Sunday, April 30, 2006

Oh, Lord, this is silly

I just quoted and praised Steve Gilliard for a couple of his recent posts on neo-Confederate nonsense.  But this post about Jesse James - really a post about the folk song "Jesse James" - is just plain silly:  Jesse James was no hero  04/30/06.  He says he's going to do another one with his own text; this one is a quote from Tom Watson at his blog Trouble in the Heartland 04/29/06.

Watson is complaining about the lyrics of the traditional folk song "Jesse James", which Bruce Springsteen includes on his new tribute album to Pete Seeger, who also sang and recorded the song:

History tells a different tale. Skip the heart - in history, Jesse James had a hand, and a gun, and a brain - that brain belonged to the lost cause of the Confederacy, to race hatred, and to revenge. And the gun belonged to American terrorism.

Since I just did a whole series of posts arguing that John Brown was justified in his violent actions against slavery and counts as a genuine American hero, even as a Founding Father of sorts for American democracy, I'm going to take it for granted that readers of Old Hickory's Weblog know my general attitude about the Confederacy and its present-day idolators.

So I've got to wonder, are these guys totally unfamiliar with American folk and country music?  Have they never heard of that sixties concept of the "anti-hero"?

It's true that the Jesse James of history was a Confederate guerrilla who took part in the murderous Quantrill raid on Lawrence, Kansas during the Civil War.  He was also a murdering bandit and gunman after the war.

But the legend of Jesse James, the thing that above all made him into a popular rebel symbol, is that he was seen as a Robin Hood type figure, robbing banks and trains and getting away with it at a time when banks and railroads were rolling roughshod over farmers and workers alike.  That's why there are folk songs about him.

This is a good, brief description of the Wild West outlaw legend, from "The Wild West" by B. Innes in The West: An Illustrated History  (1976), Henry Steel Commager, ed.:

The wagon team toiling through the rocky defile; the beautiful innocent girl, the penniless widow, and the dispossessed farmer; the lone crackshot outlaw, silhouetted against the sky; and the cloud of dust above the trail that signals the approach of the sheriff and his men - all this is familiar to anyone who has read a dime novel or seen a Western movie. Yet they would have been just as familiar six centuries ago in England. Make the year 1322, the outlaw Robin Hood, the place Sherwood Forest; let the sheriff ride out from Nottingham Town - and the story is unchanged.

The necessity to turn the outlaw into a mythical hero is born of certain well-defined social conditions. What motivation was it that could turn the near-moronic teenage killer William Bonney into the "devoted, gallant, generous" Billy the Kid? How could the treacherous and coldblooded railroad robber Dingus [Jesse] James grow into the Robin Hood of St Jo? Who found, in the drunken nymphomaniac Martha Jane Cannaray, the touching wide-eyed innocence of Calamity Jane? These myths can only grow in certain places and at certain times.

The Wild West is such a place and such a time. It begins with the conclusion of the Civil War and ends with the close of the western frontier - which coincides roughly with the close of the nineteenth century. It is peopled by alienated ex-Confederates at a loose end and ex-Union soldiers with a taste for adventure - and easy money. There are homesteaders in collision with railroad kings and cattle barons - and there are miners besotted with dreams of instant riches. And of course there are the men who recognized that the western myth was another sort of ore to mine.  (my emphasis)

Now, I'm not saying that anything dang fool thing that somebody labels as "folk music" deserves to be respected or performed.  But with popular music like anything else, we can use good sense to make judgments.  And the outlaw song is a tradition in American popular music, including a subset known as the "murder ballad".  To judge those as if they are ideological tracks is just silly.

To put this in some context, let's look at "Jesse James" a bit.  Yes, Pete Seeger recorded it.  Would somebody like to tell me that Pete Seeger promoted racism or segregation or neo-Confederate nonsnese?  It's laughable. 

Putting new words to old tunes is a popular music tradition, too.  Think Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" written to the tune of "John Brown's Body".  Woody Guthrie knew that practice well.  His most famous song, "This Land is Your Land", borrows heavily from the tune to the Carter Family song, "When the World's on Fire" composed by A.P. Carter.  And he borrowed the tune from "Jesse James" for his song "Jesus Christ", which has been recorded by U2 and Arlo Guthrie.  It casts Jesus in the outlaw-song image:

Now this song was written in New York City
By a rich man, a preacher and a slave
And if Jesus was to preach here what he preached in Gallilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave

Several leading country and pop singers did a themed album called The Legend of Jesse James, which featured Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash.  It includes one of Emmy's more haunting songs, "I Wish I Was Back in Missouri".  You're gonna tell me they were promoting neo-Confederate notions and supporting terrorism?  Please.

Maybelle and Sara Carter (of the Carter Family, as in June Carter Cash) also recorded a different song called "Jesse James" that also borrows from the melody that the Bruce Springsteen/Pete Seeger version uses:

He went down to the depot not many days ago
Something he never done before
He fell down upon his knees
And he handed up the keys
To the bank that he'd robbed the day before

Dear old Jesse, pore old Jesse
They laid Jesse James in his grave
Dear old Jesse, pore old Jesse
They laid Jesse James in his grave

Jesse was not the repenting-on-his-knees type, either.  But does that make the song sinful?

There's something weirdly literalist about this notion.  Why would someone think that a character portrayed in a song has to be taken as propaganda on the character's behalf, or as a defense of the person?  It's just kind of clueless.

Here's some other examples that come to mind along with some people who have performed them.  I could easilyexceed the single-post limit of 25,000 characters just listing ones like this.

"Tom Dooley" (it's a murder ballad, folks) - the Kingston Trio
"Pretty Boy Floyd" - Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie
"Caleb Meyer" - Gilian Welch
"Pancho and Lefty" - Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard
"John Walker's Blues" - Steve Earle
"Goodbye Earl" - the Dixie Chicks
"I Just Can't Let You Say Good-Bye - Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris
"Mama Tried" - Merle Haggard
"Folsom Prison Blues" - Johnny Cash
"Frankie and Johnnie" - Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard

Bruce Springsteen's new CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is excellent, by the way.  I recommend it highly.

The title comes from one of Pete Seeger's best known accomplishments.  His arrangement of the old Gospel hymn "We Will Overcome" became a popular labor song and was adopted by the civil rights movement.  Tell me once more how Pete Seeger was promoting neo-Confederate ideas by singing "Jesse James"?

Captain Picard is a socialist?

Who would have thought?

Actually, in Britain, "socialist" usually means a supporter of the Labour Party of Tony Blair.  But Patrick Stewart is no fan of Tony Blair's and Bush's Iraq War.  As he explains in Patrick Stewart: The X factor actor by Liz Hoggard Independent 04/30/06.

Stewart is also a life-long socialist. "I was moved along by a policeman during the first election after the Second World War for carrying a placard. I was six. My father was a very strong trade unionist and those fundamental issues of Labour were ingrained into me." He's a guest at Chequers, but no sycophant.

"I feel the war in Iraq was a mistake. I'm one of those who was convinced that we should have pursued, with the United Nations, the resolutions that were on the table further. I thought war was precipitate. I have not burned my Labour membership card, like one or two people I know, much as I respect their decision."

Politics has never been about fashion, he insists. "Everyone seems to be able to pass over the fact that there are poor people, it's a kind of concept that gets overlooked somehow, although maybe at times the Labour Party has been distracted," he says sternly.

He campaigns for Amnesty and worries about global warming. He's even a wet blanket about space travel. "I think that the unmanned space flights are absolutely thrilling," he says. "But when they start talking about manned flights to Mars, I do feel I would just rather see all of that money spent on our world's problems, which are massive." (my emphasis)

Coming from the commader of the Enterprise, that's a pretty strong statement.

A few years ago, I got to see Patrick Stewart in San Francisco do a reading from Moby Dick.  Since he played Captain Ahab in a TV-movie version of the story, it was like hearing a live reading from Ahab himself!

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 30: "John Brown was right"

John Brown's body is a hangin' by a rope
You can silence his voice, but you can't kill hope
The soldiers are tremblin' as they cut him down
They can still feel the spirit of old John Brown

- Si Kahn, "Old John Brown"
I've built this year's "Heritage" posts around the story of John Brown.  His life makes an amazing story in itself.  And it also served here as a way to talk about some of the issues and passions that led to the Civil War.
The "neo-Confederate" ideology is much more than a study of the Civil War.  The Christian Exodus fundamentalists may draw inspiration from the tales of the noble white heroes of the Lost Cause and the glorious days of slavery when the superiority of the white man was taken for granted.  But they also have more present-day goals; I almost said "more realistic", but I'm not sure that's true.  Goals like making John Calhoun's home state of South Carolina into a "Godly republic".
But the promotion of pseudohistory is also one of the goals and results of those who take a neo-Confederate view of American history.  And that viewpoint today, like every day since Lee's surrender at Appomatox, has been bound up with white supremicist, anti-democratic and authoritarian leanings.  Neo-Confederate ideology is a first cousin of Holocaust denial.  Both use a fradulent version of history to promote a poisonous ideology.
Brown's story, and the many ways in which he has been remembered, is both a fascinating and frustrating one that does not easily fit into comfortable or simple categories.  I agree (mostly) with the conclusion of Paul Finkelman in his introduction to the collection Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005):
When all is said and done, I side with those who see him as a hero of civil rights and a tireless advocate of racial equality. At a time when many whites, even some abolitionists, were uncomfortable in the presence of blacks, John Brownshared his meals with them and recruited them as soldiers in his army of liberation. While many antebellum whites doubted the equality of blacks or their innate abilities, Brown was willing to stake his life on the abilities of his black recruits to take orders, execute commands, and fight bravely. As the American nation spiraled toward civil war, Brown helped prepare the North for the coming conflict. He understood that in times of crisis, self-sacrifice is essential. While other opponents of slavery talked about how bad the system was, Brown ventured into Missouri and helped a score of slaves escape to Canada.
Brown as a hero also underscores the limits of heroism. He was not a saint.  He was not a dishonest businessman but was so negligent and sloppy that his economic ventures failed, and his behavior was almost criminal. He lied about his business affairs and about his political and revolutionary intentions. He kept records of correspondence with his backers that, for their safety and his, he should have destroyed. He was charismatic and mesmerizing but was also hard and almost cruel to his children and to those who disappointed him. He was a hero of civil rights and freedom but was perhaps not someone to trust or even someonewho was very likeable. One might love or admire Brown, but one would not want him as a role model.
He was in the end an enormously passionate, complex, and compelling figure. He was larger than life while alive, and larger still when dead. ...
Had he died in jail or been placed in an institution, he would be but a footnote to the struggle against slavery and the collapse of the United States on the eve of the Civil War.  But dead on the gallows, surrounded by hundreds of Virginia soldiers protecting his execution from an abolitionist rescue, he was a martyr to freedom and the embodiment of all that the powers that upheld slavery feared. ...
From his death came his martyrdom and our endless fascination with his life.  (Russo/Finkelman; Introduction; my emphasis)
Merrill Peterson brings up some important points by way of summarizing the views of Herbert Aptheker, who published a short pamphlet called John Brown in 1960:
Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian of black Americans, who began his fruitful career with a study of "militant abolitionism" in 1941, and sometimes wrote on Brown, seized the occasion of the centennial to condense his views of him in a twenty-four-page pamphlet. Emphasizing Brown's "sense of class," his identification with the oppressed, and his opposition to the rich and powerful, Aptheker brought him within the Marxist paradigm. He attacked slavery from four points of view, said Aptheker. First, slavery subverted the fundamental principle of the equality of humankind asserted in the Declaration of Independence; second, it jeopardized the existence of the republic founded on that principle; third, it violated the spirit and the letter of the U.S. Constitution; fourth, slavery was a system of "institutionalized violence," therefore intolerable in a civilized society. Aptheker went on to declare "that with John Brown we are dealing not with madness but with genius."  (Peterson; 145)
Without making a judgment on how well Peterson summarized Aptheker's view in that pamphlet, which I have not read, those characterizations of Brown's position on slavery are accurate, as far as they go.  But historians of all varieties, not just Marxist ones, have often downplayed religion as a factor in historical events.  And without recognizing the central role that the Christian religion played in Brown's worldview, a major piece will be missing from understanding his actions and his attitudes toward equality, race and slavery.
Richard Boyer has a number of intriguing ideas about the influence of Christianity in the US at this time.  With particular references to Brown, he writes:
There was scarce a facet of John Brown's life uninfluenced by that rich tapestry of early human striving known as the Bible. "With this book," he once wrote of himself, he became "very familiar, & possessed a most unusual memory of its entire contents."  But it was not his knowledge of the Bible that was unusual. It was his belief in it. He himself seemed to regard his belief in the Bible as another proof of its validity, since he felt he was so naturally skeptical, so inherently doubtful, that only words that came from the Lord were capable of the miracle of making him believe. But even his credulity might have been unexceptionable had he not triedtomerge his biblical beliefs with his daily actions. This effort was the source of both his strengths and weaknesses, as when he sought out the poor and fed them because "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me," ...
Whatever the reasons for its compelling influence, there was perhaps never a time in history that men tried more ardently to base their lives on the written word. They believed with St. John that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." If that Scripture seems a contradictory jumble now, to many Americans then it seemed a body of coherent principle. Never did a scientist try more earnestly to give unity to theory and practice than John Brown tried to unite the truths of Scripture with the actions of life. It was to the word that was God he was referring, however indirectly, when he said, denying that he was motivated by revenge or self-seeking, "I act on principle." It was to the Bible he was referring when he wrote in his last letter to his family that it was "the Helm or Compass" helping us to avoid the errors of "our own vague theories framed up while our prejudices are excited; or our Vanity worked up to its highest pitch." (Boyer; 150-151; my emphasis in bold)
Oswald Garrison Villard delivered a measured judgment on a man who he admired without admiring all his deeds:
Now, fifty years later, it is possible to take an unbiased view of John Brown and his achievements, even if opinions as to his true character and moral worth diverge almost as violently as in 1859. There are those in the twentieth century, appointed to teach history in high places, who are so blind as to see in John Brown only the murderer of the Pottawatomie, a "horse-thief and midnight assassin." Still others behold in him not merely a sainted martyr of the most elevated character, but the liberator of Kansas, and the man who, unaided, struck their chains from the limbs of more than three million human beings. These writers would leave nothing to be credited to Abraham Lincoln, nothing to the devoted band of uncompromising Abolitionists who, for thirty years prior to Harper's Ferry, had gone up and down the North denouncing slavery in its every form, stirring the public conscience and preparing the popular mind for what was to come. The truth lies between these two extremes. Were men who have powerfully moulded their time to be judged solely by their errors, however grievous, all history would wear a different aspect. In Virginia, John Brown atoned for Pottawatomie by the nobility of his philosophy and his sublime devotion to principle, even to the gallows. As inexorable a fate as ever dominated a Greek tragedy guided this life. He walked always as one blindfolded. Something compelled him to attack slavery by force of arms, and to that impulse he yielded, reckoning not at all as to the outcome, and making not the slightest effort to plan beyond the first blow. Without foresight, strategy or generalship, he entered the Harper's Ferry trap confident that all was for the best, to be marvellously preserved from the sabre which, had it gone home, must have rendered barren his entire life, his sacrifice and his devotion.  (Villard; 586; my emphasis)
The latter reference was to Brown's capture, when he was stabbed with a saber which turned out to be a fascimile meant to be used for drills, not a real sword.  For all his reservations, Villard recognized Brown as a passionate fighter for freedom:
And so, wherever there is battling against injustice and oppression, the Charlestown gallows that became a cross will help men to live and die. The story of John Brown will ever confront the spirit of despotism, when men are struggling to throw off the shackles of social or political or physical slavery. His own country, while admitting his mistakes without undue palliation or excuse, will forever acknowledge the divine that was in him by the side of what was human and faulty, and blind and wrong. It will cherish the memory of the prisoner of Charlestown in 1859 as at once a sacred, a solemn and an inspiring American heritage.  (Villard; 588; my emphasis)
But, in the end, the judgment of W.E.B. DuBois almost a century ago still hold up, when he wrote about Brown's execution:
The deed was done. The next day the worldknew and the world sat in puzzled amazement. It was ever so and ever will be. When a prophet like John Brown appears, how must we of the world receive him? Must we follow out the drear, dread logic of surrounding facts, as did the South, even if they crucify a clean and pure soul, simply because consistent allegiance to our cherished, chosen ideal demands it ? If we do, the shame will brandour latest history. Shall we hesitate and waver before his clear white logic, now helping, now fearing to help, now believing, now doubting! Yes, this we must do so long as the doubt and hesitation are genuine; but we must not lie. If we are human, we must thus hesitate until we know the right. How shall we know it? That is the Riddle of the Sphinx. We are but darkened groping souls, that know not light often because of its very blinding radiance. Only in time is truth revealed. To-day at last we know: John Brown was right.  (DuBois; 338)
And it's only right for me to close with this observation from Richard Boyer:
If he valued his convictions to the point of dying for them, it was not entirely unusual in that time of anti-slavery mobs and hair-triggered pistols.  In temperament, at any rate, there was little difference between Andrew Jackson, the slaveholder President, ready if necessary to face down the world over the barrel of a gun, and John Brown the farmer abolitionist, ready to gun down slavery and almost by himself.  (Boyer; 67-8)
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 30 (bonus): Steve Gilliard harshes on the neo-Confederates

I hates the Yankee nation and everything they do
I hates the Declaration of Independence too
I hates the glorious Union, 'tis drippin' with our blood
I hates the striped banner, I fit it all I could

                       - "Oh I'm a Good Old Rebel" by Confederate Major Innes Randolph

Don't associate Hoyt Axton with that song because he sings it; the version I have is on a 1991 Songs of the Civil War album that has songs from both sides.  Some songs, like "Tenting Tonight" (which is not on that album, unfortunately) were popular on both sides.  I'm not sure if it's true, as Shelby Foote claims, that Randolph wrote it originally as a parody.  But it's credible, though like Rush Limbaughs most bigoted comments, extreme statements are often passed off as "humor".  It dates from the Reconstruction days.  The liner notes, apparently written by Arthur Levy, say of the song:
The vitiolic, no-regrets stance of the proud Southerner who sings this song is probably a barometer of some feelings still present in that part of the country today.    He hates the Yankees, their Declaration of Independence, their bloody flag, and wishes there were three million of them dead instead of just 300,000.
Our present-day neo-Confederate types, at least, probably wouldn't think of the song as a parody.
Steve Gilliard, who has a keen eye for the politics of race in America, has devoted a couple of posts to manifestations of the neo-Confederate plague recently.  In Too Many Hits to the Head 04/28/06, he defends Southern honor (the real kind, not the blowhard fool kind) against fake Republican down-home-iness:
Yes, the smart Southern[er]s are Dems for a reason: no one gave them s***. Edwards, Clinton, all these guys came from middle class backgrounds and worked their way through college and law school.
I think that people are sick of stupid. Stupid has consequences. Down home is fine, but you ever hear Tim McGraw or Garth Brooks interviewed? Do they sound like idiots? No? Because they're not. Toby Keith ain't too bright, but there's always an exception. Ever listen to a NASCAR driver talk, he may have an accent, but he's no idiot. Those guys reek of competence.
Southern cultural tastes? Ok, to a degree, but Bush isn't a fake Southerner. He's a fake Texan. ... The pig farm, the fear of horses, cowboy boots, the crudeness in speech.
Real Southerners mock that crudeness, a southern gentleman is supposed to be cultured and erudite, not crude. Bush's drunken antics would have drawn great scorn in the South. Trailer trash is an insult there for a reason. Bush's nicknaming and claims like he's the "decider" aren't Southern. ...
Bush? He's always trying to show he doesn't have a yellow streak even when it's evident to everyone. He's internalized the worst machismo of Texas with the prissy snobbiness of Conneticut. A mean, crude, drunk who belies his education. If he was a Southerner, he wouldn't be so cavalier about that.
That's why I'm so completely scornful of that fool Charlie Daniels in my Chuckie Watch posts.  He postures like he's Mr. Average American.  But the crap he spews out in his political rants is real trailer-trash bigot nonsense.  Anyone who thinks that's what defines "Southern" is a jackass.
Don't get me wrong.  There are more than enough Southerners that think just like the character (real or concocted) that Daniels portrays in his twice-weekly Chuckie posts.
Gilliard links to a post by the brilliant Digby, Portrait of The Racist As A Young Man Hullabaloo blog 04/27/06, about Virginia Republican Senator George Allen.  Digby describes the distinguished Senator:
I know little about Allen except that he sounds even dumber than George W. Bush every time I see him speak on television. Yesterday he was blathering on about something and I was struck by how his rosy cheeks and strange purplish hair made him look a little like Reagan. So he has Reagan's looks and Bush's brains. Oh Jesus.

What I didn't know was that he was a racist, sadistic prick. I now understand why he is such a Republican favorite. I had heard that he kept a confederate flag around and that he had a cute little "noose" hanging from a ficus tree. I didn't know that he had been a neoconfederate since he went to Palos Verdes High, right here in LA. (He didn't live in the south until he was a sophomore in college.)

Digby understand that the neo-Confederate schtick is mainly about race:
If winning the presidency in the country really rests on relative good ole boy-ness, then it's hard to see how anyone can beat Allen. Aside from his total immersion in southern culture, the article is full of examples of his youthful (and not so youthful) racism and I can only assume that this will help him when he goes up against John McCain in the south. The racist voters of the GOP will catch all his winks and nods with no problem.
In a 04/29/06 post, Gilliard writes about The love of the Confederacy:
There are two Confederacys, one of history and one of imagination.
The one we deal with today is of imagination.
The one of rebel flags and the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the cult of the dead rebels.
It has little to do with reality. ...
The reason you get people like Jim Webb playing cute and George Allen praising the Confederacy has to do with how the Confederacy was ressurected in the postwar period.It was about race and integration, not history (my emphasis)
He also talks in that post about some of the historical realities of the real Confederacy that actually existed in history, which do not fit well with Lost Cause ideology.  And he concludes:
In short,the myth of the Confederacy allowed people to explain away how the North crushed them using far fewer of it's resources than it had. The raging incompetence of the Southern high command and the pettiness of Jefferson Davis was glossed over for years. Because the myth of a noble South was valuable for many reasons.

Even today, the numbers of Southerners who fought for the Union is still downplayed.

[The] myth of nobility plays into how the Confederacy is seen today

But slavery was not noble.  And neither is what today's neo-Confederates stand for.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 29: John Brown and American principles

Remember that I die for others' freedom
To liberate the poor and the oppressed
Remember there are many yet to suffer
Before the scourge of slavery's laid to rest
Before the scourge of slavery's laid to rest

                   - Greg Artzner, "John Copeland" (one of Brown's men at Harpers Ferry)

Political philosopher Scott John Hammond contributed an essay to the Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005) on "John Brown as Founder: America's Vilent Confrontation with Its First Principles".  The title refers to his argument that Brown fits the model of a leader who was important in establishing some basic principles for a society.
He has some provocative observations about Brown.  For instance, given the increasingly obvious ways in which slavery was undermining democracy even for white men:
In turning back to Harpers Ferry, we must also raise the following question: Why weren't more people of conscience moved to arms, as was John Brown? This can be partially explained by the close connection between abolition and nonviolent moral suasion, as in the case of William Lloyd Garrison and the Transcendentalists, but that connection notwithstanding, it is still remarkable that, after conceding the pacifism of most free opponents of slavery, we cannot remember another case that resembles or emulates the Harpers Ferry raid.  (Russo/Finkelman; 72)
After all, some of the leading figures of the Revolutionary generation - Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine - had been opponents of slavery.  Given the outrages that were taking place in Kansas Territory, the suppression of democratic rights for whites in the South and the general brutality of slavery, Hammond's question is a disturbing one.
Hammond also reminds us that acting against slavery was "consistent both with the tenets of scripture and with the political principles of the polity within which he lived".  And he seems to me to be on solid ground in arguing:
Although Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was ultimately unsuccessful, he exemplifies the true spirit of just liberty; and while he contributed neither new law to support democracy nor any new concept to develop the idea of freedom, his deeds accelerated its progress. Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the egalitarian creed when he drafted the Declaration, but he was unable to renounce his own status as master or overcome his idiosyncratic ideas about racial difference. ... John Brown, however, perhaps more than any founder since Thomas Paine, fully incorporated the creed into his actions and lived the idea of equality and racial friendship with unparalleled purity and ardor. John Brown compels us to think of him as a founder - one who, unlike Jefferson and Lincoln, appears to live and act on the fringes of society, but one who, on closer examination, springs from its very center.  (Russo/Finkelman; 73; my emphasis)
Unless we are inclined to write off any kind of dedication to a larger cause than oneself and one's own immediate material interests as irrational, or some kind of psychological aberration, Hammond makes a very valid point.  He also observes:
Measuring the character and relevance of any historical figure is a task that lends itself to a certain degree of ambiguity. Figures such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and King have all been assessed differently by their champions and critics, and interpretations of their character and descriptions of their heroism as well as their lesser acts have all undergone continual redefinition. Yet they remain, for us, heroes all the same, for in spite of any inadequacies, they reflect the perpetual quest for the affirmation of higher political principle and remain among the great movers who helped shape the conscience and the development of the republic.  (Russo/Finkelman; 73; my emphasis)
And, in fact, John Brown believed in the principles of the American Revolution and was ready to act on them.  Brown himself lost and was put to death.  But his cause won.   In the introduction to that same volume, Paul Finkelman points out one of the differences in the Brown of real life and those today who superficially (or even hyprocritically) use his image to justify acts of violence, like bombing abortion clinics or murdering doctors who perform abortions.  That difference was the lack of democratic or eaceful alternatives.  He writes:
Brown lived  at a time when the political process and democratic values been undermined, or destroyed, by slavery. In Kansas the sword and the gun, not the ballot and the printing press, had become the method of determining what kind of government the territory and future state would have. Violence and fraudulent elections were the rule. A war was in progress, and one can view [the] Pottawatomie [massacre] as a tragic event in a tragic war. But even here Brown is clearly not a terrorist; he killed only soldiers or potential soldiers for the enemy at Pottawatomie, and he did not kill children or women, nor did he destroy buildings or other property. He killed those who threatened to kill him. This after all, is what warfare is about.
... [B]y y the 1850s democracy in America was in crisis. In the South there was no discourse on slavery. No debate was tolerated, and agitation against slavery was illegal. Thus there was no possibility for internal change in the South. The Constitution did not allow the national government to interfere with slavery in the states. Thus there was no political process that could end slavery or even challenge it where it existed. In Kansas there was an open political process, but violence, intimidation, and vote fraud undermined the legitimacy of any elections. For Brown, revolution was the only way to significantly challenge slavery. Thus some modern Americans see Brown as a hero of civil rights, challenging slavery in a nation where a proslavery constitution made political change impossible.  (Russo/Finkelman; Introduction; my emphasis)
In another context, I might quibble a bit over whether the Constitution was inherently pro-slavery, but his point is an important one.  And not only does it distinguish Brown from present-day abortion-clinic bombers, it also is a reminder of the extent of the challenges the partisans of democracy faced at that time.  And of the way Brown was ready to confront an ugly reality and defend democracy and freedom, the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence, at a time when they were being challenged in the most severe way by the Slave Power.
One of the great ironies of Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry is that the federal commander who captured him was Robert E. Lee, who was to become the most successful military leaderof the Confederacy and the patron saint -or rather the Christ-figure - of the Lost Cause after the war.  Hammond asks some pefectly sensible question about Lee, a man who even many people who generally have little sympathy for the Lost Cause manage to admire (though not with very good reason).  Hammond writes:
If some can embrace as a great hero the figure of Robert E. Lee, the defender of a commonwealth that included slavery as an accepted institution, then is it implausible to recognize heroism in the more astonishing figure of Brown? Lee never supported secession until the deed was committed, yet he chose to renounce his commission and past loyalties after years of distinction under arms only in order to side with his state. Other distinguished Southern warriors, such as David Farragut of Tennessee and Winfield Scott, Lee's fellow Virginian, went with the North, but Lee reluctantly [!?!] followed the Old Dominion [Virginia] into the Confederacy. Is it fair to say that whereas Lee chose his homeland, Brown chose humanity?  (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
Yes.  It would be fair to say that Brown was hung for treason to the state of Virginia, a state of which he had never been a citizen, while Lee chose to betray his country for the cause of slavery.  Brown fought for the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence; Lee fought to destroy them.
Whose abstraction is more meaningful: Lee's insistence on abiding with Virginia right or wrong or Brown's devotion to a people sealed in bondage? We must bear in mind that, in spite of his protestations, Lee owned slaves, and his wife owned even more than he did. Regardless of the answer to these questions, popular history has made its judgments, and Lee is known (by most) today as a gentleman warrior, acting from duty and on principle, while Brown is considered (by many) as the guerrilla fanatic, blinded by undignified zeal and without honor. But we must ask which of the two acted on the higher principle, which violated the greater law, which one carries more blood on his hands, and who between them is a more genuinely American hero?    (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
I think I'll go with John Brown on that choice.
If it is madness to conduct a private,unruly, and suicidal war against an enemy that one perceives as the very cause of sinful oppression, then what state of mind could cause a man of principle to lead thousands into death out of questionable loyalty to a political system that acknowledges oppression as a venerable institution? (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
These days, our President and his supporters use Democracy primarily as a slogan to justify foreign wars that have little to do with democracy.  It's worthwhile to keep in mind the difference between that and actually believing in and acting on the principles of democracy.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 28: Reactions to Brown's raid

We may not see the slaves go free,
Neither did Moses reach the promised land.
Still none could be more blessed than we,
Who are an instrument in God's hand.
                   - Peggy Eyres, "Mary Brown, Abolitionist"

John Brown famously played the role of martyr well between his capture at Harpers Ferry and his execution by hanging.  Whether that was virtuous or sinister was judged differently by the opponents of slavery and its friends.
But he certainly framed his own story by his many statements and letters while on trial and in jail.  For instance:
I have numerous sympathizers throughout the entire North. ... I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and the weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here.
The Concord Transcendalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were extremely important in presenting a positive and sympathetic image of Brown in the North.  Both enjoyed enormous prestige and were well known.  Merrill Peterson describes Thoreau's position defending Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry:
Thoreau, the New England Transcendentalist, had been transfixed by Captain Brown when he earlier heard him speak in Concord. On October 30, [1859,]while Brown was still on trial, Thoreau lectured on him as if he were already a sainted martyr. He described him as a rough-hewn Yankee who went to school in the West and "a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles." To those who say he threw his life away, Thoreau asked "which way they threw their lives, pray?" No American had ever stood more heroically for the idea upon which the country was founded. "It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him." This sentiment, coming from a man who some years before wrote a celebrated essay advocating passive resistance, surprised many people. But Thoreau's defense of John Brown's force was only the other face of the doctrine that proclaimed, basically, the superiority of conscience over the state and its laws. By teaching Americans how to live, the hero of Harpers Ferry might finally teach them how to die. That was his best legacy. "Perhaps he saw it himself. I almost fear," said Thoreau, "that I may yet hear of his deliverance, doubting if a prolonged life, if any life, can do as much good as his death."
Such words and feelings helped to change the mind of the North about John Brown. Lunatic! Fanatic! Incompetent! Traitor! The language of disparagement and dishonor that had rained upon Brown immediately after the ill-starred invasion gave way to a chorus of respect, admiration, and praise.  (Peterson; 16-17; my emphasis)
David Reynolds emphasizes that this outspoken opposition to slavery was a vital social side of Transcendentalism that is often de-emphasized in accounts of that movement.
But not all Northerners were sympathetic to Brown, of course.  As mentioned in an earlier post, the Republicans who shared much of his attitude against slavery were going out of their way to dissociate themselves from Brown's violent militance.
So did the "Doughfaces", the Democrats in the North who were either pro-slavery or indifferent to it.  Reynolds describes a series of "Union" meetings the Doughfaces held on the occasion of Brown's execution.  One of them was at the Academy of Music in New York, with six thousand people inside and 15,000 out in the streets:
The crowd that day heard that slavery was good and John Brown was evil. One speaker said, "I insist that negro slavery is not unjust. (Cries of 'Bravo!') It is not only not unjust, but it is just, wise, and beneficent. ... I hold that the negro is decreed by nature to a state of pupilage under the dominion of the wiser white man in every clime where God and nature meant that the negro should live at all." Another pointed out that, actually, few Northeners completely supported Brown. "That there should be any," he said, "is a disgrace to a Christian age and country. But while those who approve the act are only a handful, revilers of all human laws and blasphemers against God, there are those—too many who, while they condemned the act, sympathize in some degree with the man," despite his "cold-blooded atrocity."
After the speakers, letters were read from notables who could not attend the meeting but supported its aim. Among those who had written were Franklin Pierce, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and Winfield Scott. A typical letter stated that Brown's "pathway can be traced by bloody footprints along his whole career, from theft to murder," starting in Kansas, where "his course was marked by every species of wrong and violence," and culminating at Harpers Ferry, the scene of "stealth, fraud, robbery, murder, treason, and attempted insurrection." Even worse, this criminal "has been canonized by the blasphemous orgies of those who demand an anti-slavery Bible and an anti-slavery God," including one [Emerson] who declared "that the gallows would henceforward be more glorious than the cross and crucifixion."  (Reynolds; 414)
The kind of racism reflected in some of the speakers' words was a fact of life in the North.  Pro-Confederate writers often point to this as proving some kind of hypocrisy, or lack of sincerity, or something else unworthy on the part of the Yankees.  But in the end, the brutal Peculiar Institution of slavery would drive many of those Doughfaces to despise it, and in the end to reject it altogether.
Southern reaction to Brown's raid was to intensify the suppression of anything that seemed to threaten even any open discussion of their sacred institution of slavery, which was last seriously debated in the early 1830s in the states of the future Confederacy.  In practice, white Southerners were not free to openly oppose slavery, or even to read what Northern critics of slavery themselvevs were saying about it.  Reynolds writes:
The Atlanta Confederacy explained, "We regard every man in our midst an enemy to the institutions of the South, who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing" - if not, he "should be requested to leave the country." A Virginia postmaster announced unapologetically: "We are in the midst of a Reign of Terror here. ... All men of Northern birth now here are under surveillance by the so-called Vigilance Committee; and any one suspected of thinking slavery is less than divine is placed under care."
Northern newspapers even mildly sympathetic to Brown were widely banned in the South. Many Southern post offices refused to distribute the New-York Tribune, the Springfield Republican, the Albany Evening Journal, the New York Independent, and other papers deemed subversive. Even some conservative periodicals, like Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, were banned. The Springfield Republican lamented that "nearly all northern papers are now excluded from the South, except the New-York Herald and the New-York Observer, the one the organ of Pro-slavery diabolism and the other of Pro-Slavery piety."
"Black lists" of "Abolition houses," or businesses run by antislavery people, were circulated so that their products could be boycotted. These businesses were said to be "steeped and saturated in Sewardism, Brownism, Greeleyism, Helperism, and incendiarism."  Westmoreland County, Virginia, passed a resolution to "adopt a strict non-intercourse in trade and commerce with the citizens and merchants of all the non-slaveholding States," and to "arrest and send out of the State ... all itinerant venders of northern books, newspapers, periodicals, or any other articles of northern growth or manufacture." A main impetus behind the anti-John Brown Union meetings in the North was economic. Failure to sign up for such a meeting was "regarded as conclusive proof of infidelity to southern interests, while signing it was to be a way to southern favor."  (Reynolds; 417-418)
Such was the civilizing effect of slavery on the South, where the Peculiar Institution was claimed to be the foundation of white civilization and freedom for whites.
The political effect of Brown's failed Harpers Ferry raid is a complicated matter to gauge.  But the image of John Brown was clearly a highly polarizing one.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 27: Trivializing John Brown the "madman"

Goodbye to old Ohio, for we are southward bound
We're gonna fight for freedom with Captain John Brown
We'll march into Virginia with the truest of the brave
Down to the plantations to liberate the slave

                       - Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino, "Goodbye to Old Ohio"

I've always been fascinated by "psychohistory".  But I also realize it's a very tricky field.  Kenneth Carroll's contribution to Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005), "A Psychological Examination of John Brown", is a good example of why.
It makes a lot of sense to try to use psychology to understand historical characters and events.  But it's also something that requires careful fact-checking.  A classical example is one of the pioneering works in that area, Sigmund Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci (1910).  Freud took as his starting point a childhood dream of Da Vinci's, which involved a vulture.  He explored various mythological and artistic representations of vultures and what they symbolized and used that to make some inferences about Da Vinci.  There was a small problem, though: he relied on a faulty German translation of Da Vinci's Latin.  The dream was about a kite, not a vulture.  Oops!
Carroll's essay exhibits some of the same flaws.  Except that Freud's Da Vinci study had a lot of other things to recommend it.  Carroll hangs a far-reaching assumption on some pretty thin threads.
To be fair, space limitations may have prevented him from providing some more convincing details.  But his argument as it appears is far from convincing.  Carroll argues, "The evidence that [John Brown] was mentally ill is clear and abudant".  If so, it's more than a little remarkable that his essay essentially relies on the same old arguments of Brown's detractors.
I wouldn't assume that Carroll was constructed a smear job on Brown.  But his essay lends itself far too easily to pro-Confederate arguments that dismiss Brown as a madman.  His concluding paragraphs provide good illustration of the problems in his argument:
Perhaps the more interesting question is this: Had Brown not been laboring under the influence of his illness, would Harpers Ferry or his adventures in Kansas have happened at all? Again, probably not. Had he not been driven by his illness, Brown, in all likelihood, might have stayed in one place, put down roots, attended more faithfully to his domestic responsibilities, and applied himself more prudently to his businesses. Given his intelligence and moral character, he would probably have fared well. He would have been too busy and too duty bound to neglect family and business to go crusading. He would have had less need to compensate for failures with dreams of glory because he would have had too much to lose. In short, he might have been an ordinary man.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135; my emphasis)
This is a classic example of how psychohistory can slip, intentially or not, into crude reductionism.  That paragraph could charitably be described as reflexively conservative.  "Bone-deep reactionary" might not be too much of a reach.
I mean, how pitiful is this assumption, really.  An "ordinary man" - a healthy man, a responsible man - would never have been been moved to fight Border Ruffians in Kansas on behalf of free elections and democratic government.  Or to actively oppose slavery.  Or to put patriotic, religious or compassionate concerns ahead of purely selfish and familial interests.
Oil and business barons like Bush, Cheney and Rummy going into politics to help their cronies make money and invading a Middle Eastern country in pursuit of those psychiatrically healthy goals, now that's responsible and normal.  But some white guy, who wasn't wealthy or anything like normal, healthy people all are, who wants to go off crusading to free black slaves, who goes off "crusading" in his fifties to fight for democracy and the principles of the American Revolution?  Well, he must be crazy as a loon!
You have to wonder what someone with such assumption would have to say about the mental health of Americans who volunteer for military service.  How would they go about "honoring the troops", as all good conservatives are supposed to do, when the only people who would volunteer for service are those who are unable to "have stayed in one place, put down roots, attended more faithfully to his domestic responsibilities, and applied himself more prudently to his businesses".
Yeah, I'm leaning toward "bone-deep reactionary" to describe this assumption.  Carroll continues:
But he was, of course, an extraordinary man with great charisma and energy who threw himself into a noble cause. He was in some ways a genius or at least a visionary. Indeed, much has been written about the close connection between genius and madness.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135)
Yeah, a lot has been written about that.  And some large portion of it is bunk.  To take a couple of examples from country music, was Gram Parsons' creativity and artistic production enhanced by his drug problems that killed him in his 20s?  Has George Jones been helped by his alcholism more than hindered?  Did Johnny Cash's recurring bouts with drug problems, dramatized in the movie Walk The Line, help him be a better artist?
And, besides, who ever claimed John Brown was a "genius"?  Passionate, talented, intelligent, brave and a lot of other things, yes.  But if even admiring biographers like DuBois, Villard and Reynolds gave any emphasis to argue that he was a "genius", it somehow failed to stick in my memory.  It just sounds like a gratuitous association of Brown to "madness".  Carroll continues:
Hundreds of notable people in the arts, literature, science, and public life have suffered from a major mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, and have had brilliant periods of creative energy punctuated by episodes of psychosis.  There is a very fine line between the ability to view the world in new and unconventional ways and the inability to understand convention and maintain contact with mundane reality. Often, they are two sides of the same coin, and some people are better than others at managing this mixed blessing and curse. Some are able to harness the forces of their powerful emotions and differently constituted minds and drive them toward creative discovery. Others, unfortunately, lose the reins and are driven out of control. ...
And so the critical difference between genius and madness is one of competence and control. Brown, if he ever had it, lost such control and, impelled by powerful internal forces he could neither understand nor regulate, tumbled headlong into the vortex.
And, for good or ill, pulled the world in after him.  (Russo/Finkelman; 135-6; my emphasis)
Now, John Brown may or may not have suffered from some clinical disorder.  But was he "understand convention and maintain contact with mundane reality"?  Did he lose the reins of his mind and go out of control?  Was he "impelled by powerful internal forces he could neither understand nor regulate, tumbled headlong into the vortex"?
To put it briefly, no.  It could be argued that he made a strategic mistake in his plan for "taking the war into Africa" (the South).  He certainly made a tactical error at Harpers Ferry by remaining in the town too long, and also in releasing a train that came into town, allowing the passengers and crew to notify the authorities faster.  But his planning and execution of the raid didn't show any loss of touch with "mundane reality".
And losing control?  I would think that any search for psychological analysis of John Brown should focus instead on his remarkable degree of discipline.  If anyone ever had a stern super-ego, it was him.
His other implied assumption in those quotations also don't hold up.  Brown's business dealings have been hashed over in detail by biographers, and their assessments of his talents differ.  But so far as I can see, he suffered from some overconfidence and perhaps an excessive perfectionism at time.  But the notion that he was somehow careless about his business undertakings or unable to focus on them or the like just doesn't hold up.
The same is true of his family life.  His children were devoted to him, as were both of his wives.  He raised twelve children to adulthood.  And his "crusading" in Kansas dates to 1856; he entered the Kansas Territory when he was 55 years old and several of his adult children were already there.  The ideal suburban father of TV sitcoms he was not.  But he was far from neglecting his family.  On the contrary, he was clearly very concerned with them.  And, unlike many fathers of his time and situation, he was insistent that his girls as wellas boys needed formal education.  The girls in the Brown family clearly enjoyed more equal treatment to the boys than in most American families of the time.
Carroll's conclusions are so far from matching the facts of Brown's life in those cases that it calls his whole argument into question.
Given those kinds of assumptions, it's hard to see how he would have come up with a meaningfull result.  The only reason he was writing about Brown or that I'm writing about him now or that anyone is reading about him is that he was a famous antislavery fighter.  If you start from the assumption that there was something inherently abnormal and unhealthy about a willingness to take risks to fight against slavery and for democracy, what other conclusion can you draw than that Brown was sick in the head?  Along with every pretty much other Abolitionist activist, social worker, minister, soldier, or Good Samaritan that every lived.
As far as the actual methods he used to conclude that Brown either suffered from bipolar disorder ("manic-depression") or paranoid schizophrenia, they are pretty questionable.  One was that he had three people who had studied Brown closely take the MMPI-2 psychological test and answer the questions as though they were Brown.  Carroll avoids elaborate claims for the validity of this problematic approach.  But his essay treats it as though it was largely convincing - even though the results indicated things like "His petulant, demanding behavior may place a great deal of strain on his marriage", which would likely be difficult to document from other available material.  (Apart from being so vague that almost any married couple would fit the description.)
The other source of his diagnostic approach was to take 19 affidavits  that Brown's supporters submitted to Virginia Governor Henry Wise to persuade him not to execute Brown.  Carroll writes:
It has been suggested that Brown's friends and relatives, anxious to save his life, may have exaggerated or contrived their accounts of his symptoms.  This seems highly unlikely.  (Russo/Finkelman; 124)
Say what?  These were his supporters trying to keep him from being put to death.  That doesn't mean we should assume that everything that was inthose documents was false.  But since they were explicitly provided in an attempt to save the life  of someone they supported by arguing that he was mentally unfit, any of their specific claims bearing on his mental health would have to be regarded with great care in the absence of specific supporting documentation.  Just to be clear: these were not documents gathered by some independent police or Congressional investigations.  They were documents secured by Brown's supporters to prevent his execution.
Whatever the state of Brown's clinical mental health really was, Kenneth Carroll's arguments hardly seem definitive.  Or even especially plausible.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Iraq War: The cakewalk

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

From Envoy to Iraq Predicts U.S. May Need to Stay in Region for Years:  Zalmay Khalilzad urges Americans to dig in for the long haul by Borzou Daragahi Los Angeles Times 04/25/06:

The U.S. ambassador here [in Baghdad] on Monday urged war-weary Americans to dig in for the long haul: a years-long effort to transform Iraq and the surrounding region, now one of the world's major trouble spots.

"We must perhaps reluctantly accept that we have to help this region become a normal region, the way we helped Europe and Asia in another era," Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Now it's this area from Pakistan to Morocco that we should focus on."  ...

The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, originally justified as a search for weapons of mass destruction, is now described by some American officials as an attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East. But the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime unleashed a Sunni Arab insurgency that has evolved into a sectarian war between the country's Shiite majority and Sunni minority. ...

U.S. and Iranian officials are expected to hold talks on the Iraqi situation once a new government has been formed here. An Iranian news agency reported Monday that the Iranian charge d'affaires in Baghdad had been promoted to the rank of ambassador, in possible preparation for a meeting with Khalilzad.  (my emphasis)

From a briefing paper from officials in the British Overseas and Defense Secretariat Cabinete Office, distributed 03/08/02 to prepare Tony Blair for an upcoming meeting with George W. Bush:

The greater the investment of Western forces, the greater our control over Iraq's future, but the greater the cost and the longer we would need to stay The only certain means to remove Saddam and his elite is to invade and impose a new government. But this could involve nation building over many years. Even a representative government could seek to acquire WMD and build up its conventional forces, so long as Iran and Israel retain their WMD and conventional armouries and there was no acceptable solution to Palestinian grievances.  (Text appears in Mark Danner, The Secret Way to War [2006]).

From Cakewalk in Iraq by Kenneth Adelman Washington Post 02/13/02.

I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps. ...

Measured by any cost-benefit analysis, such an operation would constitute the greatest victory in America's war on terrorism(my emphasis)

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 26: John Brown, Southern bogeyman

When John Brown swung upon his gallows
It was then I hung my head and cried

"Give the black man guns and give him powder",
To Abe Lincoln this I said,
"You just cripppled the snake of slavery;
We've got to fight to kill 'im dead!"

                      - Woody Guthrie, "The Ballad of Harriet Tubman"

Charles Holden in his essay for the collection Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005), "John Brown as 'Lawless Fanatic':  A Usable Past for the Postwar South" talks about some of the ways in which the post-Civil War Confederate apologists worked the story of John Brown into the defenses of the Lost Cause.  He writes:
Postwar Southern writers used John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry to make a range of assertions representing different aspects of the proslavery defense. To paraphrase the arguments of slavery's defenders: the institution of slavery produced a noble planter class and contented slaves, it made model laborers out of backward Africans - under white tutelage, and it civilized and Christianized heathen savages.  (Russo/Finkelman; 92)
We saw arguments like this in the passages I quoted in an earlier post from Robert Penn Warren's 1929 biography of Brown.  One aspect of the pro-Confederate treatment of Brown was the idea, as Holden puts it, "that only white Southerners understood the mysterious ways of the African American".  Brown had foolishly assumed that slaves wanted to be free, the argument went, when actually they were mostly happy and content, though there was occasionally a cruel master or overseer.
One has to wonder, if such were the case, why the Slave Power felt the need to go such extremes with measures like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to coerce Northerners to hunt down escaped slaves.  Why would slaves bother to run away from the near-paradise supposedly provided to them their owners?
The prosecutor in Brown's Virginia trial certainly claimed their was danger that Brown and his raiders might find a responsive chord among the happy slaves:
As to conspiring with slaves and rebels, the law says the prisoners are equally guilty, whether insurrection is made or not.  Advice may be given by action as well as words.  When you put pikes [poles with blades attached to the end] in the hands of slaves, and have their master captive, that is advice to the slaves to rebel, and is punishable with death.
After Brown's raid, the South generally was seized with a widespread panic over "servile insurrection" and say plots and conspiracies all around.
Holton cites the memoirs of A.R.H. Ranson, who had been a slaveowner in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry, in which he promotes the story of the contented, loyal slaves.  But Holden points out that Ranson's can't make all the facts he recites consistent with this phony ideological claim:
Brown, Ranson wrote, misunderstood the true character of the slave and the true conditions of slavery. Indeed, Ranson reminded his readers: the "negro ... in that section at least, [was] comfortable and happy, [and] there was such a thing as love between master and slave. ... As a consequence, not one slave joined him [Brown] at Harper's [sic] Ferry".
Ranson, however, reveals an inconsistent memory of life in western Virginia. His discussion of emancipation explains that when the Union armies finally took control of the region, "the negro saw his opportunity and embraced it," but earlier when Brown had attempted his invasion, the slaves "had sense enough to see the utter folly of his attempt and turned their backs upon him to a man". Here Ranson himself concludes that it was not for love of a master's kind care that the slaves in Harpers Ferry did not rise to greet Brown. The slaves recognized an impending disaster and wisely stayed away. Following the war, Ranson's slaves also apparently had a different notion of loyalty to Ranson's family than he tries to maintain. He earlier defended their obedience during the war, noting that "not one single instance of outrage" occurred. His memoirs, however, reveal that while perhaps not misbehaving, his slaves also did not remain on the Ranson farm. When Ranson returned from the war he was surprised and a little hurt to find that only "one able-bodied negro" remained.  (Russo/Finkelman; 94)
And try as they might to distance the Lost Cause for the "peculiar institution" of slavery, the devotees of its memory just couldn't seem to refrain from praising the sacred institution.  Holden writes:
At a 1911 reunion of the Army of Northern Virginia, Winfield Peters's speech used racial themes that are extreme, but not uncommon, in their characterizations. Recounting Brown's activities in Kansas in 1856, Peters found Brown's reasons for the murder of his proslavery victims significant. Brown ordered their deaths because the slaveholders were "making model laborers, harmless and happy, out of savage negroes, with cannibals for daddies." This, he continues, "in the satanic minds of Brown and his Puritan abolition co-conspirators, was a crime against the cardinal virtues!"  (Russo/Finkelman; 96; my emphasis)
Holden also explains that the John Brown story was used by pro-Confederates after the war to complain about federal governmental power, democracy in general, labor relations and even gender issues.  He quotes from one Southern gentlement who was not fond of Brown's democratic vision:
Focusing more on the postwar threat to Southern white supremacy, Thomas M. Norwood, a senator from Georgia, offered in 1874 a woeful vision of life under Browns legacy: "The white man and the black, the mulatto and the quadroon, the coolie and the Digger Indian, shall be gathered, a united family, in one unbroken circle, around one common soup bowl and using the same spoon, while shielded by the Stars and Stripes and regaled by the martial measure and inspiring strain of - John Brown's soul is marching on."
The pro-Confederate view of the Civil War, dishonest and crassly racist as it so often was, became a part of the ideology of the "Redeemers" who overthrew the democratic Reconstruction governments in the South in the 1870s and later of the defenders of segregation.
But the opponents of Reconstruction and the partisans of segregation were certainly right to see John Brown as their enemy, however paranoid and fanatical they may have been about it.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 25: Did John Brown accomplish anything against slavery?

October sixteenth, eighteen fifty-nine
Peace is hangin' by a small, thin line
The clouds of war are low and dark
Waitin' for someone to light the spark.
                      - Si Kahn, "Old John Brown"

Sean Wilentz, whose biography of Andrew Jackson I've praised here for its nuanced understanding of Jacksonian democracy, recently wrote about John Brown in a long review essay on David Reynolds' book John Brown, Abolitionist (2005):  Homegrown Terrorist The New Republic 10/16/05; issue dated 10/24/05).

He opens with this paragraph which indicates little sympathy for Brown or his antislavery activities:

John Brown was a violent charismatic anti-slavery terrorist and traitor, capable of cruelty to his family as well as to his foes. Every one of his murderous ventures failed to achieve its larger goals. His most famous exploit, the attack on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, actually backfired. That backfiring, and not Brown's assault or his later apotheosis by certain abolitionists and Transcendentalists, contributed something, ironically, to the hastening of southern secession and the Civil War. In a topsy-turvy way, Brown may have advanced the anti-slavery cause. Otherwise, he actually damaged the mainstream campaign against slavery, which by the late 1850s was a serious mass political movement contending for national power, and not, as Brown and some of his radical friends saw it, a fraud even more dangerous to the cause of liberty than the slaveholders.

But Wilentz' description of Brown and his times in this article is very solid, and does a good job of explaining the larger national political context of "Bleeding Kansas" and the Abolitionist struggle of the 1850s.

In fact, Wilentz' account of the Pottawatomie massacre of 1856 makes Brown's justification for the assassinations sound even stronger than my posts on the event earlier this month:

By the time Brown joined six of his sons in Osawatomie, a small settlement in eastern Kansas near Pottawatomie Creek, in the summer of 1855, the situation had degenerated into a virtual civil war between so-called free-staters and pro-slavery men. Each side was determined to have its way over permitting or prohibiting slavery under the new territorial constitution, and Brown, now fifty-five, won an appointment as captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles company of the free-stater Liberty Guards. In May 1856, he and his men rushed to the pro-free-state capital in Lawrence to help fend off an attack by pro-slavery men, but arrived to find the place in smoldering ruins. A day later, Brown received word that a zealous pro-slavery South Carolina congressman had retaliated against an insulting speech by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by beating Sumner within an inch of his life on the Senate floor. According to one of Brown's sons, his father went "crazy-crazy" upon hearing the news from Washington.

However, Wilentz' description of the deed itself leaves the impression that the killings were a more frenzied and less deliberate affair than they actuall were.

I've discussed in a previous post my reservations about the use of "terrorist" to describe Brown (meaningful and appropriate if used in a descriptive sense, highl questionable if used in the normative sense as in the "global war on terror").  While Wilentz accepts Reynolds' verdict on the Pottawatomie massacre, he also observes that the terms Reynolds uses to some extent impose current meanings on events of the 1850s:

Reynolds sees Brown's Pottawatomie attack in the context of the convulsions in Bleeding Kansas - not simply an act of terrorism but also a war crime. The judgment is reasonable enough, though it is somewhat anachronistic. He also concedes that the attack utterly failed to achieve Brown's stated goal, to intimidate pro-slavery settlers into departing Kansas en masse. At the time, though, northern reaction to Brown and his atrocities was divided. Some anti-slavery editors idolized him as "Old Osawatomie Brown," while others looked away. Rumors circulated that Brown had not been involved, or that he had acted in self-defense. Brown was evasive and mysterious when questioned, denying nothing but admitting little. In any event, dispatches about the subsequent bloodshed in Kansas soon overshadowed Brown's massacre. And by summer's end, attention had switched to presidential politics - and to a political universe drastically different from that of only four years earlier.

The influence of "postmoderist" literary theories on the writing of history has meant that the history of the history of a person or event gets more prominent attention and closer analysis than it once did.  And David Reynolds' book devotes considerable space to analyzing how the image of John Brown has changed over time.  This approach can be especially valuable in looking at Civil War history, because the Confederate view of American history has always relied heavily on elaborate, imaginative ideological constructs to minimize the role of slavery in causing the Civil War.

The parts of Wilentz' article with which I would most take issue are those whree he analyzes the effects of Brown's legacy decades afterwards.  Looking a someone's "legacy" or "historical image" is a little like trying to build a model train out of jelly.  It all too easily slips into using descriptions of some cultural artifact to elaborate the writers' own ideologycal perspective.  And I haven't focused so much on the history of the history of John Brown in these posts.  Seeing passt the pseudohistory of the Confederate accounts of history, like Robert Penn Warren's John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, requires among other things getting a more realistic view of the prewar period.

In Wilentz' essay he talks about Brown's legacy in more recent decades and argues:

It would appear, then, that Brown's reputation, although always strongest among black reformers and militants, has varied with the times as well as along the racial line, peaking when political frustration on the left boils over into rage against American politics as hopelessly corrupt, and finally against America itself as irredeemably racist. According to that incensed view of our history, Brown stands alone as a model of purity, valor, and sacrifice.

I wold be more likely to quibble over this part of his perspective if I were ready to wade more deeply into that postmodern swamp.  But Wilentz' arguments about the effect of Brown's actions in antebellum politics come closer to being convincing for me.

He makes the case that the rise of the Republican Party in 1856, when John "the Pathfinder" Frémont became its first Presidential candidate, actually constituted a nonviolent, political revolution against slavery.  Put briefly, the Republican platform did not call for abolishing slaery where it existed, but rather to contain it where it the existing slave states.  Although the reasoning requires some consideraable explanation today, it was generally understood in both North and South that the admission of new states only as free states would mean the eventual end of the slavery system.  Wilentz contends:

Brown's raid, instead of forcing the Republican revolution, actively damaged it, by linking anti-slavery with treasonous insurrection against the United States - an idea that, no matter how popular among the radicals of Boston, was politically dangerous in key northern states from New York westward to Indiana and Illinois.

And, in fact, the leaders and propagandists of the Slave Power did their best to tar the "Black Republicans", as they habitually called them, with John Brown and Harpers Ferry.  Swiftboating 1860 style, we might say.  Actually, the Republicans were not supportive of Brown's actions, and Brown regarded the Republicans more-or-less as ineffectual, half-hearted opponents of slavery.  Whether that speaks well or ill of the Republicans of that time is a matter on which judgments vary.

Wilentz' most interesting argument addresses the notion that Brown, for better or worse, hastened the coming of the Civil War by the Harpers Ferry raid.  He writes:

But in truth, Brown forced nothing. Disunionism was not weak in the South, especially the Deep South. John C. Breckinridge, the fire-eating southern candidate for president in 1860, may have only carried 18 percent of the national vote, a figure that Reynolds emphasizes; but Breckinridge handily swept the lower South, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote in Mississippi, 75 percent in Texas, and strong majorities elsewhere. (Stephen Douglas, the only northerner besides Lincoln in the race, ran dismally in the South, winning 4.8 percent in Mississippi and only .03 percent - a grand total of 18 votes - in Texas.) After Lincoln won the presidency, Unionism prevailed for a time in the Border South, but not in the secessionist heart of Dixie, where delegates to the state secession conventions divided mainly between those who preferred immediate disunion and those who preferred to wait until other southern states had seceded. The panic that followed Brown's raid may have played into the hands of the most determined southern disunionists, but the evidence runs strongly in favor of the idea that much of the South would have quickly seceded once Lincoln or any other Republican won the presidency.

Nor was southern disunionism the product of paranoia. However moderate they were in comparison to the abolitionists, the Republicans posed a clear and present danger to the future of the slaveholders' peculiar democracy. Lincoln had pledged to undo Dred Scott, which he considered illegitimate. He and his party were committed to banning slavery in all of the nation's territories, thereby placing slavery on the road to extinction. The nation, Republicans said, would cease to be a house divided; and they were dedicated to seeing that it would be a nation of freedom, not slavery. As Lincoln proclaimed in his mostly conciliatory first inaugural address, the conflict was clear-cut, pitting "[o]ne section of our country which believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended," against "the other [which] believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended." Once the Republicans had captured the White House as well as the House majority, it was perfectly rational for slaveholders to believe that what the Georgian Alexander Stephens called the "corner-stone" of their civilization was doomed. It was also perfectly rational for the northern Republican Charles Francis Adams to observe, after Lincoln's triumph, that "[t]here is now scarcely a shadow of a doubt that the great revolution has actually taken place, and that the country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders."

This gets into counter-factual speculation, which is tricky but can be meaningful.  Wilentz believes that the furor over the Harpers Ferry raid did weaken the candidacy of William Seward for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.  He took a seemingly harder position against slavery than Lincoln and was thus more likely to be identified with Brown in the eyes of voters.  Wilentz writes:

Many factors led the Republicans finally to nominate Lincoln and not Seward, but the effects of Brown's raid was oneof them. Ironically, President Lincoln proved, during the secession crisis in 1861, far more stubborn in resisting any compromise with the departing southern states than the supposed hothead Seward, whom he had named his secretary of state.

Another very strong aspct of Wilentz' article is his description of Brown's religion, in which he also addresses the vexed question of Brown's sanity:

John Brown was never committed to moral suasion, non-violence, or redemptive Christian humanitarianism. Born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800, and raised chiefly in Ohio, he was trained by his devout parents in the old Congregational Calvinism, with its adherence to predestination and divine intervention. Other anti-slavery activists were moved by the evangelical promise of spiritual rebirth in Christ's merciful bosom. Brown, as comfortable in the Old Testament as in the New, worshipped an angry, vengeful God and the Jesus of Matthew 10:34, who came not to send peace but a sword. As Brown grew older - wandering through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, following up one business venture with another - his hatred of slavery and his imagined kinship with abused blacks hardened.

Reynolds successfully rebuts previous claims that Brown's business setbacks drove him into the insanity that set him on the road to Harpers Ferry - in part, he shows, because some of his businesses proved perfectly solid. There were, to be sure, all sorts of minor would-be Old Testament seers in pre-Civil War America, whose ups and downs in business seem to have been a prelude to religious dementia. But Brown appears to have taken his reverses as well as his successes in stride, not as any reflection of his character. In this, he was very much a Calvinist fatalist. Anyway, the insanity charge has always been a red herring, raised by historians who, wanting to explain away the causes of the "needless" Civil War, have found it necessary to dismiss Brown as a madman. Reynolds spends considerable time, perhaps too much, in establishing Brown's sanity. The really important point is that it is entirely possible to be sane and rational and also, like Brown, a fanatic. ...

... Brown's patriarchal devotion to the merciless God of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards was the keystone of his entire life. And that makes it easier to understand how Brown could become such a cold-blooded killer for the Almighty.

(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.