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An Exchange on John Brown

To the Editors:

Professor Willie Lee Rose’s review, “Killing for Freedom,” in the December 3, 1970, issue of the Review makes a statement about Frederick Douglass in his relations with John Brown which leaves a definitely incorrect impression of the Black Abolitionist’s thinking on a crucial issue in the antislavery struggle. It also raises a question as to how carefully Professor Rose read my biography of Douglass which is one of the books under review.

Rose writes in discussing Douglass’s refusal to join John Brown in his raid at Harper’s Ferry: “…one wonders if in fact Douglass was not deterred by a fundamental aversion to real violence.” Yet a basic reason for Douglass’s earlier break with the Garrisonians, made clear in my biography, was precisely that, partly under the influence of Brown, he had concluded that the passive resistance, anti-violence, “moral suasion” ideology of the Garrisonians was inadequate. Douglass did not reject “moral suasion” if that could bring results, but he did now emphasize that in the antislavery battle it was necessary to use any means necessary—including violence.

As early as 1849, he announced that he would “welcome the intelligence tomorrow, should it come, that the slaves had risen in the South, and that the sable arms which had been engaged in beautifying and adorning the South, were engaged in spreading death and devastation.” In 1850, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass told his people to supply arms to fugitive slaves who came North so that they could defend themselves from slave catchers.

Two years later, he declared publicly: “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make a half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.” Douglass proudly protected William Parker after the Black leader of the Chester County, Pennsylvania, fugitive slaves had killed Edward Gorsuch, the Maryland slaveholder, in the famous Christiana Riot. Douglass helped Parker escape to Canada, and informed his people that as he left Rochester, Parker had given him the very gun with which he had killed Gorsuch. “I could not look upon them as murderers,” Douglass wrote years later of the men involved in the Christiana Riot, “to me they were heroic defenders of the just rights of men against men-stealers and murderers.”

Two and a half years before Harper’s Ferry, in his celebrated West India Emancipation Speech, in outlining the philosophy of reform, Douglass emphasized that both words and blows were needed in combatting slavery: “If we ever get free from all the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and, if needs be, by our lives, and the lives of others.”

Clearly, Frederick Douglass can hardly be described as a man who had “a fundamental aversion to real violence” in the battle to end slavery.

Rose states that I have not asked whether Douglass knew about the Pottawatomie slayings in Kansas. There was nothing in the contemporary writings of Douglass to answer that question, although in Douglass’s eulogy of John Brown at Storer College in 1881, which Professor Rose mentions, he did state that he met Brown often during the latter’s four years of service in Kansas so that it is quite likely that he must have known of the killings at Pottawatomie. However, in an unpublished speech on Brown which I have recently seen, Douglass discusses the Pottawatomie killings and insists that they must be placed in their historical context: “On both sides deeds were done at which humanity shudders and which no man in a normal condition of society can defend. It was war, terrible war, barbarous and bloody war! All that redeems it is that liberty and civilization triumphed over slavery and barbarism!” Thus did Douglass answer the charge of murder against Brown, and, in my judgment, he was correct.

Philip S. Foner

Professor of History

Lincoln University

Lincoln, Pennsylvania

To the Editors:

I have just read Willie Lee Rose’s review, “Killing for Freedom,” in your December 3, 1970, issue, where she intemperately attacks John Brown’s literary sympathizers and especially my recently published John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary, subtitled “The Story of John Brown in His Own Words and in the Words of Those Who Knew Him,” a shortened version of my John Brown Reader (1959).

Rose accuses pro-Brown biographers of “intellectual blackmail,” and cites my statement that James Malin, author of John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (1942)

…seems unable to forgive the North for having used force against Southern secession, or the Abolitionists for having taught that the abolition of slavery would be a step forward for American society, or the Negro for having believed that his welfare would be furthered by a forceful elimination of slavery.

Is it “blackmail” to note that Malin and other historians who believe that the Civil War was a “needless” war, brought on by the agitation of “fanatic” abolitionists, bear resentment toward those responsible for it? His resentment is evident in his book on pp. 309, 407, and, especially, 475, where he observes that “the negroes [sic] did not understand that they had been duped by the Abolitionists into believing that political, economic and social miracles could be achieved by force of arms.” The real villains were the abolitionists: the blacks—not capable of independent thought?—were “duped.”

Since Malin’s image of Brown as a horse thief and murderer has influenced American historians, including Rose, I should like to note the criticism in my book (pp. 22-23) of his work. After mentioning his errors of fact, and his methodology which, “though it claims to be scientific, is notably lacking in the dispassionate objectivity of the true scientist,” I observed that

…in the reconstruction of the events leading to the Pottawatomie killings in Kansas, the reminiscences of members of the Brown family are arbitrarily excluded. Furthermore, the book is based almost exclusively on the materials available in the files of the Kansas State Historical Society. The important collections of John Brown material owned by other state historical societies, the Library of Congress, college libraries, and authorities on John Brown…are either not used at all or only in a very limited way.

These words were written in 1959. I find that Stephen Oates, in his new biography of Brown (1970), praised by Rose as “the most objective…ever written,” says the same thing, even using my words, on p. 390n.

Rose condemns pro-Brown historians for “the indifference they have shown to Brown’s victims [at Pottawatomie]. Who has asked the names and ages of the slain men, or whether they were guilty of anything, or if they were in fact a threat to other settlers in the region? Louis Ruchames, for example, describes them simply with the opprobrious word “proslavery.’ ” I find it almost impossible to believe that any responsible historian with an elementary knowledge of Brown biographies could make these allegations. Franklin Sanborn, in his Life and Letters of John Brown (1885), devotes an entire chapter to the event, mentions the victims by name, provides biographical information, emphasizes their outrages upon Free-State settlers and concludes that “they had long been plotting with the Missourians, and…Buford’s armed colonists from the South, to exterminate the Free-State settlers….” Richard Hinton, John Brown and his Men (1894), pp. 81-87, and Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown, 1800-1859, A Biography Fifty Years After (1910 and 1943), provide similar information. In my book the reader will find information about the victims on pp. 31-32, and 202-216.

Rose asserts that I have not answered the charges brought by Malin against Brown. Indeed, my entire book, of which more than 250 pages are devoted to documents by Brown and those who knew him, is a refutation of Malin’s image of Brown as a horse thief and undiscriminating murderer.

She also condemns my “justification” of the Pottawatomie killings. Yet, nowhere in my book do I explicitly justify the killings. I write the following:

There is no doubt that if one judges the killings in isolation from other events of the day, the resulting judgment will be one of condemnation. However, if they are placed within their historical context, a different view will tend to emerge.

My judgment, essentially, is that the accusation of murder against Brown was not justified because there were strong mitigating reasons for the action. There was a state of war in Kansas; an undeclared war by proslavery men, aided by marauding bands from the South, and supported by sheriffs, judges, and the official legislature put into office by terror and electoral fraud. On the other side were the Free-State settlers, at least five of whom had been killed, many beaten, their homes burned and goods stolen by proslavery men.

I describe the situation in my Introduction and support it with documents written at the time of the killings and overlooked even by pro-Brown biographers (pp. 31-33). These include a dispatch from Kansas, May 20, 1856, in the New York Daily Tribune and a letter by the wife of Reverend Samuel Adair, Brown’s brother-in-law, then a resident of Osawatomie, Kansas, which depict the fear of death with which the Free-State settlers in the area lived; and a letter by the Reverend Adair himself. As seen in his letter, the killings were the actions of men goaded to desperation, in fear of their lives and those of their families, retaliating against the enemy closest to them in the hope of stemming the tide of violence around them. I would no more condemn Brown and his men than I would those in the undergrounds of occupied Europe in World War II who retaliated against their own Quislings for cooperating with the Germans, threatening their fellow countrymen and informing upon them.

Rose asserts:

Brown’s concentration on their extirpation [that of slavery and slave-holders], though “intense and unusual for his day” was, in Ruchames’s opinion, “not unusual” when compared to that of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, and other great abolitionists.

This too is a fabrication. My original statement read: “Brown’s concentration upon slavery and its evils throughout the latter part of his life, which is the usual reason given for alleging his insanity, was indeed intense and unusual for his day. But it was not unusual when compared….” Brown did not seek the extirpation of slaveholders, only the freeing of the slaves; and I have never defended, nor had reason to defend, Brown’s extirpation of slave-holders. His killing at Pottawatomie was limited to five, equaling the number of Free-State settlers presumably killed, though he could have killed more. His final instruction to his men before attacking Harpers Ferry was to avoid killing except when absolutely necessary in self-defense (his words are reported in my book, p. 252), and his concern for the safety of his prisoners at Harpers Ferry, though he and his men were already surrounded and obviously doomed, do not suggest a murderer.

Two final comments. Rose condemns me for placing Brown in the category of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lydia M. Child, Theodore Parker, Thoreau and Emerson, as well as within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. (Yet strangely enough she also condemns me for not mentioning Brown’s religious convictions!) The leaders I mention were the first to view Brown as I do, regarding him as a superior example of the ideals and values they cherished.

Rose denies that Brown was justified in attacking Harpers Ferry and trying to liberate Southern slaves through the use of force and at the risk of bloodshed. I believe that Brown was no less justified at Harpers Ferry than were the American colonists in seeking their freedom at the risk of bloodshed, killing English soldiers whose only fault was that they sought to maintain order and peace under British rule; than Jews and their friends would have been in seeking to overthrow the German Nazis at the cost of bloodshed even before World War II; than is any revolt against tyranny and dictatorship, when freedom of expression and the opportunity for democratic change are denied the oppressed. If ever force was justified, it was against slavery, a system based ultimately on terror and force, with freedom of expression and the democratic process prohibited to the slave and his friends. Brown was neither a murderer nor a criminal. And he deserves the thanks of freedom-loving men for having set an example of resistance to tyranny and self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Louis Ruchames

Department of History

University of Massachusetts

Boston, Mass.

Willie Lee Rose replies:

A thorough biographer should not refrain from raising an important question simply because he cannot answer it. I have read Mr. Foner’s biography of Douglass at least twice, and I have studied certain sections of it many times, but I discover that Mr. Foner has allowed the words of Douglass to shape his interpretation of this remarkable man, and has not subjected his subject to the critical analysis that is invited by a comparison of Douglass’s words with Douglass’s actions. I am of course aware that throughout the 1850s Douglass often called for violent resistance to slavery, and that he approved violence when others employed it, as he did in the case of Parker and Gorsuch. But the fact remains that Douglass, though a man of great physical courage, was never personally engaged in the kind of violence that results in death to others.

I wonder if Mr. Foner read my review as carefully as I have read his book, for the difference between the violence of rhetoric and the violence of blood was a central point. The date of the unpublished Brown speech, which Mr. Foner does not provide us with, would be interesting, but the quotation in the final paragraph of Mr. Foner’s letter cannot cast much light on Douglass’s attitude toward the Pottawatomie killings (if he knew of them) unless the speech was written between 1856 and the Harper’s Ferry raid. It seems more probable, considering the final sentence, that it was written and delivered after Harper’s Ferry, and probably after the close of the Civil War. In that case it falls clearly within the pattern of Brown’s symbolic canonization.

It was with real gratification that I discovered, near the end of Mr. Ruchames’s long letter, that there is one point on which we are in complete agreement. Slavery, which is in itself a form of violence, is the most perfect of all justifications for insurrection, more often called revolution by people or societies that merely think they are enslaved. Mr. Ruchames will have a hard time finding in my review a moral condemnation of the Harper’s Ferry raid, even though in some of its features it clearly lacks something when viewed as a rising of the people. John Brown denied, when he was on trial, that he had planned a slave insurrection, but every serious writer on the subject makes clear that in this statement John Brown was not truthful. The point is that there is an important distinction between the Harper’s Ferry raid, which can be conceived of as a political act, and the calculated terrorism of the murders on Pottawatomie Creek. This distinction Brown understood well enough, for he denied the killings, but wanted full credit before posterity for the Harper’s Ferry raid, even refusing whatever clemency a claim of insanity might have afforded him, in order to secure that credit.

I cannot make out what Mr. Ruchames makes of the Pottawatomie killings. I thought I understood his meaning in the Introduction to his book, when he wrote that Brown “instead of supinely waiting for help from outside the Territory, took matters into his own hands” (see page 31 of John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary). “Supinely” is, after all, a value-loaded word. But in his letter to the editors of this Review, Mr. Ruchames says he did not “justify” the killings. Yet he seems to be doing so when he writes so movingly of “the context of the times,” and asserts that in consideration of that context, “a different view will tend to emerge”—a different view from “condemnation.” This is all very confusing, and the answer to the puzzle rests, presumably, upon whether a view that “will tend to emerge” is in the process of emerging, or merely trying to do so. Maybe “condone” is the word we seek.

For myself, I see no question regarding the Pottawatomie incident. Even a state of war in Kansas would not justify, or condone it, any more than murderous attacks on unarmed Vietnamese villagers can be justified on the part of American soldiers or the Viet Cong. Consider the arrogation of virtue implicit in such action: the victims are summoned forth, judged and condemned in the mind of the executioner—and liquidated. It is worth noting that John Brown had not feared to leave his own family in the vicinity of the men he destroyed, that a fourteen-year-old child just missed being caught in the purge, and that this particular piece of “vigilante justice”—if it can be dignified by that phrase—finds its only excuse in a lot of loud talk (common enough in Kansas at the time, from both sides) and guilt by association of the victims with the Missouri Border men.

But my review, after all, dealt with intellectuals who have trouble condemning means when they espouse the ends of a given act of violence. In the case of John Brown this has created blind spots for intellectuals who lived in his time, and a considerable exercise in semantics, as we see, for those who live in ours. Mr. Ruchames believes that I dealt unfairly with biographers of Brown when I asserted that they have been indifferent to Brown’s victims. Oswald Garrison Villard did devote a chapter of his biography of Brown to the killings on the Pottawatomie, but there is only a modicum of information about the slain men; after painting their characters in the darkest colors with evidence that came from Brown sympathizers, the author turned briefly to witnesses who regarded the victims as pretty good citizens, but not before he categorized these witnesses as “proslavery.”

One wonders about the free use of labels during the period, and the tremendous effect these labels have had on the subsequent writing of history. Why, for instance, are the Free-State forces never called “anti-Negro”? The Free-State territorial government, after all, voted to exclude free blacks from the free territory. But that drifts from the point. Villard’s chapter titles reveal that he identified John Brown not only with the Free-State forces in Kansas, but with the first Christian Martyr. The two last of these are “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed” and “Yet Shall He Live.”

Mr. Ruchames indicates his belief that I am unfamiliar with the earlier biographies of Brown. I am familiar with them, and I know that F. B. Sanborn was the very linchpin of the Harper’s Ferry plot. It took Sanborn nearly thirty years from Pottawatomie to gain accurate knowledge of that event, and his first biography of Brown, written only twenty years after the killings, makes no mention of them whatever. What Sanborn eventually wrote in his second Brown biography was dedicated to showing that the victims deserved what they got. Neither Hinton nor James Redpath rises above polemics, and, considered as biographies, their works are ridiculous. These authors do not consider evidence contrary to their fixed views.

On the subject of sources, it might also be added appropriately at this point that James Redpath, the author of the letters to the Daily Tribune, one of which is referred to in paragraph six of Mr. Ruchames’s letter, was freely engaged in making history rather than in reporting current events. For him it was enough that John Brown denied participation in the Pottawatomie massacre. He suspended all questions thereafter that would be troublesome to the “Warrior Saint,” and concentrated on giving his Eastern readers the sensational journalism out of Kansas that had so much to do with inflaming the public mind. Redpath’s dedication to the antislavery cause is to be praised, but his historical detachment must be discounted.

Mr. Ruchames’s effort to cast me in the role of the defender of James Malin’s work is surely misguided, as a careful reading of my review will, I think, make perfectly clear. I passed no judgment on Malin’s work, but stated my opinion that Mr. Ruchames did not meet the very concrete issues raised by Malin, an opinion that I must say I have not changed. Neither John Brown’s letters (incorporating the one in which he lied directly to his wife and indirectly to Gerrit Smith about the massacre) nor the letters and eulogies of Brown’s friends (which make up the bulk of Mr. Ruchames’s book) will settle the questions raised in Professor Malin’s very long and detailed study of John Brown in Kansas.

In his Introduction to the Brown letters Mr. Ruchames does not becomes very specific about Malin’s failures as an historian. Aside from the accusation that Malin did not consult documents in libraries outside Kansas (without indicating how such consultation would have affected Malin’s story), Mr. Ruchames becomes specific in a single footnote. He there charges Malin with failing to reproduce accurately a letter of Brown’s, but I find the letter not to be so dissimilar from Ruchames’s own rendition of the same letter as to violate the sense of the document in any way, and that with only one exception, the differences in the two editions would fall easily within such a definition of editorial license as Mr. Ruchames himself took when he quoted from the work of Malin (see paragraph 2). We are further informed that key passages of certain documents were omitted from Malin’s reproduction of them, but are not informed of what documents have been violated in this way, and we are also informed that Malin misspelled certain words.

For the rest, Mr. Ruchames limits himself to a counter-thrust about Mr. Malin’s spiteful views of the abolitionists, and his dedication to the revisionist view of the Civil War, which was so fashionable at the time Malin wrote. Mr. Malin’s views of the abolitionists were certainly unsympathetic, and as it happens I do not myself subscribe either to Malin’s evaluation of the abolitionists, nor to his interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. This does not prevent my recognizing that his scholarship eclipses that of the gentlemen Mr. Ruchames recommends me to consider in paragraph 4 of his letter. All of this seems very much beside the point, if we are to reach beyond ideology for the truth.

It seems clear to me that what we have here is a conflict of sympathies and a tendency of scholars to discount too much the facts and opinions of those who were on the wrong side, and to accept without question the facts and opinions of those who were, ultimately, on the side of the angels. I did not intend there to be a “moral” in my essay, but I did hope that it might cause others to reflect, as I have myself been forced to reflect, that a truly liberal scholar cannot let himself be pushed around by his emotions.

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