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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Donald heads to Harpers Ferry and listens as two historians reflect on John Brown the man and his rightful place in American history.

I hemmed and hawed for three weeks over whether to purchase a ticket for the John Brown Anniversary Procession, a six-mile walk that recreated the march of Brown and his raiders from the Kennedy Farm in Maryland to Harpers Ferry the night of October 16, 1859. When I finally made up my mind to go, a week before the event, all the tickets had been sold. 200 people did participate in the 3 1/2 hour procession, which left the Kennedy Farm at 8 p.m. in the middle of a cold and steady rain. According to the person I spoke with it's highly doubtful the procession will be held on an annual basis. At best I'd look for it again in 2034 when the 175th anniversary will roll around.

I did make it to Harpers Ferry Sunday morning. Even though the weather was crappy, it was still far better than Saturday. By early afternoon the sun had even broken through. Craig Swain over at "To The Sound of Guns" wrote on the re-enactment of U.S. Marines under Robert E. Lee's command storming Brown's fort, including pictures of the event, so I won't attempt to repeat what he did. I also don't have any pictures, because I arrived at Harper's Ferry with two dead camera batteries. "Charged batteries? We don't need no stinkin' charged batteries."

Among other activities, I was in the audience listening to Evan Carton, author of
"Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America" and Paul Finkelman, who penned "His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid," discuss Brown's place in history.

Finkelman began by outlining the generational interpretations affixed to the Civil War itself. By World War I historians had decided the war had been "a mistake, the result of blundering by a generation of politicians." Come World War II a dramatic shift ensued. The war was clearly seen as one waged against racism. Too, historians began to consider that the war might not have been a mistake, that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, it was about slavery. The Civil Rights movement elevated the discussion to an even higher plane. Fast forward and, according to Finkelman, "Any serious historian today would say the war was over slavery." He challenged anyone, after reading the "Articles of Secession" adopted by each Confederate state, to argue otherwise. That slavery was the central issue for the Confederacy was not only evidenced through Alexander Stephen's "Cornerstone" speech, but in one given by Jefferson Davis just a week later. In 1859 Brown was seen in a traitor's light, but as the North approached the Civil War he became "a hero," with Union troops "going off to war singing John Brown's body." Nearly a century later, he was dismissed as "a lunatic," "a nut," and "a terrorist," labels that were reinforced by such films as "Santa Fe Trail" and "Twelve Angry Men."

Carton stated that John Brown has his place in our time, but was seemingly out of step with his own. In the 1820's through '40's the synthesis of religious belief was breaking down. Religious life and principles, previously so closely intertwined, were being assailed by Jacksonian ideas, arguments of reason, and questions concerning the rights of man. Brown, in spite of the philosophical turmoil, retained his Puritan virtues and values. He was willing to take a more radical approach to the eradication of slavery than the mainstream, including taking those beliefs into slave territory. "Brown represents the most militant extreme," grounding himself in Jesus' most radical teachings. Too, in contrast to most abolitionists, who were merely liberal in their thinking, Brown clung to orthodox Calvinism.

Brown's place in racial history is an indicator of the divide still so pervasive in the country as a whole. Even at the time "no black intellectual thought Brown was a lunatic or pathologically impaired." All black literature to modern times is "celebratory," while the "representation by whites is quite different." Even folksy sayings conveyed opposite meanings in the South. Blacks invoked "I'll be John Brown," as an exclamation of pleasant surprise, while for whites it represented bad luck, such as when a car wouldn't start. Southern whites, too, concluded that any white man who would sacrifice his life for blacks "must have been crazy." That John Brown was a hero to blacks is perhaps best summed up by Malcolm X, who said to numerous black audiences, "He was a white man who went to war with white men for your freedom." Finkelman chimed in by saying that for the longest time many blacks mistakenly believed Brown was black.

Finkelman ran through a series of what ifs, if John Brown had never lived, or if he had died in Kansas, before concluding the Civil War was still "going to come about anyway." There were antecedents, as witnessed by the first raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1856 and Preston Brooks' caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. All contributory events leading to the war "would have occurred without Brown."

John Brown, according to Finkelman, altered "the consciousness of Northerners" with regard to the issue of slavery. Prior to Brown the primary weapon among abolitionists, the majority of whom embraced pacifism, was moral suasion. For Brown "suasion" came in the form of a pike, thousands of pikes, which he intended to distribute as weapons to slaves rallying to his cause. Those pikes, following Brown's death, became a rallying point for both pro and anti-slavery adherents. Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia gave a speech in which he thrust one out toward his audience, urging them to elect him, the man who stopped the Harpers Ferry raiders, as the President of the United States. In Boston, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, surrounded by a phalanx of armed body guards, held his own pike aloft and shouted, "This is a sign of things to come."

Finkelman, who recently edited a new edition of W.E.B. DuBois' biography of Brown labeled that work as "one of the worst pieces of historical literature" ever produced and one that is decidedly lacking in academic scholarship. DuBois rejected the pieces of evidence he didn't like simply to promote Brown as "a model of what social activism should be." According to Finkelman "the best historians try to gather as much evidence as possible" from primary sources before exploring the scholarship. He referenced Thomas Jefferson as an example, whereby he concluded through his own readings of Jefferson's papers that "Jefferson could have done something about slavery, but he didn't."
(Note: as I have not read DuBois' biography of Brown, I can't judge whether Dr. Finkelman's opinion holds true or not. A reader pointed out that DuBois himself felt it was his best work.)

The floor was opened for questions, the first of which came from a Connecticut resident. She prefaced her question by stating she was proud Brown was born in Connecticut and wanted to know the influence of that State on his belief system.

Carton answered that Brown's father, an avowed abolitionist, had the most powerful influence, setting an early example through his direct involvement in Underground Railroad activities. The family left Connecticut while Brown was still very young, settling in Ohio. According to Carton, Ohio was "a hotbed of religious and abolitionist sentiment." It would have been "very difficult to find someone in the Western Reserve who was not against slavery."

Another member of the audience asked how Brown expected to succeed when his raiders weren't fully informed of his plans and there was no effort to communicate with slaves in the area. Carton replied that Brown held discussions with his recruits about the relative risks that would be undertaken and they were aware of his plans almost from the outset. How the word was to be spread to slaves "is debatable." In Carton's opinion Brown "overestimated the speed of spreading the word to the slaves." He added, too, that there was a sort of "paternalism" in Brown. It's doubtful slaves would have trusted Brown and certainly would have questioned him regarding his motivation and themselves about joining him. There's a secondary question as well, that dealing with the issue of why so few black revolts in America in comparison to the Caribbean. Carton feels it came down to pure numbers. Whereas blacks overwhelmingly outnumbered whites in Haiti, where a successful revolt occurred, whites doubled their numbers in the South. Their weapon of choice and the one resorted to most frequently were their feet, which carried them to freedom in the North or Canada.

Abolitionists, according to Carton, "saw themselves as completing the American Revolution." There's always been an "American mythology of equality." However, Brown not only saw the words of the American revolutionary prophets and God written on subway walls and tenements halls he held them tight to his bosom. "He believed in the Golden Rule and believed in the Declaration of Independence."

Finkelman added that John Brown was a "self-anointed apostle of God." He doesn't believe Brown was a terrorist. Instead he was simply putting into action what Jefferson put into words. Massachusetts and Virginia, for example, embraced those same words, but ultimately chose different paths and interpretations, one by abolishing slavery, the other by perpetuating the institution.


Thanks for the summary of Dr. Finkelman's address. Only one point regarding his assessment of DuBois's biography. It is true that this biography is flawed, mostly in the author's reliance on sources that were not tested by solid research. The book is filled with many errors. Oswald G. Villard, who was completing his own biography of Brown in 1909 when the DuBois book was published, was brutally critical of the book for this reason.

But from your remarks, it seems that Dr. Finkelman misrepresented how DuBois worked. First, DuBois was teaching and involved in activism, and he was writing under constraints of time and limitations of research ability. He used sources more readily available and could not do the kind of groundbreaking research that Villard--er, that Villard could afford to pay Katherine Mayo to do for him, so that he could write the supposedly "definitive" biography of Brown in 1910.

Interestingly enough, when Boyd B. Stutler, later in the 20th century, acted as a consultant to Villard in revising the same book, he found a good many mistakes as well. So the kind of condescending, scolding, and bullying that Villard unleashed upon DuBois came back, ever so privately, to bite him in his white liberal behind.

I did not hear Dr. Finkelman's address so rather than suggest he was incorrect, I would only add that DuBois was not disingenuous in his presentation of the facts. He did what all historians and scholars do by interpreting Brown according to his presuppositions and with the facts available. He may be correctly scored for the flaws of his work, but I fail to see that his work on John Brown should be dismissed. As black voices go on Brown, Benjamin Quarles, who had the advantage of time and better research, could later produce more penetrating work on Brown. Yet there is something enduring and important about DuBois's biography and despite its flaws, it grasps aspects of Brown that Villard and his ideological heirs could not in their more-researched renderings. DuBois always thought his John Brown book his best work and he was well aware of its mistakes. It is a classic and the fact that Dr. Finkelman himself made the effort to edit it, following other such efforts, suggests its fundamental value.

Posted by Louis A. DeCaro Jr. at Wednesday, October 21, 2009 08:49:34


Thanks for your very insightful post. I have a great deal of respect for W.E.B. DuBois and was therefore surprised by Finkelman's assessment of his biography of Brown. Trust me, I'm not reading into Finkelman's remarks, nor did I have to try to reconstruct them from memory days later. As is my habit I took notes during the discussion. Good, bad, or indifferent, I think Paul Finkelman, if he were to read the post wouldn't quibble. In certain respects I also observed Finkelman to be very impatient with those who asked questions, but refrained from mentioning this in the post. Carton on the other hand was very respectful of his audience and it was a pleasure to speak with him briefly afterwards.


Posted by Donald Thompson at Wednesday, October 21, 2009 10:07:22

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