes, we should credit Brown with upping the stakes in "Bleeding Kansas," but that is a point of political realism, since the free state side was passive until Brown forced their hands to action. The proslavery presence in Kansas brought violence and was terroristic. The actions of Brown and others were counter-terroristic. It was the proslavery invaders who were trying to use violence to thwart the voting process, who not only killed free state men but tampered with ballots. This kind of terrorism had to be met with resistance and Brown and those who followed his example saved Kansas from falling to a minority of proslavery interlopers and thugs.
8. Harper's Ferry
Bates says that after Kansas "the abolitionist began to plan something much grander," meaning the raid on Harper's Ferry. Of course, this is just wrong. Brown had been looking at Virginia for decades, and he had planned on using western Virginia as a gateway into the South for a good many years. (One reliable source held at the Gilder-Lehrman Collection says Brown was talking about the Harper's Ferry area as far back as 1840.)
Bates writes: ". . . insurrection was definitely what Brown had in mind." No it was not. I've written extensively about this, and address it in my forthcoming book on Shields Green, but Brown was quite intentional about avoiding an insurrection because insurrection is servile war and is intended to wipe out slaveholders and their families. Brown had no such intentions and, in fact, went too far out of his way to avoid insurrectionary fears among the Virginians. This is one of the main reasons he lingered too long in Harper's Ferry and lost.
Bates writes: "Specifically, he planned to march his small army (23 people, including several of his sons, of course) into Harpers Ferry, seize the armaments there, and then to arm the local slave population so that they might rise up against their masters."
Bates is wrong again. The "small army" was twenty-one in number and not all of them went to Harper's Ferry. More importantly, Brown did NOT "seize the armaments there." The notion that Brown attacked Harper's Ferry to seize the armaments is one of the oldest and most stubborn errors that persists as history. Brown did not seize the Harper's Ferry weapons--he removed no weapons, brought no means of transporting them, and made it clear afterward that he had no interest in them. In fact, he posted two men at the arsenal, apparently to keep Virginians from accessing them. There is no evidence anywhere of arms having been removed. The notion of Brown taking the arms originated with Virginians and became a substantive part of Virginia's claims after the fact, but it had no basis. Brown repeatedly said he had superior guns (Sharps repeating rifles were superior to the breech-loading guns made at Harper's Ferry) and the weapons he intended to put into slave hands were his famous pikes. The whole issue with the armory goes even deeper, since the reason Brown targeted the armory was in response to an 1856 episode in which Southerners actually seized weapons from a federal arsenal in Missouri to use against free state men in Kansas. Brown did not do what the proslavery men had done; but he wanted to make a point because the Buchanan administration never prosecuted the Missouri violation.)
Bates concludes: "Unfortunately, the plan was—to use military parlance—'stupid.'" No, Mr. Bates. You are stupid. You don't know the history, don't know the issues, don't know the facts. The plan actually was feasible, although Brown made tactical errors, and it was his tactical errors that ruined him, not his strategy.
Bates: "Meanwhile, Brown's men were so skittish that the first person they killed was...a free black man, which is not exactly consistent with the goal of achieving racial justice." Again, Bates knows nothing. The free black man was killed because he repeatedly and stubbornly resisted the orders of Brown's men and finally tried to escape. His men were not "skittish." They warned Hayward Shepherd and the man simply did not comply; when he ran, he took a bullet as Brown's raiders had warned him he would.
Bates: "Although Team Brown did eventually capture the armory, they took far too long to take care of business. By the time the weapons were secured, a detachment of U.S. Marines, under the command of a brevet colonel named Robert E. Lee, had arrived on the scene."
This is almost entirely wrong. It is true that Brown delayed to the point of self-defeat. But "Team Brown" did not "eventually capture the armory." They captured both the town and the armory immediately upon arriving on Sunday night, October 16, 1859. Immediately.
Again, what does Bates mean that the "weapons were secured"? No weapons were even removed from the arsenal! What Brown was trying to "secure" was papers signed that allowed exchanges of hostages for slaves. This was a vain task and it was Brown's great blunder. But it was the arrival of too many local militia companies that hemmed Brown and his men in, not the marines. The marines arrived to finish the task, but Brown's delay had doomed him the afternoon before, Monday Oct. 17.
The rest of Bates' article is mostly worthless. He is so ignorant that he just fills in with his opinions and speculations, like much of the article.
For instance, he writes: "In the nineteenth century, the wheels of justice turned rather more quickly than they do today, as the government did not generally take time for pesky things like appeals." Brown's trial had nothing to do with "the wheels of justice" turning "rather more quickly." Brown was literally rushed to judgment by a court of slaveholders. Bates might read McGinty's John Brown's Trial, or my own, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia. In fact, the Virginians wanted to hang John Brown almost immediately, except his attorney was clever enough to point out that they had to postpone execution for at least one month, which is what happened. Had John Brown and his men been tried in federal courts (and they arguably should have been handed over to the federal government since they had captured a federal armory and were arrested by federal troops), there would have been ample appeals, delays, and probably no executions.
Christopher Bates just don't know what he's talking about because he's been taught by this society that writing about John Brown is partially about dealing in facts, and partially about dealing in fiction and opinion.
Bates concludes of the aftermath: "The immediate impact of the raid on Harpers Ferry was to militarize the South." Even here Bates is wrong. The South was already militarizing before Harper's Ferry. The South had been militarizing in the 1850s, and there was already a maturing movement among Southerners to secede. In fact, Osborne Anderson, in A Voice from Harper's Ferry, recalled that arms were supposed to have been moved from the armory prior to the raid--an action showing how Southern leaders were manipulating armaments and preparing for secession. Even John Brown was aware of the extent to which the South was preparing for war prior to 1859. Contrary to Bates, the South's militancy was not "new"; it was just now more widespread, thanks to the alarmist, reactionary way that proslavery leaders used the Harper's Ferry episode, instead of playing it down.
Bates tries to conclude with some reflection, but even here he is ham-handed:
"For well over a century, historians have debated the nature of John Brown. Was he a crazy old coot who just happened to blunder his way into a prominent place in the history books? Or was he crazy like a fox; a fellow who was willing to give his life in order to hasten the end of slavery, and who managed to do exactly that, launching the nation's descent into civil war? There have been many books on both sides of this question."
Yes, Mr. Bates, and you've probably read none of them. If you were sufficiently studied on the subject, you would know that the debate over Brown's sanity is an old, washed-out argument from the mid-20th century. Not a single John Brown biographer believes he was a "crazy old coot." In fact, no serious biographical consideration of Brown ever considered him "crazy." Nor did Brown "blunder" his way into the history books. Even if Brown had not attacked Harper's Ferry, he would still be remembered for his important role in Kansas as a free state leader. Brown blundered as we all do, but in the end he realized that the importance of his role could even allow his mistakes to work in the favor of the antislavery cause, which is why he went joyfully to the gallows. Brown understood that failing his own effort to destabilize slavery's operation, it would take bloody war to end it altogether.
John Brown was right. Unfortunately, as Christopher Bates shows us, many people would rather deal in half-truths, invention, and biased semi-historical narratives than to study the record and the John Brown who lived.-LD