Thursday, September 1, 2016

John Brown Lives

Louis A. DeCaro Jr.. John Brown: The Cost of Freedom. New York: International Publishers, 2007.

_____. John Brown: The Man Who Lived. Essays in Honor of the Harper's Ferry Raid Sesquicentennial 1859-2009. New York: Lulu, 2009.

_____. John Brown, Emancipator. Middletown, DE, 2012.

Robert L. Tsai. "John Brown's Constitution." Boston College Law Review Vol 51 Issue 1 (2010): 151-207.

The John Brown Society
Box 1046, Canal Street Station
New York, NY 10013

"From the night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions." Frederick Douglass

I attend the Left Forum in NYC every year hoping to learn something new. My discovery this year was the John Brown Society panel with Society Chairman Larry Lawrence, actor and playwright Norman Thomas Marshall, and historian Louis A. DeCaro Jr. The John Brown Society promotes John Brown education and scholarship, and speaks at events like the Left Forum, and John Brown Day (his birthday) at the John Brown Farm State Historical Site in Lake Placid, NY in May. Norman Thomas Marshall and director George Wolf Reily are co-authors of the one-man drama John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom, which Marshall has performed in theaters and schools for twenty years. Louis A. DeCaro Jr. is an Associate Professor at Alliance Theological Seminary in NYC, and a prolific John Brown biographer. His John Brown the Abolitionist-A Biographers Blog reports on his current scholarship, and related news. He is also the pastor of a small urban congregation in the Bronx.

John Brown 1856

John Brown is one of the most controversial religious and political figures in American history. His fortunes in the popular culture track the state of race relations in the US. During the Civil War and immediately following, Brown was a hero and martyr. Black and white Union soldiers sang The John Brown Song while marching off to war: "John Brown's body lies amouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on!" When Reconstruction waned with the Long Depression (1873-1879), Southern lost-cause historians and racists North and South recast John Brown as fanatic and failed businessman. Even civil rights activist Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949), the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, called Brown "a principled murderer" in his influential book John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (1909). Villard indicts Brown for killing five pro-slavery neighbors along the Pottawatomie Creek in 1856 during the bloody Kansas conflict. At mid-20th century, liberal Southern historian C. Van Woodward and psychologist Kenneth B. Clark both called Old Man John Brown mentally unstable, and the instigator of a "needless war." This is the version I learned in my white suburban high school in the 1960s. Louis A. DeCaro Jr. has a great essay The John Browns of History in his John Brown: The Man Who Lived. Essays in Honor of the Harper's Ferry Raid Sesquicentennial 1859-2009, wherein he catalogs the myriad accounts of abolitionist John Brown over the years. Historian Louis DeCaro, activist Larry Lawrence, and performer Norman Marshall are leading a revival of John Brown studies to restore Brown's complex role in American history.

Of course, John Brown was most revered by the left and African Americans. His left admirers included labor journalist John Swinton (1829-1901), socialist Eugene Debs, civil rights founder W.E.B. Du Bois, and Communist historian Herbert Aptheker. Both Du Bois and Aptheker wrote biographies of John Brown. Brown's abolitionism was inspired by religious faith, like M. L. King, not by populism or socialism which was just emerging before the Civil War. A few African American critics disdained Brown. Vincent Harding regarded Brown as paternalistic and Ralph Ellison called Brown "demonic" and "utterly impractical." But most black leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century held John Brown in high esteem. Harriet Tubman said, "When I think how he gave up his life for our people, and how he never flinched, but was brave to the end, it's clear to me that it wasn't mortal man, it was God in him (1863)."

Harriet Tubman

Louis A. DeCaro Jr. John Brown: the Cost of Freedom (2007) is a concise biography of abolitionist Brown. It includes an appendix of recently discovered Brown letters and documents, which reveal more intimately Brown's thinking and character. John Brown was born May 9, 1800 in Connecticut of abolitionist and Puritan parents. He apprenticed in his father's tannery business, and then operated his own tannery in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Later he became a cattle trader and breeder, and an authority in the sheep and wool business. He had 20 children with two wives! Eleven children survived to adulthood. His first wife Dianthe died in childbirth. He had several business failures. Somehow he and second wife Mary Ann Day (1817-1884) overcame hardship and tragedy. They raised a huge family, and later organized a social movement as well.

John Brown was always anti-slavery and active in the cause. In 1837 he took a public vow at church, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." This was prompted by the murder of abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob in southern Illinois a few days earlier. When he moved his business to Springfield, MA in 1846, he became deeply engaged with the abolitionists there. He joined the African American Stanford Street "Free Church" (aka St. John's Congregational Church) where he met the luminaries of the movement: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, and the literati who later bankrolled his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

John Brown at Springfield League of Gileadites meeting

What is striking about John Brown is that he regarded African Americans as his equal, as brothers and sisters. This was rare in his time, even among white abolitionists. He crossed the color line. In 1850 he founded the League of Gileadites in Springfield MA , a militant interracial group in response to the Fugitive Slave Act to protect escaped slaves in the free states. According to historian Louis DeCaro Jr., John Brown was already formulating more radical plans to attack slavery ten years before the raid on Harper's Ferry. He argued that moral suasion had failed, and that compromise had failed. In reality guns, not votes, would decide the fate of slavery. As John Brown later testified in his trial for treason in 1859, the country was "on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history". If the slaveholders won, it would mark "an end of all aspirations for human freedom."

The Brown home in Springfield MA

In 1849 Brown moved his family to a black settlement in North Elba NY in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid. Wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith donated thousands of acres to freemen as an agrarian refuge from urban poverty and racism. The colony was affectionately known as "Timbucto". This was Brown's last home and the site of the John Brown Farm and Gravesite, a national historical landmark. I would like to visit the farmstead on John Brown Day. I would also like to explore the museums and St. John's Congregational Church in Springfield MA for John Brown history. Brown's Bible remains on display at the church.

Between 1855 and 1858 John Brown joined his older sons in Kansas to lead the armed defense of the free state settlers. Bleeding Kansas was the first act of the Civil War. Brown became a wanted man. He had to go underground to avoid arrest. He began organizing his fateful raid on the Harper's Ferry US Armory and Arsenal in ernest. Louis DeCaro Jr. argues Brown's plan was well conceived but badly executed. Brown's idea was to establish guerrilla resistance in the Southern mountains to attract runaway slaves, and undermine the viability of the slave economy over time. He raised money and recruits in the North as well in free black communities in Canada. He even held a constitutional convention on May 8, 1858 in Chatham, Ontario, where 34 blacks and 12 whites committed to abolish slavery, and passed the "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States." This would be the founding document of the "Appalachian State" and would govern their guerrilla republic in exile. The document included many features from the US Constitution while abolishing slavery and enfranchising women. Harriet Tubman (Brown called her "General Tubman") supported the plan, but in the end, Frederick Douglass opposed it which created a terrible rift between the old comrades.

Frederick Douglass

On Sunday morning, October 16, 1859, Brown led a solemn reading of the Provisional Constitution, and then set off with 21 men to capture the Harper's Ferry Armory with its 100,000 muskets and rifles. Remarkably, they succeeded with little bloodshed. He seized local slaveholders as hostages, and notified their slaves liberation was at hand. Unfortunately, John Brown tarried too long in Harper's Ferry. The next day he was pinned down in the Engine House by local militia, and the second day the US Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived and subdued Brown's band. Brown was swiftly tried and convicted of treason by the state of Virginia and hung in public December 2, 1859. Eleven months later, Lincoln was elected President and the Civil War began.

Slavery and race are so central to US history and politics. The story of John Brown merits scrutiny. Abolitionists were a small but diligent group in antebellum America. Education and religious appeals had ended slavery in the North, but were ineffectual in the South and new territories. Compromise was not possible. When the Civil War began, Lincoln's goal was to preserve the union, not abolish slavery, which was still too difficult to contemplate. Emancipation and arming black soldiers only came after three years of brutal war. John Brown foretold these events. Evidently many white Americans are still not reconciled to a multiracial and multicultural society 150 years later - witness the current 2016 presidential contest. John Brown remains contemporary.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr. has written six books on John Brown, the most recent Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (2015). He is probably not done yet.