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An Exchange on John Brown

In response to:

Terrorist or Martyr? from the March 7, 2013 issue

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John Brown, circa 1856

To the Editor:

In his review of John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd’s book The Tribunal [NYR, March 7], Christopher Benfey resurrects the John Brown of old-time history books—murderous, inept, politically marginal, probably insane—while ignoring the findings of several recent biographers and historians.

Curiously, Benfey devotes a sizable amount of his review to discussing Hawthorne, a masterly writer but a political doughface who had virtually nothing useful to say about John Brown or slavery (Hawthorne’s signing a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law was a standard gesture made by thousands at the time). As for Melville, also mentioned in Benfey’s review, his elliptical portraits of slavery in works like Moby-Dick and “The Meteor” add little to the political debate other than underscoring its complexity.

On the other hand, Emerson and Thoreau deserve far more space—and respect—than Benfey gives them. It is through Hawthorne’s jaundiced lens that Benfey presents Emerson’s stirring prophecy that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Thoreau becomes, in Benfey’s handling, a kind of detached spectator for whom Brown was high theater—an idea reinforced when Benfey quotes a jibe by the slaveholding Mary Boykin Chesnut that makes Emerson and Thoreau appear, in Benfey’s phrase, as “armchair warriors.”

Actually, Emerson and Thoreau, as arch-individualists, resisted joining movements—abolitionist, philosophical, utopian, or otherwise—and yet, as the nation’s foremost intellectuals, they had great cultural clout. When they spoke, people listened. Deeply opposed to slavery, they saw in John Brown a selfless martyr who gave his life for freedom. It was their bold, virtually solitary public support of John Brown that rescued Brown from infamy at a time when even Brown’s closest backers—several of them members of his so-called Secret Six—were hiding out, fleeing the country, or, in one case, checking into an asylum. In contrast, Emerson and Thoreau, erstwhile pacifists, came forward and swayed Northern opinion by wholeheartedly supporting John Brown, who just before his hanging wrote a note predicting that slavery would be eradicated only after “very much bloodshed.”

Brown’s words proved, alas, tragically accurate. Benfey toward the end of his review mentions recent commentators like Andrew Delbanco, David Goldfield, and Drew Faust, who suggest that the Civil War may have been “avertable,” a view that is supposedly sensible now that the culture wars have waned. Actually, this argument is a reworking of the old “needless war” doctrine of former generations of historians. More recent historians have pointed out that slavery was so deeply entrenched in America—by ideology, custom, law, and economics—that no amount of compromise or politicking was going to avert it. Indeed, all kinds of compromises were floated in the 1850s and early 1860s, but none could stave off a war that was, as time proved, inevitable once an antislavery Republican president was elected. If Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln shows, as Benfey notes, that political maneuvering contributed to the abolition of slavery, the film also reminds us, through reports of victories by Union armies, that total, scorched-earth war—“very much violence,” as Brown had predicted—had brought the South to its knees and had ruined its chances at the bargaining table.

Benfey makes no mention of several recent books on John Brown that forcefully challenge the timeworn view of Brown as an incompetent, fanatical fringe figure who had little effect on the main course of events. Louis A. DeCaro Jr.’s “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, Robert E. McGlone’s John Brown’s War Against Slavery, Evan Carton’s Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, and my own John Brown, Abolitionist provide evidence that Brown was not insane, that he had a strong impact on mainstream politics, and that his plan for liberating slaves from mountain redoubts did not then appear implausible, especially in light of the precedent of successful slave revolts against overwhelming odds in places like Haiti and Jamaica.

In describing Brown’s slaying of proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas, Benfey fails to contextualize that incident adequately. He doesn’t mention, for instance, that of the thirty-six politically related murders known to have been committed in Kansas between 1855 and 1858, twenty-eight were committed by the proslavery side, as compared with eight by the antislavery one. In addition, gun-wielding Border Ruffians were taking over polling booths in Kansas and electing fraudulent proslavery legislatures there. More generally, the slaveholding South was a violent culture where bloody feuds, duels of honor, and vigilante justice against free blacks and suspected abolitionists were appallingly common. John Brown, as a journalist of the time wrote, “brought Southern tactics to the Northern side.”

And, as Thoreau noted, Brown’s words turned out to be far more powerful than his guns. When Brown was imprisoned awaiting his execution, his interviews and letters were reprinted widely, advertising his sympathy for enslaved blacks to the world and winning converts among many who had been formerly indifferent to the antislavery cause.

David S. Reynolds
Distinguished Professor CUNY Graduate Center
New York City

Christopher Benfey replies:

David Reynolds has written a book about how John Brown “sparked the Civil War” and another book about how Harriet Beecher Stowe “ignited” it. I prefer to believe, as Lincoln did, that the slaveholding South started the war, and not these Yankee firebrands. His long letter covers ground so trampled that nothing good will probably ever grow there again. I will skip the name-calling (“doughface” and “old-time history books”) and briefly take up three points on which Reynolds says I don’t say enough. He believes, first of all, that Thoreau and Emerson deserve “far more space—and respect”—than I gave them.

The subtle men of Concord are uneasy allies in the canonization of John Brown. Thoreau was drawn to Brown primarily as a performer and a writer of blunt and pungent rhetoric. “The art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle, and its masterpieces imply an infinitely greater force behind them.” Emerson’s hostility to what he dismissively called “New England Reformers” is well known, and received its classic expression in his famous tirade against giving money to the poor—“Are they my poor?”—in “Self-Reliance.” Emerson met Brown in Thoreau’s house in 1857, heard him speak in Concord, and called him “the rarest of heroes, a pure idealist,” by which he meant that Brown “believed in his ideas to that extent that he existed to put them all into action.” And yet, Emerson was dismayed by the raid on Harpers Ferry, confiding to his son that Brown “had lost his head there.”

For Emerson, whom Nietzsche so admired, Brown was notable principally as a man of will. Brown showed how “courage”—the subject of a speech Emerson gave in November 1859—is “a power of will superior to events.” Emerson had little to say about slavery in his praise of Brown, and his stirring words about how Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross” were, as Hawthorne suspected, adapted from someone else, a Kentucky abolitionist who said that the “gallows will be sacred as the cross.” What fascinated Emerson most about Brown in prison was the way in which he won the admiration of Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, apparently another man of will in Emerson’s eyes and not a mere “doting politician”: “Enemies become affectionate; become aware that they are nearer alike than any other.” It is true that Emerson called Brown “a new saint” and spoke of the glorious gallows; it’s also true, as John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd point out in an endnote, that “Emerson excised this paragraph about Brown when he published the speech” eleven years later.

Reynolds wants more said about the atrocities Brown committed at Pottawatomie: “In describing Brown’s slaying of proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas, Benfey fails to contextualize that incident adequately.” Ah, contextualization, that magic wand by which so many bad deeds—the genteel word “slaying” is a giveaway—can be forgiven. Reynolds says the other side committed atrocities, too, committed more of them, and committed them first. That is always the defense for atrocities, in Srebrenica or Syria or, indeed, in the attacks on September 11. As Willie Lee Rose remarked dryly in these pages in 1971, in response to yet another “contextualization” of the slaughter at Pottawatomie:

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.

In his book on Brown, Reynolds concedes, twice, that “the Pottawatomie affair was indeed a crime, but it was a war crime….” Precisely what work, one wonders, is the word “but” doing in this sentence?

And finally, Reynolds thinks I ignore the “evidence that Brown was not insane” and view Brown instead as “an incompetent, fanatical fringe figure.” Readers may judge whether that’s how I describe Brown. I never claimed he was insane; I did suggest that it was bullying to argue that only a racist (or someone who had not read Reynolds’s book with all its “evidence”) could think that Brown was mentally unstable. “Fanatical” does sound right to me, and not only to me. “Reynolds spends considerable time, perhaps too much, in establishing Brown’s sanity,” Sean Wilentz wrote in his review of Reynolds’s book in The New Republic. “The really important point is that it is entirely possible to be sane and rational and also, like Brown, a fanatic.”

Brown’s contemporaries were able to make a distinction between admirable spiritual “ideals” and questionable physical means. It is a distinction preserved, perhaps, in the anonymous song about John Brown’s body moldering in the grave while “his soul goes marching on.” Are we, with our bludgeoning “contextualization,” incapable of such nuance?

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