"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

From the Field: In Decorah, Iowa

by H. Scott Wolfe

Your correspondent recently returned from a nostalgic sojourn in the glorious State of Montana — to which place, a half-century ago (yikes!), a seemingly uneducable citizen of Wisconsin first traveled to be educated. Today, opinions still vary as to the success of that endeavor.

Our initial leg-stretch occurred in the attractive city of Decorah, Iowa, where I halted the Hyundai beside the famous Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Immediately, the mental wheels began spinning — for I seemed to recollect that the building adjacent to the museum, a two-story frame with a facade in the Italianate style, possessed John Brown connections. Presently the site of a business called the “ArtHaus Studio,” the structure was undergoing a cosmetic facelift — with workmen clambering up ladders and busily scraping blistered paint.

Calling upon my much oxidized memory, I seemed to recall that, in 1863, the widowed Mary Brown, her daughter Ellen, and son Salmon (with his family) had commenced their westward journey from North Elba to California — and had tarried for a time in the community of Decorah. I had once been told that they actually resided on the second floor of this building.

The location of Mary Brown's residence in Decorah, Iowa, 1863-1864
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

Still possessing a troubling concern for what are today sometimes known as FACTS, I decided to seek confirmation of my recollections.  My first stop was a nearby visitors’ information center. A very kind and accommodating lady listened to my John Brown story…and was soon beset with that vacant look so often encountered when I speak of that obscure individual who may well have caused the American Civil War. Their eyes become fixed, and seem to say: “Did I purchase enough green peppers for those Western omelets I plan on preparing for tomorrow’s breakfast?” But the helpful lady sent me on to a nearby gift shop.

So another clerk was regaled with my John Brown story — and that same look returned. I may as well have been relating the dramatic story of Charles Henry Winkenwerder. At least honesty prevailed, for she politely asked: “Who is John Brown?” As I mumbled words such as “slavery,” “abolitionism” and “Harpers Ferry,” her supervisor appeared and, to his credit, knew who John Brown was. But he too was surprised to hear of the Old Man’s connection to the adjacent building. 
Finally, the clerks alerted a passing gentleman to my question — and he, amazingly, said that he had heard rumors to that effect. That yes, there were stories connecting John Brown’s family to the structure right next door. 

Another view of Mary Brown's residence in Decorah, Iowa, 1863-1864
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe)

But there it stood. I was soon on to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, to commune with the spirit of Sinclair Lewis. But I paused long enough to take a couple of images of the Decorah building in question. Perhaps those readers of this blog who are familiar with Mary Brown’s sojourn in Decorah can fill in the story…and ease my troubled mind.

Note: By the way, Charles Henry Winkenwerder was not an important personage. He was simply my Great-grand Uncle.--HSW

My colleague's interesting submission is complemented by further material worth noting here, including the insights provided by our colleagues, Jean Libby1 and Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz2, both of which have made important contributions to the story of Mary Brown's later life.  Additional information is culled from some of Mary Brown's own correspondence.

The Decision to Leave North Elba

      Laughlin-Schultz provides interesting background to the story, first pointing out that Mary and her family had grown weary of the frequent flow of uninvited guests at North Elba--as Mary put it, the "curious stares and unwelcome gaze of the populus."3  In 1909, Annie Brown Adams recalled in a letter to Katherine Mayo: "If you could only realize what members of John Brown's family have to endure on account of people's brutal curiousity. . . .  Often I used to run away and hide when I would see strangers coming, while we lived in North Elba."4  However, it is also true that despite her late husband's preference for Adirondack life, Mary Brown never really seems to have taken to it.  A decade before the Harper's Ferry raid, during the Browns' first stay in North Elba (1849-51), Mary was sick and took the first opportunity to take refuge in a "Water Cure" establishment in Massachusetts while her husband was away in Europe on business.5  Before his death, Brown encouraged his wife to remain in North Elba, apparently hoping to gather all the children together to live there as well.6

      But quite the opposite resulted, since none of the Browns ultimately remained in North Elba, and those in Ohio, especially John Junior and Jason (the sons of Brown's first wife), never wanted to take up residence in the cold elevations of Essex County.   However, the decisive factor that led Mary to leave North Elba seems to have been that both her son Salmon wanted to leave, and that her late husband's eldest daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Henry Thompson, had already made the plunge. "Salmon and Henry Thompson have sold out and are a going to move to Iowa," Mary confided in abolitionist J. Miller McKim in September 1863.  "I think of going with them."7  Interestingly, when Mary began to seriously consider leaving, she evidently hoped that some arrangements could be made to take her husband's remains with her.  In the end, however, even her attachments to the remains of her beloved husband did not prevent her from making the move.  As one of her relatives summed it up, Mary Brown "could not resist the temptation" to leave North Elba.8  

Mary Brown as she looked
in the mid-1850s

     It seems that initially, Mary's only destination was Iowa, following her son Salmon, who seems to have been drawn there because it was a prosperous market for sheep.  Jean Libby suggests there were relatives in Iowa, but I am unable to verify this.9   After about two months living in Decorah, Mary wrote to her half-son, Owen, describing the area quite optimistically, as there were many people in Iowa from all over the country, "and a great many wealthy people" there too.   As to livestock, there were "a great ma[n]y sheep in this part of the country and people are intending to get more."10  The winter of 1863-64 in Decorah has been described as having been harsh, but according to Mary the weather "was very fine."  More likely, it was health conditions that were harsh, with many people being sick, especially children suffering from Scarlet Fever.11  It has likewise been stated that Mary bought a farm in Decorah,12 but I find this doubtful.  Perhaps Mary rented a farm the way they had rented the Flanders farm in North Elba during the family's first residence.  More likely, Mary took up residence on the second floor of the building pictured above in Scott Wolfe's article.

      One thing is clear, once Mary had tasted an improved lifestyle in Iowa, she regretted having upgraded the North Elba farm.   Visitors to the John Brown Farm today are not aware that it has since been restored to its original form as it was built by Henry Thompson for the Browns in 1855.  However, in the early 1860s, evidently with monies provided through James Redpath's authorized biography of her husband, Mary had invested in some expansion and improvement of the house, including a porch.   "I very much regret that I ever spent a cent on that farm in North Elba," Mary wrote to Owen, "but I did not know what I do now."  She hoped that with the sale of the North Elba farm she could at least recoup some of the money she had invested.13

Toward California

     Ultimately, the fact that Mary and her family did not remain in Iowa probably amounts to greener pastures, literally and otherwise, for a family that specialized in sheep farming.  Mary might have returned to her native northeastern Pennsylvania, and there was some interest expressed through the family's connection to their old friend, George Delamater, in Crawford County.  There was also Ohio, where John Junior and Jason resided.   But California was an attraction to the Browns and had been.  Salmon Brown would later speak of the desire to find a "new country," although this was nothing new to the Brown boys.14  Even prior to the Harper's Ferry raid, the gold rush and the promise of prosperity on the west coast had drawn the interest of the Brown boys, and one of John Brown's brothers had actually relocated there (to no success) for a time.  According to Jean Libby, however, Salmon's wife, Abbie (Hinckley) had perhaps caught the California fever from an uncle, and had persisted in promoting going farther west.  It is possible that other relatives in the Brown family likewise encouraged her to consider the westward move,15 however there is no well explained rationale for Mary's almost sudden move to California. Whatever the case, Mary Brown and family joined a westward wagon train in April 1864--only about three months after arriving in Decorah--and headed for Red Bluff, California.

Concern for Her Daughters

Fort Edward Institute, where Annie and Sarah Brown studied
     If Mary had great concern during the Decorah period, however, it was not over weather or farms or sheep, but about her daughters, twenty-year-old Annie, and seventeen-year-old Sarah, both of which had been sent east to study with the financial support of John Brown's abolitionist friends.   The young ladies had studied for a while in the private school of Franklin Sanborn in Concord, Massachusetts, but had somehow been transferred to a fairly new institution located at Fort Edward, New York.   The Fort Edward Collegiate Institute has been described as a "seminary,"16 but it was not a theological training institution as the term is used in the contemporary sense.  Rather, this was a seminary in the original use of the term as a kind of "seed bed" of learning, or preparatory institution.  According to a description at the time, Fort Edward Institute was only about ten years old when the Brown women were there, a "mammoth brick" edifice "unequaled by any other Seminary edifice in the country."  It is further described as a structure with furnished rooms, board, prepared fuel, and washing," and students resided for 14-week terms to study either commercial, classical, or "ornamental" (whatever that meant!) curricula.17  It is more likely that Annie and Sarah received the most practical or commercial training.

Annie Brown ca. 1860s
      But when Mary reached Iowa, she was deeply concerned about her daughters, whom she had left behind in the east.  Sarah had continued to study at Fort Edward and had done well, having received a tuition discount as John Brown's daughter.18  In the immediate sense, Mary was far more concerned about Annie, who had apparently decided to involve herself in the cause of the Union, following in her father's footsteps by working as a teacher of liberated blacks in the South.  As Laughlin-Schultz observes, there is little direct information about her tenure as a freedmen's teacher in Norfolk, Virginia, but there is no doubt that she undertook this difficult role for a season.  When Mary first learned of her daughter's decision to teach freedmen in Virginia, she was bowled over and could not respond to her daughter's letter.  When she finally did write to Annie from Decorah in early December 1863, she expressed both concern and support.  "If you feel it to be your duty we will all submit to it," she wrote, "but I was not prepared for it just now."19

    But even as Mary was coming to terms with Annie's bold decision to venture into Virginia a second time (she had accompanied her father prior to the Harper's Ferry raid, quite against her mother's wishes), she was beginning to fear for Sarah, who would be left alone.  Sarah was finishing her studies in 1864 and planned on joining her mother, but Mary was apprehensive about her daughter being kept from traveling by cold weather, forcing her to incur greater expense and worry.   Apparently, Mary's concern had some basis, because Sarah ended up being stuck in some way and had to be assisted by her elder brother Owen.  The latter incurred some expense in retrieving his teenage sister and bringing her through the cold weather into Ohio, whence she evidently proceeded on to Decorah to join her mother.20   When Mary left Decorah for California in April 1864, she was guided by her son, Salmon and his family, and accompanied by both Annie, Sarah, and nine-year-old Ellen, the youngest daughter of John Brown the abolitionist.  Annie and Sarah would serve as teachers shortly after arriving in California.21--LD*

* The post-1859 story of the Browns is not a particular strength of mine, and while input and corrections are always welcome, they would be especially appreciated here--LD


     1 Jean Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 14-22. 
     2  Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolition (Cornell University Press, 2013). 
     3  Ibid., 96.
     4 Anne Brown Adams to Katherine Mayo, 26 Oct. 1909, Annie Brown Adams folder, Box 1, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library.
     5 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 182-85.
     6 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 296.  
     7  Mary Brown to J. Miller McKim, 2 Sept. 1863, Cornell University Library.  Transcript in Edwin N. Cotter Collection, 2/56/32, SUNY Plattsburgh. 
     8 "I Should like to know what My Dear husband[']s friends intend to do about removeing [sic] his remains or what they would advise to be done in case we all leave this Country." Mary Brown to Mary Stearns, 20 Aug. 1864, MS04-0079, John Brown - Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia Archives and History; Laughlin-Shultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 97.
     9 Libby, "Chronology of Mary Ann Day Brown, 1816-1884," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 18.
    10 Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.  Copy in Edwin N. Cotter Collection, 2/59/53, SUNY Plattsburgh.
    11 Ibid.  Also see Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolition, 98
    12 Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," 14.
    13 Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.
    14 Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 97.
    15 Libby, "John Brown's Family and Their California Refuge," 16; Libby, "Sarah Brown, Artist and Abolitionist," The Californians 7:1 (Palo Alto, 2006), 35.
    16 Laughlin-Schultz refers to it as a "boarding seminary," The Tie That Bound Us, 93.
    17  "Fort Edward Institute," Northern Christian Advocate, 15 Feb. 1855.  Transcribed in the burial information for founder Joseph E. King, at Find-A-Grave.  Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=43423726
    18 Mary Brown to Mary Stearns, 7 Jan. 1863, MS04-0077, Brown-Stutler Collection.
    19 Mary Brown to Annie Brown, 3 Dec. 1863, Horatio Rust Papers, Henry Huntington Collection, San Marino, Calif.
    20 Mary Brown to Annie Brown, 3 Dec. 1863; Mary Brown to Owen Brown, 31 Jan. 1864.
    21 Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us, 105.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

From Root to Fruit: Jim Jatras Makes the Inevitable John Brown Reference

See, I told you so.

In my last post (June 14), I expressed apprehension that someone would respond to the recent Alexandria shootings by the anti-Trump reactionary, James Hodgkinson, with a comparison to John Brown.  In fact, the unfortunate reference to Brown was posted online only two days later, by Jim Jatras, "a former US diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership," on the conservative website, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

In his piece, "Waiting for John Brown" (Jun. 16), Jatras argues that if an incident of gross insult or even an assault upon the Democrats had taken place at the hands of a Republican, the Republicans would "be dunned mercilessly by media and their Democratic colleagues demanding they own up to 'the climate of hate' they’d created."  This is the gist of Jatras' complaint, that there is a double standard that allows the Democrats and a largely liberal media to blame the Republicans for a climate of violence, such as they did when former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, and both Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were insinuated as having responsibility.
Jim Jatras (Chronicles)

In the short run, Jatras may have a point, although I'm not interested so much in arguing the contemporary issue.  My concern, as usual, is to protect the real legacy of John Brown from the abuses of bigots, snobs, and agenda-driven or ignorant narratives.   Jatras is concerned about what he believes (whether true or imagined) is a growing, hostile, and possibly violent movement arising against conservatives.  He fears that there is a evidence  of a "planned calculated armed assaults on ordinary, decent Americans who have been demonized as 'white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen along with other provocateurs from the so-called "alt-right."'"  He fears another civil war may even arise if things don't "calm down on their own," and that good citizens will "just meekly" permit themselves to be deprived of their rights by leftwing reactionaries.  Jatras fears the worst.

Apart from the shoe being on the other foot (liberals have long had similar apprehensions about a rightwing uprising), it is most unfortunate that Jatras would drag John Brown into this mess with his alarmist prediction of civil war and the loss of rights by conservatives.  Jatras fears that conservative citizens who are so deprived will "begin to respond in kind," and then he cites the civil war in Spain in the 1930s.  In contrast, he then invokes Brown and the Harper's Ferry raid in speaking of the Democrats.  Apart from the title, however, Brown is not mentioned in his piece until the end, when he writes:
At this writing we don’t know if the Alexandria shooter simply sought to kill as many people as possible, or whether he hoped to spark something bigger. We have an example of how that happens too, at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. 
It’s not clear whether James Hodgkinson intended to be a new John Brown. But the way things are going, one will show up sooner than later. 
So, on one hand, Jatras seems to be predicting that Republicans, weary of being deprived of their rights, will take up arms to "respond in kind."  On the other hand, he connects James Hodgkinson to John Brown--alleged proof that Democratic fanaticism is attempting something bigger than just a few wounded Republicans.  Hodgkinson may or may not be the "new John Brown," Jatras concludes, but he expects one to arise.  John Brown as the liberal antichrist?
James Hodgkinson

Apart from the obvious alarmism of his propaganda, Jatras makes a supreme category error in historical terms. To be sure, he is not the only one announcing the possibility of civil war.  But so far, Jatras is the only Republican to invoke John Brown following the Alexandria incident.  In doing so, he reflects partisan bias and ignorance regarding the historical John Brown.   The question is why Jatras associates Brown with the liberal repression that he fears?  Why doesn't he consider that Brown is actually representative of US citizens opposing tyranny and fascism in the antebellum era?

Certainly, Hodgkinson was no John Brown type.  According to an assessment of the FBI reported in USA Today (Jun. 21), he had an "anger management problem,'' had abruptly exited a strained marriage, and had been living alone in his van for a month with his weapons in the vicinity of the nation's capital.  Hodgkinson certainly hated Trump, and had carried a list with the names of six lawmakers that perhaps he wanted to kill.  But he "was struggling in all kinds of different ways,'' concluded the assistant director of the FBI.  According to the Bureau, Hodgkinson had acted alone.  None of this corresponds well with John Brown's profile as a man or as an activist.  Even when Brown did lead a group in a preemptive strike in 1856 Kansas territory, the five men that died were conspirators in a terrorist plan, not hapless victims of a fanatic with a predisposition to homicide.

Hodgkinson was a troubled man with inclinations that made him a social misfit and dropout.  In contrast, John Brown was well respected in his own community, even by people who thought his antislavery views were extreme.  His family life was intact and he had the love and support of his wife and children, and the respect of his larger circles of family and friends.  The attempt by his friends to argue for his "monomania"in 1859 was unfounded and intended only to save him from the death penalty.   No one who knew Brown believed he was unbalanced, and everyone knew he was a man of principle whose only design was to undermine slavery and liberate the oppressed. Hodgkinson will not be celebrated now that he's dead.  Brown was widely celebrated and long upheld with respect for his egalitarian prescience, devotion, and self-sacrifice in the antislavery arena.   For Jatras to reduce Brown to a kind of miscreant, leftwing messiah figure is completely uncalled for and unfair.

In 2015, ABC News reported that Jatras "desperately" wanted to run for Vice-President under the Republican banner, and he went so far as to issue a press release announcing his intentions to get on the GOP ticket.  In an interview, he stated his intention to stand up "for the principles of the Republican party." The question is, which Republican party?   In 1860, there was a leftwing faction of the Republican party that advocated immediate emancipation and upheld the example and principles of John Brown.  There was also a rightwing faction that was conservative and willing to compromise with slaveholders in order to save the Union--even if it meant keeping black people enslaved.

Evidently, when Jim Jatras identifies himself with the Republican party, he is putting himself squarely in the tradition of Republican compromisers who saw slavery as tolerable for nationalist priorities.  This will explain why he is fundamentally disconnected from John Brown, and why he equates him with the enemy instead of crediting him as a liberator and leader in the struggle for justice.

"You shall know them by their fruits"--and their fruits will reveal their roots.--LD

Saturday, June 03, 2017




Reported by

Our Correspondent “In the Field”

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

The President, as reported by CNN

At the risk of life, limb and a quarter inch of shoe leather, your humble correspondent was able to obtain, from an unnamed source in the nation’s capital, the following transcription of a presidential phone conversation last February:

*Hello? Is that you Bulldog? How’s it going? Just wanted to say you’re doing a fantastic job over at the Pentagon. Just fantastic! The people love us. 
*Yeah, I know. The world’s in a helluva mess but I, I mean we, are going to fix it bigly. 
*Say, I had a meeting at the White House the other day and someone mentioned this Frederick Douglass guy. Sounds like he’s tremendous. Think we could find a place for him over at Defense? 
*What? He’s what? How dark? Do you have a picture of him? Could he pass? 
*Hmm, that could be a problem. It wouldn’t go over well with my tremendous constituency of forgotten men and women. 
*Well, maybe I can give Rex over at State a buzz. He might be able to make him an ambassador to one of those Scandinavian countries, like Uruguay or Togo or something. 
*What? Another problem? What problem is that? I certainly can fix it. 
*He did?! When? 
*1895!! I wasn’t aware of that. 
*Buried in Rochester, huh? Tremendous city, Rochester. Doing fantastic things there in Rochester. 
*Well, I guess we should forget the whole thing then - as long as he isn’t around to bother us. 
*Say, Bulldog, tremendous talking with you. You just let me know if you need something - missiles, tanks, grenades, a couple of blondes from Mar-a-Lago. 
*OK, great, tremendous, fantastic. Talk to you later. 
*Bye, bye.
--H. Scott Wolfe

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yet Another Anti-Brown Screed: Setting Greg Hubbard Straight

Not having had the opportunity to attend the John Brown Day events in Lake Placid, NY, this year, I was pleased to find a nice article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (8 May).  Unfortunately, at the bottom of the article there is found the venting of yet another John Brown hater named Greg Hubbard, who unleashed a screed of misinformation and error, concluding that Brown was "vile."   Hubbard's remarks suggest the kind of pent-up hatred for Brown that seems to exist in some white folks' hearts.

Most of the time, as I have demonstrated by numerous rejoinders on this blog for over a decade now, this kind of anti-Brown screed is largely based on half-truths, misinformation, and more substantially upon bias.  Hubbard's remarks are no different.  In just a few short paragraphs, he is able to cram in lots of errors, showing that his "opinion" is in fact nothing more than an airing out of his own hatred for a man about whom he knows very little.

As Hubbard's remark reminds us, there is an abundant well-spring of contempt and hatred for John Brown in this nation, and one should not be surprised that someone like Hubbard would troll and snipe at the conclusion of an online article--the past time of ignorant bigotry.

At any rate, I've copied Hubbard's malign screed below, along with my response.   Like an old friend used to say to me, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

So we go.


Greg Hubbard
John Brown, who became a Kansas Jayhawker, was a vicious man who used his opposition to slavery to kill opponents of a ‘Free Soil’ Kansas. Supporters of the ‘Free Soil’ movement often did not intend freedom for African American slaves, or banning slavery from the new state because of moral opposition, but because banning Black slaves from entering Kansas meant no competition from ‘free’ labor.

John Brown is documented as brutally killing anyone he suspected of harboring pro-slavery sympathies. Not even family members of were spared. Today he would justifiably be called a mass murderer. His reputation is now based solely on 'The Raid,' but that is not in any way a complete portrait of the man.

The widow of one of his viciously murdered victims sent him a letter just before his execution, gloating about his upcoming death.

Slavery was vile, but in my opinion, so was John Brown.
Greg Hubbard

Louis DeCaro Jr. · 

Hi Greg Hubbard, the problem with your assessment is that much of what you say is just factually incorrect. As a biographer of the man, I offer these words only as a corrective, not to be polemical, although it is unfortunate that a lot of time is spent refuting baseless and erroneous charges like what you've offered, and which deserve a public correction. 1. JB was not properly speaking a Jayhawker. Jayhawkers emulated him, but he was his own man and not a joiner. He lent his support to the antislavery cause but much of his actions were also premised on protecting his family from local threats from proslavery enemies. 2. JB was not in agreement with Free Soil people who, as you say, were racists. JB was an absolute egalitarian and antislavery man. He disdained free soil racism, whether from northern or southern men. 3. JB was amazingly peaceful in dealing with proslavery people. He was in Kansas from the fall of 1855 and never raised a hand until May 1856, when a cadre of proslavery conspirators were exposed as plotting against his family with violent intent. With no recourse to law (there was no justice operating, esp. for antislavery people in 1856), he and a group of his sons and associated took out 5 proslavery conspirators. This was a preemptive strike and falls within the guerilla war context. What is clear, however, is how specific and limited his actions were in comparison to the violent terrorism of the proslavery presence. You cannot prove that Brown killed be simply for political differences; the evidence shows otherwise. If Brown killed a man, it is because that man intended to kill his family and this is quite arguable from the facts. Your claim is unwarranted and I challenge you to prove it, including the notion that he would be labeled a "mass murderer" today. Five men, in a war time context without recourse to law, and fully aware of a lethal conspiracy and imminent invasion by a horde of proslavery thugs, which put the invasion in check. That's not the basis of "mass murder." Finally, it is not true that JB's reputation is now solely based on the raid; many people dealing in half truths and bias continue to throw up the Pottawatomie episode, and this is a constant chore for the historian since there is so much bias without fact. Yes, Mahala Doyle wrote to Jb in jail in Virginia; the letter was probably coached by proslavery people; and let me tell you that she was no innocent. Her husband and two grown sons were plotting to kill Brown and she knew it. She knew what they were up to and didn't try to stop them. When the Browns were taking the Doyles out to execute them, she told her husband basically, "I told you what was going to happen with your devilment." Greg Hubbard, read the books and the history. You're contempt for Brown comes from a place that is not historical, actually far more bias. The question is why you despise a good man who stood for freedom. The problem is more with your perceptions or the people who have poisoned your thinking.

Monday, May 08, 2017

John Brown at 217 (Born May 9, 1800)

Had he been made of such poor clay as we,
Who, when we feel a little fire aglow
'Gainst wrong within us, dare not let it grow,
But crouch and hide it, lest the scorner see
And sneer, yet bask our self‑‑complacency
In that faint warmth‑‑had he been fashioned so,
The nation n'er had come to that birth‑throe
That gave the world a new humanity.
He was no vain professor of the word‑‑
His life a mockery of the creed;‑‑he made
No discount on the Golden Rule, but heard
Above the Senate's brawls and din of trade
Ever the clank of chains, until he stirred
The nation's heart on that immortal raid.

William Herbert Carruth (1916)

Source: Sunflowers, A Book of Kansas Poems.  Edited by Willard Wattles.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"We As a Family Have Sacrificed Enough": The Browns' Civil War Disappointment (1862)

In composing our narratives, it is tempting to jump from John Brown's death in 1859 to dramatic 
martial scenes of men in blue--white and black--marching into battle against rebel forces in the Civil War. While the ultimate outcome of the war was the defeat of southern rebels and the end of slavery, the two outcomes were not held as equal objectives by the federal government when the war began in 1861. A realistic historical sketch of the Civil War must include the fact that despite his alleged life-long hatred of slavery, Abraham Lincoln was willing to avoid war at the onset, even at the cost of allowing slavery to be contained in the slave states.  It was Southern greed, prejudice, and hubris that caused the rebels to mistake Lincoln for John Brown and reject his compromise.

Consequently, when the South seceded, Lincoln sent federal troops to save the Union, not free the slaves.  Indeed, it took much of the war for Lincoln's social and political sensibilities to catch up with those of the abolitionists, since his sine qua non was the preservation of the Union until late in the war.   Of course, this was not an exceptional position.  Lincoln's agenda was typical of many whites in the North who didn't want to overturn slavery, but felt compelled to support a military prevention of Southern secession.

To no surprise, the abolitionists were not enthusiastic about Lincoln's election and were disappointed with the way the newly elected Republican administration put black liberation on the back burner in order to prioritize saving the Union.   It is also no surprise that many whites disdained John Brown and expressed antipathy toward his surviving widow and children.   Even though a segment of the antislavery population sympathized with Brown, many of them considered him a kind of Don Quixote figure, who meant well despite his erroneous effort to free the slaves.   Many others simply disdained Brown, like proslavery Democrats who would even show political contempt toward his family.   A good example of this is found in the case of Salmon Brown's effort to join the Union army.  

Salmon Brown--as he would
have looked around 1862
(West Virginia State Collection)
Salmon Brown

In 1862, twenty-six-year-old Salmon Brown, was still in North Elba with his family, which by now included his own wife and young daughter.*  His older half-brothers, John Jr., Jason, and Owen had long left the fold, and his two full brothers, Watson and Oliver, had died at Harper's Ferry.  Salmon was "the man in the family" at North Elba when the war started, and at first he felt duty-bound to support the cause, lending his hand in starting the 96th New York Regiment. 

But no sooner had Salmon donned his uniform that a protest began to arise against his promotion on the grounds that he was the son of John Brown.  Protests were varied: some stated simply that they were opposed to Brown's legacy; others did not want him ascending to a command position in the event that his superior officers were struck down or fell to sickness in the war.  Finally, others complained that they feared the hostile retaliation of the Confederates if they fell into rebel hands under Salmon's command.   Complaints became so great that he not only lost his lieutenancy, but felt it necessary to resign from the army, stating that his continued presence in the 96th would only impair its usefulness.1

Jason Writes

On April 22, 1862, Jason Brown, who was nearly forty years old, penned a fascinating letter to his younger half-brother.  Initially, Jason apologized, apparently for having been such a poor correspondent and for having neglected him.   Jason appealed that he was not showing favoritism by not having written--that is, apparently he worried that Salmon would think that his neglect was based on the fact of their different mothers (Jason's mother was Dianthe Lusk, John Brown's first wife, who died in 1832; Brown married Mary Day, Salmon's mother, the following year).   

In his letter, Jason knows of Salmon's recent disappointment, although he adds in a postscript that he had just found out that he had been offered the rank of lieutenant. Evidently, the reason for Jason's letter was that Annie, Salmon's younger sister, had sent him a copy of Salmon's resignation letter to the army.  "I am very glad that you did not go with a regiment of men who are ashamed of the son of a man who dared to do right! Ashamed of a man who dares to think an speak for Justice and truth," Jason wrote.2
Jason Brown, in later life
(Kansas State Historical
He continues the letter by affirming Salmon's decision and expressing his gladness that he had "escaped from a regiment of men who I believe would be willing to die to save the infernal cause of this war"--in other words, Jason believed that many Northern men were yet willing that slavery continue, and were fighting only for the preservation of the status quo.  He then mentions that he too had considered enlisting, but had not done so because his wife Ellen was in poor health.  Nor had his older bachelor brother, Owen, enlisted. However, John Brown Junior had already enlisted, and Jason writes that he hopes that he too would "resign and come home," and that no other family member would serve in the army until "the Government is willing to do right."3

The Browns had consistently taken an abolitionist and egalitarian stance and found the circumstances quite dissatisfying, and Jason's sentiments reflected those of John Junior's as well.  Junior had been the first to become involved in the army in late 1861, when he assisted in raising a company of sharpshooters from Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. After his company was mustered into the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, Junior complained.4  "We are all feeling very sore about serving under Proslavery Gen. Halleck," he wrote to Jason that previous month.5

Henry Halleck, a Northern Democrat, was given command of the western theater by Lincoln in 1862. He was eventually transferred to the east by the President, but he was disliked by antislavery people in the west because of his Democratic sympathies, which Junior thus rightly characterized as "proslavery." Junior sought and obtained a medical discharge in May 1862, although there were some, like Charles Auiger, an Ohio neighbor, who believed he had faked his health problems (claiming rheumatism) in order to get out of the army.  Auiger thought John Junior fearful of war, which may be the case.6  Despite being his father's namesake (and the chief pensioner of his father's legacy), John Junior was never distinguished as a fighting man.5  Even so, it is reasonable to assume that he likewise had political reasons for backing out of military service.

This certainly was Jason's sentiment:
It seems to me that the mass of the white people of this wicked nation would rather that millions of its best men should die in this war than to do the least act of justice to the 4 million slaves or in any way interfere with the accursed thing (Slavery).  I have lost all desire to have anything to do in that war till the nation is ready to do right. . . . As long as slavery is to be protected let proslavery men fight.  I shall stay at home for the present.7
In the meantime, Jason concluded, he was still struggling with debt and poverty--the unfortunate "estate" that John Brown left his family after giving everything, including his life, for the cause of freedom.  "I think we as a family have sacrificed enough for the present," Jason wrote. "At least till the people are willing to stop fighting to protect slavery."8  L. DeCaro, Jr.

* Editorial Note, 13 May 2016

I am grateful to my friend, Alice Keesey Mecoy, for alerting me to the error I made in the original version of this post.  In that error I represented Salmon Brown as being single in 1862, which is incorrect.  Alice thus writes: "But Salmon was not single in 1862.  He married Abigail Clarissa Hinckley on 15 Oct 1857 in North Elba.  They had an infant boy born and die in 1858, and Cora, who is buried with Annie Brown Adams in California, was born in 1860."  Of course, Alice, who is a meticulous student of the Brown family genealogy, is absolutely correct and I am grateful for her correction.  I should add, of course, that Alice Keesey Mecoy is a direct descendant of John Brown--the great great great granddaughter of John Brown through his daughter, Anne Brown Adams.



     1 See G.W. Palmley, "A visit with a son of John Brown," Montgomery News, 20 August 1915, in Boyd B. Stutler Collection.
     2 Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, to Salmon Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 22 April 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     3 Ibid.
     4 John Brown Jr., Humboldt, Kan., to Jason Brown, Akron, Ohio, 25 March 1862, in Brown Family Collection, Henry Huntington Library.
     5"Biographical Resume" under Inventory and Calendar of John Brown, Jr. (Columbus: Ohio State Historical Society).
     6 See Katherine Mayo's interview with Charles D. Auiger, 4 Jan. 1909, in JB in Cleveland, March 1859, and in Ohio folder, Box 4, John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. 
     7 Jason to Salmon 22 April 1862. 
     8 Ibid.