Friday, April 27, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 27: More on John Brown

Black and white Union sailors serving together

Last year, I devoted a number of posts to the career of the still-controversial John Brown. And I'm still interested to read various views of his actions and impact.

I'm about half-way through William Freehling's new The Road to Disunion, Vol 2: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 (2007). While Freehling is one of my favorite sources on the antebellum era, he didn't get Brown quite right. Like the reviewer I discussed in yesterday's post, he gives a distorted and misleading version of the Pottawatomie killings of 1854. I looked at those in several posts last year, beginning with
this one of 04/14/06, so I won't belabor it here.

Freehling admits to having changed his view over time on the plausibility of Brown's Harpers Ferry mission, specifically in relation to the possibility of attracting local slaves to his fight in Harpers Ferry itself.  Freehling's current judgment of the outcome seems reasonable to me:

There transpired one of the most stupendous scenes in American history. In the dark night, Brown's freedom fighters easily captured Harpers Ferry's federal armory, arsenal, and engine house. They sliced the telegraph wires. They halted a train. They dispatched messengers to a nearby plantation, Lewis Washington's (a great-grandnephew of George Washington's), there to alert slaves to spread the invasion. No other firststrike has ever been better planned or carried out (which is only to say that John Brown here perfected his lifelong specialty).

No other following tactics have ever been botched so badly (which is only to say that John Brown here succumbed to his lifelong flaw). ...

Where Brown and his men needed to transport Harpers Ferry's potentially highly consequential firearms to the nooks and crannies of the mountains in a great big hurry, the raider stayed in Harpers Ferry's death trap. While whites gathered to hurl themselves at the furious old man, their prey jailed himself inside the most innocuous corner of his caputred fortress, the engine house. There, the self-imprisoned raider found no food.

The night after Brown struck, U.S. Marines arrived, led by Robert E. Lee. The next day, Lee's assaulters fed Brown's hungry raiders stell for breakfast.
Freehling also gives a good account of the subsequent slave-insurrection panic that spread through the South.

I also want to mention an essay by Bertram Wyatt-Brown that makes the best case I've seen for John Brown having suffered from depression, "'A Volcano Beneath a Mountain of Snow': John Brown and the Problem of Interpretation" in His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, Paul Finkelman, ed., (1995).

"Psychohistory" is always tricky, and a lot of it isn't worth the paper it's printed on. It's especially tricky in the case of someone like John Brown whose enemies often tried to portray him as a fanatical lunatic. Wyatt-Brown manages to talk about Brown's personal psychology without getting too far out ahead of the available evidence and also without reducing his politics or his religion to a personal quirk. Or, worse, to a personal pathology. He writes:

If Brown's composure under fire at the engine house and his later serenity as he faced the prospect of the gallows testified to his religious strength of character, it also bespeaks his melancholy satisfaction in ending a life of inner rage and darkest mood. He had contemplated his own death for many years, and the issue was now settled. Without having to encounter the moral dilemma of self-destruction, long considered an offense against God's will, Brown could face the terminus of his life with devout tranquility. Thus he entered the most creative period of his antislavery career, fulfilling the roleof martyr with almost artistic perfection. ... When asked by by his captors who had sent him, he replied, "It was my own prompting and that of my Maker, or that of the devil, whichever you please to ascribe to it." The sentiment was almost jocular, but one wonders if Brown himself did not feel that he was inspired by both supernatural elements — an amalgamation of the Manichean division that seemed to have empowered him to create the tumult he wished for. ...

Brown's self-possession as he faced death was perhaps the most significant manifestation of the melancholy state of mind with which he had so long contended.
In conclusion, Wyatt-Brown describes John Brown as "a singular, complex, and nigenious agitator" who "profoundly touched the life of a nation". And he observes how "the very depth of Brown's dispondency helped to shape his own creative vocation as a martyr who aspired to free a nation from a moral yoke and a race from its hideous bondage."

I think Brown would be proud to be remembered that way.

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