Friday, October 16, 2009

John Brown

My parents are collectors. Every inch of wall and shelf space in their house is covered with knick knacks, paintings, framed textiles, antique tools, interesting bits of pottery, children's drawings, postcards, and every other type of object you could imagine.

Prominent among their decorations is their collection of Civil War antiques and memorabilia. They have several modern prints (mostly of the 28th Massachusetts), but the bulk of their collection is made up of antiques: cases of framed GAR medals, souvenirs from the 50th anniversary encampment at Gettysburg, a framed newspaper from the day after the Lincoln assassination, old tins and placards using Civil War images to sell whiskey and soap, framed covers of Harper's Weekly from the war years, and on and on. There are also books, movies, and music, but it's the walls that you notice first.

One of the objects that always drew my eye — and still does — is a black and white print of Thomas Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown (1884) that hangs in the living room.

I have probably spent a full week of my life contemplating this image over the years, but I still don't know what I think of John Brown. If I accept that the Civil War was ultimately righteous because of what it accomplished, how can I condemn Brown for his savagery? On the other hand, if I believe that domestic terrorism is repugnant, how can I celebrate him?

Today is the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Civil War Memory has more coverage of the commemoration.

I've spent the day thinking about John Brown, but it has been a frustrating exercise. It is impossible to condemn his methods while praising his aims — the whole point of John Brown was that he believed that nothing but violence could end the violence of slavery. This is the argument of anti-choice activists who equate abortion with slavery. Even though I find this equation to be staggeringly ignorant in light of slavery's attack on the rights of black men and women to control their own bodies and protect their own families, there is a strong parallel between John Brown and Scott Roeder. Both believed that only violence would end what they saw as a great evil. Both were sincere in their beliefs. I can't exonerate Brown just because I think that his ends were worthy.

Then again, what makes Brown different from Lincoln? Brown may have killed more men with his own hands, but Lincoln sent thousands to die. Brown's war was extralegal and his execution was carried out by the state, while Lincoln is the inverse. How can we celebrate Lincoln and not Brown?

Since I cannot come to any firm conclusions at this point, I will channel my energies into flogging that old favorite, Curt Lader's Painless American History. I know I should let it rest, but I just found out that this book went into a second edition in August. I have ordered it from Amazon and will report on any corrections that may or may not have been made in the updated version when it arrives.

Here is Lader, explaining John Brown to middle school students:

Prior to Lincoln's election, other disturbing sectional events signaled the inevitability of civil war. In 1859 John Brown, an abolitionist, led a failed raid on a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His goal was to use the weapons seized and begin a slave revolt. Colonel Robert E. Lee, the soon-to-be leader of the Confederate army, captured Brown after two days of fighting. He was hanged after being convicted for conspiracy and treason. Brown's own words as a slave illustrate his intense hatred of the institution.
I wore the bells and horns, day and night, for three months. Their weight made my head and neck ache dreadfully, especially when I stooped to my work. At night I could not lie down to rest, because the horns prevented my stretching myself, or even curling myself up; so I was obliged to sleep crouching.*
John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry proved to be a catalyst for war. He was arrested, tried, and hanged. When you look at the diary entry, you will see the agony that Brown went through as a slave. It is not surprising that when he escaped, he decided to lead the attack. You must take this suffering into account in deciding what you would have done if you were John Brown.

When I was a freshman in college, I wrote a letter to Lader's editor at Barron's complaining about this book. Lader sent me an indignant letter in which called me a stupid little girl and warned me to be more respectful of my betters. I know that I wanted to be a professor before that, but I won't deny that it was a powerful motivation to do what I have done since then. I may still be a girl, but no one will ever again defend his wrongness against my critique by belittling my credentials.

*This is, indeed, a quotation from a slave narrative written by an ex-slave named John Brown. Needless to say, this was a different John Brown.


The History Enthusiast said...

Good God. Talk about a ridiculous article...he thought Brown was a slave? Maybe I should write to correct him and see what kind of response I get :)

Robert J. said...

His soul goes marching on.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Oooo — I loved North and South when I was little, but it scared me! The scene where Elkanah Bent kills Constance Hazard gave me nightmares when I was about 8.

I like that Johnny Cash doesn't play Brown as crazy in this scene.

The History Enthusiast said...

Elkanah scared me too...but as an adult I just had to laugh at his ridiculously bad accent.