Friday, April 21, 2006

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 22: John Brown and antislavery Christianity (2)

Several aspects about John Brown's Christianity stand out.  One is that it was closely associated for him with a democratic commitment and attitude toward others.  His comment that I quoted in the last post that he believed in the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the Declaration of Independence seems to be a good definition of his core beliefs about the world.
David Reynolds stresses a point that other biographers have also featured prominently, which is that John Brown regarded blacks as equal to whites, in a way that even most Abolitionists did not.  The author Richard Henry Dana happened to be a guest at Brown's cabin in 1849, well before the Kansas battles.  Brown was then active in the Underground Railroad, and two escaped slaves were their guests for dinner that night.  Dana was particularly impressed with the egalitarian manner in which Brown treated his dark-skinned guests:
We were all ranged at a long table, some dozen of us more or less; and these two negroes and one other had their places with us. Mr. Brown said a solemn grace. I observed that he called the negroes by their surnames, with the prefixes of Mr. and Mrs. The man was "Mr. Jefferson," and the woman "Mrs. Wait."
He introduced us to them in due form, "Mi. Dana, Mr. Jefferson," "Mr. Metcalf, Mrs. Wait." It was plain that they had not been so treated or spoken to often before, perhaps never until that day, for they had all the awkwardness of field hands on a plantation; and what to do on the introduction, was quite beyond their experience. There was an unrestricted supply of Ruth's best bread, butter and corncakes, and we had some meat and tea, and a plenty of the best of milk.
But Brown's attitude toward blacks was not just manifested in table manners that were unusual among whites of that time.  Reynolds discusses Brown's attitudes in comparison to Lysander Spooner, a militant Abolitionist, and Hinton Rowan Helper, author of The Impending Crisis of the South:
An even deeper difference, on the issue of race, divided Brown from Spooner and the other Abolitionists. Brown's plan for liberating the slaves was free of the racism that more or less tainted the views of the others. In this regard, Spooner and [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson were the least culpable of the group, since they both believed blacks capable of independent military action. Like [Wendell] Phillips, however, they sometimes assumed a patronizing attitude toward blacks, whom they felt needed instruction and guidance before they would be ready to rebel. As Higginson wrote to Spooner, "The great obstacle to anti-slavery action has always been the apparent feebleness & timidity of the slaves themselves." Higginson's ambiguous attitude toward blacks would carry into the Civil War, when he commanded blacks troops whom he treated as docile and childlike, and would harden into conservatism toward the end of Reconstruction, when, ignoring the rise of Jim Crow, he insisted that blacks had made sufficient gains and needed no further help from white reformers.
As for the other Abolitionists mentioned above, two who stand out for their close association with Brown, Hinton Rowan Helper and Theodore Parker, had racial views that were downright reactionary. Helper's link to Brown was hardly intentional. Helper vilified not only Spooner's circular but also the Harpers Ferry raid, about which he said defensively, "I had nothing to do, and never expect to have anything to do, with any such ill-advised proceeding. It is impossible to achieve victory on the Brown basis." His denials notwithstanding, in the anti-Abolitionist frenzy that swept the South after Harpers Ferry, he and Brown were held up as demonic cocon-spirators behind a plot by the "Black Republican" party to assault Southern institutions. The Virginian Edmund Ruffin went so far as to label the Republicans "the Brown-Helper party."
Ruffin and other Southerners did not recognize that a hatred of slavery was just about the only thing Helper and Brown had in common. Helper opposed slavery not on moral grounds but because he thought it was hurting the South economically. An unabashed racist from North Carolina, he wanted slavery to be abolished so that blacks, whom he believed had little to contribute to America, could be expelled from the nation and intelligent, efficient whites could save his section's economy.  (Reynolds; 102; my emphasis)
I discussed Helper's book in last year's "heritage" post that I linked above.  The whole question of how people could be intensely anti-slavery and still racist against blacks, even by the standards of the time, is an interesting and complicated one.  This is one of the twists of neo-Confederate ideology, whose advocates often cite instances of Northern racism, which they contrast to the tolerant and broad-minded attitude of the kindly lords of the lash who held slaves as human property.
But Brown's attitude was different.  Reynolds goes on to quote Theodore Parker, one of Brown's most loyal backers:  "No doubt the African race is greatly inferior to the Caucasian in general intellectual power and also in an instint for liberty which is so strong in the Teutonic family."  Reynolds writes:
John Brown never manifested such racism. A chief source of inspiration for him was black culture in its varied dimensions. Harpers Ferry would not have happened had he not had a profound knowledge of this culture.
Significantly, Brown felt most comfortable about discussing his military plans with blacks. He mixed with free blacks in Springfield; there were some 270 living in the town and 130 elsewhere in Hampden County. Among the first people outside the family with whom he discussed his invasion plan was Thomas Thomas, a black porter who worked for Perkins & Brown.  (Reynolds; 103)
Brown knew blacks in a way that few white Americans of his time did.  Slaveowners knew black slaves intimately.  Often in the most intimate ways, which was one of the scandals of the slave system.  But they did not live in a situation of equality with blacks, nor regard them as equals.  Brown did.
As mentioned in an earlier post, Southerners of the time and Confederate apologists later ridiculed Brown for his excessive confidence in slaves to abandon their masters and assist his band at Harpers Ferry.  There is an element of truth to this.  If Brown and his group had fought their way out of town and into the mountains sooner, they would have been able to proceed with their plan for guerrilla warfare in the mountains.  Part of the reason, possibly the main reason, was that Brown hoped for more escaped slaves to join them as recruits before they left the town of Harpers Ferry.
But Reynolds points to the following exchange during his interrogation on the Monday of his capture:
Q: "Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them!"
Brown: "Set them free."
Q: "Your intention was to carry them off and free them?"
Brown: "Not at all." [i.e., the idea was to free them right there, not to "carry them off" to the North]
Q: "To set them free would sacrifice the life of every man in this community."
Brown: "I do not think so."
Q:"I know it; I think you are fanatical."
Brown: "And I think you are fanatical. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, and you are mad."
Q: " Was it your only object to free the Negroes ! "
Brown: "Absolutely our only object."
To the Southerners, "servile insurrection" was perhaps the greatest fear.  The combination of the actual experience of the slave insurrections in Haiti and of the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, combined with their own fiercely-denied recognition that their slaves despised their condition and often their masters, led them to think of "servile insurrection" as a genocidal slaughter against whites.
But, Reynolds notes, "Brown had lived with blacks too long to accept this canard" (Reynolds; 331).  It was a telling interchange.  Brown knew that the blacks were human beings who could conduct themselves with at least as much humanity as the slaveowners and their white accomplices (which isn't saying a lot in itself).  While the Southerner posed the question, whose whole society by that time defended slavery as a civilizing institution, could only conceive of a slave revolt as mass racial slaughter.  Brown saw it in terms of the "unalienable rights" of the Declaration of Independence.
Brown's notion of equality was also not restricted to men.  He advocated full rights for women, a concept that had been placed on the national agenda thanks to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  How his religious convictions melded with his soldiers ideals is illustrated by the "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States" he wrote at the home of Frederick Douglass in 1858.  Though ridculed by his critics - and even occasionally by his admirers - the Provisional Constitution gives real insight into Brown's radical-democratic egalitarian outlook.  It included full citizenship and voting rights for blacks and for women.  Reynolds writes of this document:
His constitution was hardly unproblematic. Its behavioral rules give one pause. One of its articles said, "Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication, or quarrelling, shall not be allowed or tolerated; neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes." So much for free speech and civil liberties. Public officials who got drunk could be removed. Rape of female prisoners was punishable by death. Divorce was discouraged; incompatible couples must make every effort to stay together. "Schools and churches [were to be] established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of religious and other instructions; and the first day of the week regarded as a day of rest appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement." All persons "known to be of good character, and of sound mind and suitable age, . . . whether male or female" were "encouraged to carry arms openly."
In real life, enforcing such rules would have been impractical, if not impossible. But the society Brown envisaged was not a normal one. It reflected his preoccupations in a time of widespread social inequities and personal corruption. Brown's constitution reflected the full range of his Puritan values, from the radical to the prudish. Like rebellious Calvinists from Anne Hutchinson to Wendell Phillips, he defied established laws in the name of what he regarded as Christian justice. Like conservative Calvinists from Cotton Mather to Lyman Beecher, he insisted on moral rectitude. His imagined society featured racial and gender equality but also strictly enforced morality. In it people of all ethnic backgrounds would, he hoped, become educated, upright, and productive citizens.  (Reynolds; 253)
John Brown took his religion and his politics seriously.  I want to add another wrinkle to the picture of Brown's outlook here.  Richard Henry Dana also wrote in his diary during his 1849 visit:
The place belonged to a man named Brown ... a thin, sinewy, hard-favored, clear-headed, honest-minded man, who had spent all his days as a frontier farmer. On conversing with him, we found him well informed on most subjects, especially in the natural sciences. He had books and had evidently made a diligent use of them.  (my emphasis)
Now, in his short visit, there was presumably a limited amount of time to discuss the scientific issues of the day.  But it's notable that Brown was well-informed on a variety of subjects and that he seemed to Dana to be an avid reader.  As much as he believed in Christianity, he wasn't a "God said it, I believe it, and that's all there is to it" kind of guy.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)

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

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