In response to:
An Exchange on John Brown from the February 11, 1971 issue
To the Editors:
The following comments are intended as an open letter to Willie Lee Rose regarding John Brown.
Dear Professor Rose:
That was some shoot-out you and Louis Ruchames had over John Brown in The New York Review of Books [“An Exchange On John Brown,” February 11]. I think much of what you said about Professor Ruchames’ position regarding Brown is right. There is no way a nonviolent humanitarian can defend the Pottawatomie massacre or the Harpers Ferry raid. But the most indefensible part of the Ruchames position is his contention that a violent revolutionary like Brown is a suitable hero for today’s nonviolent civil rights movement.
Yet Ruchames is dead right about Professor Malin. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than to dismiss Brown as a common horsethief—which is essentially what Malin did. And nothing could be based on less evidence than to argue that the Pottawatomie massacre was an act of political assassination, so that Brown would not be indicted for treason by the proslavery territorial court. I provided an extensive critique of the Malin conception of Brown in my biography, To Purge This Land With Blood, which you reviewed in this periodical. If you want evidence of Malin’s anti-Brown bias, you will find it both in my notes and in my discussion of Brown’s role in Bleeding Kansas. I’ve also written an historiographical essay on Brown, a long section of which deals with the Malin thesis. The essay came out in the March issue of Civil War History.
Frankly, I get very impatient with the argument as to whether Brown was Right or Wrong at Pottawatomie and later at Harpers Ferry. The important thing is to try and understand the man in the context of his times. I think this is especially true of the Pottawatomie slayings, no matter how hideous an atrocity they were. In the context of all the bloodletting in Kansas and all the threats of annihilation issued by proslavery Missourians, one can understand why Brown would be driven to such extremes. I am not justifying the massacre. But in my books it was not much worse than some of the proslavery outrages. Remember the brutal murder of R. P. Brown, when proslavery drunks mutilated him with hatchets and left his mangled body on the porch of his cabin? And remember that awful massacre of an entire Mormon family over in Missouri, an atrocity that happened at the same time as the Pottawatomie killings? Violence was rampant on the Kansas-Missouri frontier, and Brown’s act must be seen in that context.
I have a great deal more I could say, especially about the fact that one cannot talk about John Brown and Harpers Ferry without also discussing the violent and racist society in which he lived—a society so rife with moral and ideological contradictions that revolutionaries like Brown were bound to appear. But I’ve already said all this in my book so I won’t repeat it here.
Stephen B. Oates
Professor of History
University of Massachusetts
Willie Lee Rose replies:
I suspect that by now we are running over the same ground, boring our readers, and that nobody is likely to change his mind about John Brown, if in fact he has ever reached a conclusion on the topic. I thank you, nevertheless, for your courteous letter about the essay-review and the subsequent exchange in the pages of this journal.
The morality of John Brown is not in itself a very interesting question; I quite agree. I doubt if you are more impatient with it than I am, but I guess that we are bored for different reasons. I understand you to have taken the opportunity provided here to go on record with the numerous group who will neither justify nor condemn Brown’s killings on the Pottawatomie, but who wish rather to concentrate on the man seen “in the context of his times.” This is indeed a frustrating position, because the morality of a national saint will always have a certain interest for those with a curiosity for details. They will, willy-nilly, attempt to push knowledgeable persons like yourself off dead-center. I suppose I must plead guilty to a little shove, although it was inadvertent. You see, on the basis of your able and fair-minded account of the massacre, I reasoned that you had in fact reached the conclusion that was implicit in the marshaling of the evidence, and that it hardly required a firmer statement.
I regret if I have misread you. On the other hand, my original concern was with intellectuals who have been reluctant to make up their minds about Brown’s violent acts, committed in a cause they applaud. In this respect Pottawatomie, with its seemingly purposeless selection of victims, |cannot be lumped with Harper’s Ferry. The reaction of intellectuals, then and now, is about the only interesting question left about John Brown. Most of the others have been answered, many of them by you, and very ably.
To have appeared to be in need of instruction on the violence of the times and the anti-Brown bias of Professor Malin pains me. You undoubtedly recall what I said about Malin in my answer to Professor Ruchames a few weeks ago, and I will not repeat myself here. The issue was Professor Ruchames’ response to Malin, not your own. I suggest our readers read your book, your article in Civil War History, and James C. Malin’s Legend of Fifty-Six, to determine for themselves whether you have demolished him. His book was not under review here.
As for the atrocities commited by the Border Ruffians, they certainly contributed mightily to the dreadful “context of the times,” that ever-ready recourse for those who will suspend judgment on Brown at Pottawatomie. So did the politicians who so poorly guarded the peace of the future as to open Kansas to settlement under the terms it was opened. You speak well to the “moral and ideological contradictions” that troubled those terrible years. Would that they had all been resolved. But that “context” did not produce other “revolutionaries like John Brown”: it produced John Brown.
The wickedness of the proslavery position and the guilt of its exponents in Kansas are generally understood, but it happens that none of those men of blood has ever been, at least to my knowledge, in the slightest danger of being canonized.