Saturday, August 29, 2009

John Brown, pt. 1

I’m behind on my postings for this week – had some computer problems that are hopefully resolved. What I hope to write in the next couple of days is a two-part post dealing with John Brown and his raid. The first post, the one you are getting today, deals with some thoughts by Robert E. McGlone in a recent article in Civil War Times. The second part of the article will deal with the reaction of North Carolinians to Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.

It would seem that some people are trying to reform John Brown, shifting him from being labeled a terrorist to a “guerrilla fighting in the revolutionary cause of antislavery.” (per an article entitled “John Brown, terrorist?” in American Nineteenth Century History – March 2009. Since most folks don’t subscribe to that Journal, we will focus on McGlone’s piece.)

McGlone lays out his defense of John Brown in two paragraphs.
At no point did Brown endorse random killings, and he conceived his crusade against slavery as being governed by the rules of honorable warfare. Unlike typical modern terrorists, Brown also personally led guerrilla forces in the field. He treated his hostages at Harper’s Ferry with courtesy and deference rather than using them to shield his retreat from the town.
During the Marines’ assault on his engine house refuge on the grounds of the Federal armory, he shielded them from fire. He conceived the liberation of the slaves as a patriot act, not the destruction of the state. With control of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal… Brown could have wrought havoc upon the town. But he loved the biblical story of Gideon panicking the Midianites, and like Gideon, he hoped to strike fear in the hearts of his adversaries.

First: “At no point did Brown endorse random killings, and he conceived his crusade against slavery as being governed by the rules of honorable warfare.” So, when Brown attacked those living in cabins along Pottawatomie Creek, in retribution for a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, did he act as those “being governed by the rules of honorable warfare”? “At the first cabin, Brown's men brutally killed three Doyle men, splitting open their heads and cutting off their arms. Brown himself reportedly watched as if in a trance. When his men were done, he put a bullet through the head of James Doyle. Then the party went to two more cabins, dragging out and killing two more proslavery men. They killed five in all.” (1) Bear in mind that the while the men whom Brown and his party killed believed in the right of slave ownership, they actually did not own any slaves. We could further add that there were several individuals in Harper’s Ferry that Brown, or his men, killed, and not by the rules of honorable warfare.

Second: “Unlike typical modern terrorists, Brown also personally led guerrilla forces in the field.” There would be hundreds of examples to refute this. I’ll cite just one. Osama bin Laden reportedly carries a Soviet AK-47, which he obtained by killing a Russian soldier with his bare hands. This just might be urban legend, but there are plenty of examples of terrorist leaders taking up arms themselves. Once a terrorist organization grows, these terrorists gain lieutenants to manage their fights.

Three. “He treated his hostages at Harper’s Ferry with courtesy and deference rather than using them to shield his retreat from the town. During the Marines’ assault on his engine house refuge on the grounds of the Federal armory, he shielded them from fire.” Brown told his prisoners “I have only to say now that you will have precisely the same fate that your friends extend to my men.” (4) Which I take to mean that if Brown’s men were killed by the militia, then so would his prisoners be killed.

Four. He conceived the liberation of the slaves as a patriot act…” One of Brown’s sons recalled, in relationship to the murders on Pottawatomie Creek, that John Brown said “It was now and here that they, their aiders and abettors who sought to kill our suffering people should themselves be killed, and in such a manner as should likely to cause a restraining fear.” (2) So, Brown sought to strike fear into his adversaries. McGlone admits as much: “But he loved the biblical story of Gideon panicking the Midianites, and like Gideon, he hoped to strike fear in the hearts of his adversaries.”

Five. “With control of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal… Brown could have wrought havoc upon the town” Well, Hayward Shepherd, a baggage man for the R&O (and a free person of color) was shot and killed by Brown’s men at 1:30 in morning. Another citizen of the town, an Irishman named Boerley “happened to get within range of a picket, -a black fellow who called himself Dangerfield Newby, --whereupon the negro raised his rifle and without a word of warning shot him dead…” Another man, George Turner, moved toward the arsenal, with a shotgun. “When he had approached within some fifty yards… the same negro… saw him coming, and, taking deliberate aim, shot him dead.” (3) A skirmish between Brown’s men in the firehouse and the citizens of the town soon broke out. Fountain Beckham, the mayor of the town, was shot and killed. By all accounts, Beckman was unarmed. There are numerous accounts of terror experienced by the citizens of the town when Brown struck. Then with hundreds of militiamen pouring into the small town, and with a detachment of US Marines, well, the town was in havoc.

Brown wanted to establish a new nation in the Appalachian mountains, a nation composed of freed slaves. So, in a sense, Brown wanted to overthrow the US government and establish his own. And, we might add, slavery, no matter had repugnant, was constitutionally protected at this time. He expected these slaves, once they had heard of Brown’s successful rebellion, to quickly flee from their masters (possibly murdering them in the process) and join other abolitionists. Brown was prepared to use violence to complete his objectives, and had he been able to hold the armory, would have had weapons to achieve his means. Brown gathered a force, secretly made plans, captured a portion of a United States military base, took hostages, terrified local civilians, killed and wounded innocent civilians, killed and wounded United State Marines, and damaged United States property, all under the guise of “this is God’s will.”

According to a online dictionary from Princeton University, a terrorist is “a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities.” (5)

So, I stand by what I wrote above. John Brown was not a patriot, he was not a “guerrilla fighting in the revolutionary cause.” He was a terrorist.

1. “The Story of John Brown.” Current Events 11 March 2005. Vol. 104, Is. 21.
2. Goodrich, War to the knife: Bleeding Kansas (1998) 123.
3. Ibid., 233
4. Ibid., 236


lee white said...

I agree about Brown being a terrorist by the modern definition. Also as a sidenote, the Doyle Family had moved to Kansas from the Chattanooga area, they were not slave owners and by all accounts were in Kansas as honest settlers, not part of either group trying to sway the fate of the state. Brown did spare the youngest of the Doyle boys, although the child was the one who found his father and brothers hacked to bits. This child was offered the opportunity in 1859 of sending Brown into oblivion, but couldnt make the trip from Tennessee to Charlestown. He would later enlisted in the 2nd TN CS Cavalry and serve as the regimental bugler. Anyway, very intersting post.


Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

First, ideologically, to say that Brown was a terrorist is to say that the political/social status quo of the antebellum era was just, or at least stable. Isn't that subjective? Would you consider Brown a terrorist were you an enslaved man in North Carolina?

Second, the Kansas territory was already beset by terrorism when Brown arrived there in Oct. '55. The violent men euphemstically called "border ruffians" were terrorists. By May 1856 they had killed 5 free state men and terrorized a great deal more, even though there was a free state settler majority.

Third, the territory had no stable or fair constabulary in May 1856 when Brown and his men struck their first, bloody blow. The federal government had fairly ignored the injustices perpetrated by pro-slavery thugs; the territory had a number of governors and the one in power in May 1856 was a tool of pro-slavery interests. Free state people terrorized by pro-slavery thugs literally had no appeal to "law and order" because "law and order" was being used against free state people.

Third, although the five "victims" of Brown in Kansas were not slave holders, Brown and others in the local free state leadership had evidence that they were what I would call terrorist collaborators, and that the Browns were targeted for attack. There was a large number of armed pro-slavery terrorists encamped in Brown's vicinity and he himself did surveillance to learn that his family were indeed targeted. Even the wife of one of the men killed frantically declared that her husband was up to "devilment." So my point is that, however ugly the incident at Pottawatomie, Brown was in a context of real threat of terrorist violence, he could not appeal to local or federal police, and he had to take some decisive action. I would call him a counter-terrorist.

At Harper's Ferry Brown's plan was invasive and hostile it cannot be denied, if by this we mean he used force of arms to seize control and steal "property." But Brown had instructed his men only to fight in self-defense. McGlone understates the kindness of Brown to his captives; he even sent some home under guard to show his good intentions to their families. His conduct was affirmed by his former captives during his trial. Had he been a terrorist, he would have painted the Old Dominion red with slave holders' blood, the way Nat Turner seems to have intended (although I would argue that Turner, being enslaved, had every right to do what he did). My point is that Brown was not a terrorist and despite the accidents of war that took place during the raid, he himself neither planned, ordered, nor intended murder. Recall Brown's last words affirm that he had hoped to minimize bloodshed, and in failing believed great bloodshed was inevitable.

I should add too, that Brown had no hostility toward the South per se. He saw slavery as a crime of the USA and his target was slavery, not the South, as it would become in later years during the war. Nor are you correct in suggesting he was trying to overthrow the US government. Nor was he trying to secede (smile). Actually his Provisional Constitution and other quotations reveal that he declared no attempt to overthrow or attack his government. Obviously he knew that he was going to run up against the federal government, but his objective in the South was to destabilize the slave economy, throw it into disarray and hopefully create a predominantly economic, not military, crisis for the South and the nation as a whole.

I know that you probably have a fundamental contempt for Brown and I have no desire to antagonize you, nor do I expect to convert you. On the other hand, be assured that Brown has many very loyal defenders and the terrorist charge is perceived as being another false incrimination, that will eventually go by the way with "brigand," "madman," and "fanatic." Best wishes in your work.

Marker Hunter said...

Can't say that I disagree with your assessment. Were Brown alive today, would we call him a Political activist due to the sensitivity of to that "T" word? A mass murderer? Deranged Psyco-killer? Or "Our next guest who has some strong opinions about ...."?

Michael Hardy said...

Lee and Marker – thanks for your post.

Dr. DeCaro – you raise some interesting points and I really appreciate a thoughtful and insightful debate. Thanks! My position regarding John Brown is something that I put a great deal of thought into, and I am always open to debate and discourse. For some time past, there has been a concerted attempt to revise Brown’s role as a terrorist. Will there come a point in time when we try “upgrade” Timothy McVeigh’s role in American history? As Marker points out, we do change our outlook over time, vilifying and sainting historical figures by our current standards. Brown recruited and trained a paramilitary organization, which was equipped through the funds provided by others; his band killed and wounded innocent civilians, local law enforcement (Militia), and United States Marines; he broke into a military instillation for the purpose of stealing arms; his men took hostages, and while he released several, he still held several; and, his purpose was to incite civil insurrection to achieve a political goal. Could we not spend hours removing John Brown’s name from the head of the column and replacing it with other groups and leaders that have existed in the past 100 years of world history?

You ask how would I feel about John Brown if I were an enslaved man in North Carolina during 1859? Hard to say. Maybe I would have supported Brown and his movement. Maybe I would have been one of the ones to believe that Yankees and abolitionists had horns and bifurcated tails. Maybe I would have been one of the few who supported my master above all others. I’ve been working on a paper about some enslaved families in western North Carolina who continued to “stay on” with their masters and work for the rest of their lives. So once again, it would be hard to say just how I would have dealt with Brown had I been enslaved in 1859, since enslaved people, like everyone else, were individuals with their own individual perspectives.

Since most of my research and writing deals with North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians, I will confess that my knowledge of Bloody Kansas is not up to par for serious debate. But I will add that the federal government seems fairly comfortable with its ability to ignore (or even condone) social injustices, whether they be committed by pro-slavery thugs or abolitionists, or against Native Americans, Irish-Catholic immigrants, Appalachian coal miners, or Asian-Americans.

You write that Brown “had to take some decisive action” against the pro-slavery terrorists in the Pottawatomie area. Brown had to brutally and viciously murder five unarmed, non-slave holding men? I’ll use a childish cliché – why didn’t Brown pick on someone his own size? Someone maybe who owned slaves? The actual people who were threatening him? It would seem that Brown was attacking a soft target to get his point across.

In regards to Brown’s “Negro republic” to be formed in the mountains of western Virginia, how else would he accomplish this goal of a new state? His new republic would be bathed in blood – not an economic collapse, but a “guerrilla warfare against the white slaveholders and… a vast slave insurrection over the South.” (Eaton 488) And if we believe (as Clavin wrote in 2008) that Brown was inspired by Louverture and the Haitian revolution, then the idea that Brown was attempting just an economic coup is questionable. Some have even argued that Brown held a disdain against abolitionists who were unwilling to pick up the sword. And, if there is any truth in the visit of John Brown, Jr., to Haiti to recruit an army to “pillage, plunder, murder and burn” in Mississippi and the Southwest, well, that does not much sound like just an economic rebellion.

Thanks again for the post. Now, on to part two and, I hope, more thoughtful responses and discussions.

Ghost said...

Mr. DeCaro:
"Would you consider Brown a terrorist were you an enslaved man in North Carolina?"

It's very possible that he would. While the enslaved man might want to be free, would he want a mass slaughter to achieve that end?

"...although the five 'victims' of Brown in Kansas were not slave holders, Brown and others in the local free state leadership had evidence that they were what I would call terrorist collaborators..."

Most of those murdered by the Brown gang, while they have been described as "pro-slavery," had very little to do with the slavery/anti-slavery politics of Kansas.

"...Brown had no hostility toward the South..."

Inciting a slave insurrection is not hostile?


Mr. DeCaro's post proves that the human mind can rationalize anything.

Yes, there was violence and murders by pro-slavery agitators, but we don't celebrate them.

We don't have special days set aside and statues erected in there "honor."

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Thanks Michael.

My definition of "insurrection" seems to be different from yours. So be it. My points about Brown's intentions are based upon witnesses and quotations and there is a substantial amount to reaffirm that Brown had no intention of the bloodletting and massacre imputed to him by his opponents.

Obviously Brown broke the law in many respects, but again I do not find that necessarily proves he was a terrorist. This is not simply a matter of revision but of context and political foundations. Of course you are going to find enslaved people here and there who preferred to "stay." But these are exceptions and have always been from antiquity. The record demonstrates that Brown was known and favored by black leadership from the 1840s (when he organized blacks into a resistance group after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law), and he has always been seen as a hero to the enslaved and their descendants in this country. So who is a terrorist is not simplistically defined by particular behaviors in the field, like organizing armed men or even breaking laws. It has to do with political context and who defines that context by means of power.

As far as Kansas goes, John Brown did not bring violence or terrorism to Kansas. He answered it. You presume the Pottawatomie five to have been "innocent"; Brown picked on them precisely because they were "his own size," and they were aiding and directing terrorists against his own family and community. Had he simply murdered slave holders, that would have been the "soft target" you speak of, and it would have made him to be the man that you believe him to have been; but Brown had no policy of slaughtering slave masters as a matter of course. The specific men that were killed at Pottawatomie were targeted, not for their pro-slavery stance, nor for being slave holders, but for being conspirators with malignant intent against the Browns. So much of what is said about Brown in Kansas is decontextualized and hyperbolized, like one of your readers who says that he was a mass murderer.

Your point that L'Ouverture inspired Brown gives proof to the notion that his intention was to bathe the South in blood is not so. First of all, Toussaint himself was not an insurrectionary murderer but a military genius who fought against the French and who demonstrated a great deal more human dignity toward his enemies than did Napoleon who left him to die in a cold European dungeon. Furthermore, Brown studied an array of movements in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and elsewhere. His concerns were militaristic, not widespread bloodshed and slaughter. He disdained and even feared such might come of his effort. I would respectfully suggest that your Eaton quote is just one of many other conclusions about Brown that say this is who he was because this is what we want him to have been.

I don't know about your John Brown Jr. source. To my knowledge (and i have some of his correspondence), his interest was in recruiting blacks to relocate to Haiti, especially when the first post-Reconstruction outbreak of violence began to traumatize the formerly enslaved population. Now John Jr probably was asked to recruit soldiers for the Union army (he didn't have much success in anything militaristic, and some people have concluded him to have been cowardly), but he had no more an intention of inciting slaughter than did Fred. Douglass or any other leader. B

Well Michael, if you chose to post this, I will look forward to your response and your last word. I won't continue to contaminate your wonderful mountain air (smile) with my John Brown advocacy. I enjoyed seeing your blog and website and I have to congratulate you for being able to work so freely, devotedly, and successfully on the kind of grassroots scholarship that so many academics know nothing about. I wish you all the best in your life and work!--Lou

John Hendrix said...

The McVeigh parallel seems a bit unfair, only because the single criteria that links Brown to McVeigh is the description of his actions as 'domestic terrorism.'

You could easily take this description of John Brown from your post: "Brown recruited and trained a paramilitary organization, which was equipped through the funds provided by others; his band killed and wounded innocent civilians, local law enforcement (Militia), and United States Marines"- flip a few names and get to a description of George Washington in the American Revolution. It is not exact, but what I'm saying is this. We rarely evaluate ACTIONS ALONE- but actions in a context. If you agree with a cause, actions can seem just. If you disagree with a cause, actions can seem psychotic.

That isn't being a revisionist, it is discernment. Isn't there a time when we would fight for something we believe in? When we are sure we are on the side of the wronged? Don't we call it courage when one willfully puts his life in danger for the cause of another?

Certainly Brown was a flawed man, deeply flawed in fact. But, I admire his unwillingness to make a truce with injustice.

Thanks for the post, it is fun to discuss.

Ghost said...

Before we get all warm and fuzzy about Old Man Brown, let's review what he's responsible for-

Pottawatomie Massacre

Testimony of John Doyle:

"....on Saturday night, about 11 o'clock, on the 24th day of May last, a party of men came to our house ; we had all retired ; they roused us up, and told us that if we would surrender they would not hurt us. They said they were from the army; they were armed with pistols and knives ; they took off my father and two of my brothers, William and Drury. We were all alarmed. They made inquiries about Mr. Wilkson, and about our horses. The next morning was Sunday, the 25th of May, 1856. I went in search of my father and two brothers. I found my father and one brother, William, lying dead in the road, about two hundred yards from the house; I saw my other brother lying dead on the ground, about one hundred and fifty yards from the house, in the grass, near a ravine ; his fingers were cut off, and his arms were cut off; his head was cut open ; there was a hole in his breast. William's head was cut open, and a hole was in his jaw, as though it was made by a knife, and a hole was also in his side. My father was shot in the forehead and stabbed in the breast...."

Testimony of Mrs. Louisa Jane Wilkinson:

"....I begged them to let Mr. Wilkinson stay with me, saying that I was sick and helpless, and could not stay by myself. My husband also asked them to let him stay with me until he could get some one to wait on me; told them that he would not run off, but would be there the next day, or whenever called for. The old man, who seemed to be in command, looked at me and then around at the children, and replied, 'you have neighbors.' I said, 'so I have, but they are not here, and I cannot go for them.' The old man replied, 'it matters not,' I told him to get ready. My husband wanted to put on his boots and get ready, so as to be protected from the damp and night air, but they wouldn't let him. They then took my husband away. One of them came back and took two saddles; I asked him what they were going to do with him, and he said, 'take him a prisoner to the camp'....After they were gone, I thought I heard my husband's voice, in complaint, but do not know; went to the door, and all was still. Next morning Mr. Wilkinson was found about one hundred and fifty yards from the house, in some dead brush. A lady who saw my husband's body, said that there was a gash in his head and in his side; others said that he was cut in the throat twice.
....The body of my husband was laid in a new house ; I did not see it. My friends would not let me see him for fear of making me worse. I was very ill....
My husband was a quiet man, and was not engaged in arresting or disturbing any body. He took no active part in the pro-slavery cause, so as to aggravate the abolitionists ; but he was a pro-slavery man...."

Testimony of James Harris:

"....Mr. Sherman then went out with old Mr. Brown, and another man came into the house in Brown's place. I heard nothing more for about fifteen minutes. Two of the northern army, as they styled themselves, stayed in with us until we heard a cap burst, and then these two men left. That morning about ten o'clock I found William Sherman dead in the creek near my house. I was looking for Mr. Sherman, as he had not come back, I thought he had been murdered. I took Mr. William Sherman out of the creek and examined him....Sherman's skull was split open in two places and some of his brains was washed out by the water. A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off except a little piece of skin on one side. We buried him."

Matt Parker said...

Regarding John Brown, I must refer to the jury and its decision on each count. Obviously, it also keeps the case in historical context and it removes present-day thought and opinion.

"After recapitulating his offences set forth in the indictment, the Clerk of the Court said:

Gentlemen of the Jury, what say you, is the prisoner at the bar, John Brown, guilty or not guilty?


Clerk--Guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel and murder in the first degree?


I concede to the jurors and therefore my personal opinion to overrule a jury's verdict is moot...

Matt Parker