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.