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.