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:
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.