John Brown has Questions

John Brown

The tax cut/ACA Repeal bill will hit the Senate for a vote this week. Let your Senators know how you feel about them taking health insurance away from millions to pay for tax cuts for billionaires.

Charles Robinson and others saw to it that John Brown did not finish his fiery speech denouncing the peace that ended the Wakarusa War. From their perspective, everything came to the best end. Only one antislavery man died and a general battle did not ensue. Lawrence had a very stressful time of it, but the town survived and Robinson and James Lane connived to get Governor Shannon to recognize their militia. Brown thought they gave up something material, acknowledging the supremacy of the territorial laws and government. He left town unmoved by assurances that no one had conceded anything material.

While Lane and Robinson negotiated with Shannon and other proslavery leaders, Brown had a talk with James F. Legate. (Legate previously featured here as the man who warned the free state leadership that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants for their arrest.) In 1879, Legate recalled spending that Saturday night with Brown. Legate had experience living in the South and Brown had many questions.

So far as I can tell, John Brown never made it further into the South than Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere in modern West Virginia. He knew about slavery from seeing enslaved people in the North of his youth and speaking to people who had stolen themselves to freedom. It took only that to convince him of slavery’s monstrous wrong, much as records of the same in slave narratives might do for us, but he had this opportunity to learn more and took it. I haven’t been able to find Legate’s own recollection from the Leavenworth Weekly Press online, but Stephen Oates summarizes:

Were they as passive as some people said? Did they have attachments with their masters? Or were they willing to fight for their liberty should the opportunity arise?

Legate did not inform posterity of how he answered, but the questions themselves point to Brown’s long-range thinking. Right now he had the struggle in Kansas, where few slaves lived to fight for their freedom. He also had Missouri right next door, with rather more slaves on hand. Maybe Brown thought he would take a trip over there in the near future. Maybe he still thought of Virginia, as he had for years.

The conversation turned then to an argument about the prayer and Legate must have found Brown as immovable on his theology as on slavery. That led to Brown praying that the Almighty would strengthen his hand against the Missourians, “enemies of God.”

Silence and Silencing John Brown

George W. Brown

The tax cut bill will hit the Senate for a vote this week. Let your Senators know how you feel about them taking health insurance away from millions to pay for tax cuts for billionaires.

George Washington Brown left a few details out of his account of John Brown’s arrival in Lawrence during the Wakarusa War. With John Brown now deemed a madman and guilty of attacking the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not to mention Kansas much settled, the editor must not have seen much glory in associating himself with the old man. He has Brown appear in Lawrence and a military company forms around him on the spot.

Newspaper Brown omitted how he met the crusading Brown outside the Free State Hotel, gratefully shook his hand, and introduced him to the free state leadership. He received his commission from Lane and Robinson and viewed Thomas Barber’s body before going back out and dreaming up his attack plans. Then the newspaper’s account picks back up, with Brown out around Lawrence drumming up support for his plan to attack Franklin and ignoring contrary orders. It again leaves out Brown’s response to news of peace, which he suspected meant surrender.

As soon as James Lane and Charles Robinson got done telling the news, Brown mounted the unsteady platform they used to give his own speech. His biographer Villard has extracts:

He declared that Lawrence had been betrayed, and told his hearers that they should make a night attack upon the pro-slavery forces and drive them out of the Territory. “I am an Abolitionist,” he said, “dyed in the wool,” and then he offered to be one of ten men  to make a night attack upon the Border Ruffian camp. Armed with lanterns, his plan was to string his men along the camp far apart. At a given signal in the early morning hours, they were to shout and fire on the slumbering enemy. “And I do believe,” declared John Brown in telling of it, “that the whole lot of them would have run.”

John Brown

Brown might have just gotten himself and several other men killed, but the Missourians did come to Kansas with a remarkable faith that they would never face a serious fight. Villard claims that James Lane thought it was a good idea too, so one can’t attribute it entirely to Brown’s poor command of tactics. Critics and friends alike pulled Brown off the platform before he could talk everyone into something rash. Villard credits Charles Robinson with masterminding that. The Emigrant Aid Company man generally took the least militant tact when it came to actual fighting, so that would fit his character.


Six Browns in Lawrence

John Brown

The news came to John Brown at Samuel Adair’s: a proslavery man killed an antislavery man. The victim’s friend and landlord Jacob Branson got together a meeting to look into the death. The murderer ran for the hills. Sheriff Samuel Jones got a posse together and went after Branson. Some antislavery men got their own posse together and took Branson from Jones. Now both sides looked on the edge of pitched battle at Lawrence, with Missourians rushing in to kill abolitionists and free state men converging to defend the town. Brown got home in a rush and sent John, Junior, to confirm the news.

Junior came galloping back in short order. He met someone on the road who said two thousand armed men massed on the Wakarusa aiming to burn Lawrence to the ground. Henry, Jason, and Oliver didn’t have it in them to go, still laid up with ague. The able-bodied men loaded up a wagon with weaponry and started out on December 6, 1855. Brown drove it while Junior, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon walked alongside. They started at five in the evening and traveled through the night. At a bridge, they kept on in the face of the enemy, not slowing and daring the proslavery men to stop them. The Missourians declined.

The five arrived to find Lawrence at arms, which brings us to where James Redpath’s account first entered our story. His grim warrior saint made a powerful first impression. Redpath wrote in 1860, aiming to defend Brown’s reputation against those who deemed him mad. Among that set stands George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom and no relation to John. Responding to the news out of Virginia in 1859, he published an account of what people in Kansas knew of Brown. He, like Redpath, witnessed Brown’s arrival in Lawrence on that December day:

When the Wakarusa war was pending the old man and four sons arrived in Lawrence, the balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State Hotel they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short heavy broad sword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire arms, and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable and were received with great eclat.

As Redpath said, that arrival prompted the formation of a military company under Brown’s command. Brown immediately

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the commands of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin and make an attack upon the Pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Committee of Public Safety had to step in several times to put a stop to that “wild project”. G.W. Brown’s version, like Redpath’s, has John Brown leave Lawrence in disgust when peace breaks out.

Good and Bad News for John Brown

John Brown

Gentle readers, I’m not going to do a full political post today but I want to draw your attention to the attack against civilization currently pending before the Senate and encourage you to make your opposition known to your Senators. If the reasons there don’t suffice, then the GOP also looks likely to use it as a vehicle to pack the courts with the sorts of judges who think Donald Trump would make a great president. Those are lifetime appointments, so imagine Judge Trump ruling on your civil rights into the 2060s.


Back to Kansas. We left John Brown finding out that John Junior did him proud by breaking the gag law that the bogus legislature passed outlawing antislavery statements. He went right up to the proslavery man and declared, in as many words, that no one had a right to hold a slave in the territory. Junior dared the proslavery party to come get him. John Brown would have none of that and resolved that no proslavery man would take any son of his. Soon after hearing that news came the free state elections for delegates to the Topeka Convention. Expecting trouble, the Browns arrived armed at the polls in Pottawatomie. No Missourians appeared and no local proslavery men caused any trouble, so Brown stood by while his sons voted. Then everyone went home.

The lack of disturbance at the polls pleased Brown greatly. He wrote his wife that he thought things on the turn in Kansas. The territory has suffered powerfully, but since the Missourians didn’t show they might have had their fill of Kansas. The same optimism that drove Brown into deep debt and failed businesses appeared again. Winter followed the good news and promptly laid the Brown boys up again, with their father the only able-bodied man at Brown’s Station for some time starting in late October. He regretted that that kept him from helping the neighbors as much as he meant to. At the start of November he finally replaced the first tent on the claims with a mud-chinked structure. Salmon recovered enough to help with the second building and things looked up, or at least progressing, again.

Samuel Jones

For Thanksgiving, not yet a standardized national holiday, Brown called on his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. With Adair and his wife at Osawatomie, Brown received the news that Kansas pitched toward a great explosion after all. Franklin Coleman, a proslavery man, murdered the antislavery Charles Dow at Hickory Point, ten miles off from Lawrence. Jacob Branson, who had put Dow up before then and served as an officer in the antislavery militia, arranged a meeting to look into the death which Coleman understood as a lynch mob. He ran for shelter with Governor Shannon and Sheriff Samuel Jones, the latter of whom drummed up a posse to arrest Branson on the strength of a warrant that Shannon arranged for him. Free staters led by Samuel Wood sprung Branson from Jones’ custody, at which point he declared Lawrence in a state of rebellion and got Governor Shannon to call out the territorial militia to suppress it. David Rice Atchison and hundreds of Missourians, informed by Jones before he bothered to let Shannon know what happened, decided they could do militia service across the border and started into Kansas bent on a fight. Deeply disturbed, Brown rushed to his sons and dispatched Junior to find out the lay of the land.

“No man has a right to hold a slave in Kansas.” John Junior Breaks the Law

John Brown

With John Brown now in Kansas, we should take a look quick look at the wider picture. Brown discovered his family’s miserable state on October 7, 1855. By then the free state movement had already gotten going in earnest, following the dismissal of Andrew Reeder and his replacement by the more reliably proslavery Wilson Shannon. That and the bogus legislature’s draconian slave code about did it for most Kansans, even many who otherwise cared little about slavery either way. They came together at Lawrence and Big Springs to reject their illegitimate government and form a new one.

The Lawrence conventions, two which happened simultaneously, gathered in mid-August. John Junior turned up for the more radical one, news which his father must have both expected and taken some satisfaction in. He had enough pull to score a post on the business committee that recommended the call for a constitutional convention at Topeka. Big Springs made him a member of the territorial executive committee that oversaw free state elections.

Coming home with a head of steam from there, Junior decided he really ought to break some laws. Happening on a proslavery man at Pottawatomie, he uttered the words: “no man has a right to hold a slave in Kansas.”

The law of Kansas, duly passed by the bogus legislature, said

If any free person, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this territory, or shall introduce into this Territory print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory, written, printed, published, or circulated in this Territory, any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, obtaining any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony, and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.

Junior spoke it and promised that he would keep on speaking it. He further declared that

If any officer should attempt to arrest me for a violation of the law, and should put his villainous hands on me, I would surely kill him, so help me god.

He wrote this to his stepmother. His wife added to it her expectation that they would all get shot for breaking the laws but given the choice between freezing to death and a quick bullet for a good cause, she preferred the latter. All that happened in mid-September, before the storms and sickness that must have considerably dampened the Browns’ political enthusiasm. On his arrival and learning all this, John Brown the elder resolved that none of his sons would catch a bullet for breaking those laws. Nor would any proslavery man meddle in the free state elections.

John Brown’s Other Neighbors

John Brown

The Browns did not have the best of neighbors down by Osawatomie. They annoyed posterity by settling near that town, then performing their most conspicuous historical act before 1859 on the near by Pottawatomie, but they could keep it straight. They objected in the main to belligerent proslavery men living nearby. Rude at best and likely drunkards or worse, at least in antislavery rumor, people like the Sherman brothers and Allen Wilkinson made the area decidedly unwelcoming. Of course, their neighbors had gripes of their own.

The Browns spent too much time sick and shivering to become nuisances even if inclined, but at least one local antislavery man had a vicious reputation as an eager brawler. Decades later, Salmon Brown told Oswald Garrison Villard (PDF) -a founding member of the NAACP and William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson as well as a John Brown biographer- that Theodore Weiner was a “big, savage, bloodthirsty Austrian” and “could not be kept out of any accessible fight.” Wiener would go with Brown to visit some of those proslavery neighbors in 1856.

Beyond the brawlers, Brown can’t have liked the news that most of the antislavery party shared in white America’s common loathing of black America. Another white colonist in the area, John Everett, described the general sentiment in letters to his parents:

The community here are very nearly united on the free-state question. But the majority would dislike and resent being called abolitionists. . . . Our community here are mostly Western people, some from Slave States. There is a prevailing sentiment against admitting negroes into the territory at all, slave or free.


The Western people find much such a country as they left behind them, and settle right down, build their cabins, fence and break up their fields and drop their corn, before you hardly know they are here. They have a strong instinct against slavery, do not want it about them, but lack the strong moral sense of its injustice which we feel.

That made them typical westerners and western men predominated in Kansas; the territorial census of 1855 found fully 83% of white Kansans hailed from points rather nearer the territory than Massachusetts or New York. That our informants tend to hail from the Northeast and had a more moral condemnation of slavery makes it easy to forget that. Many who did come from the Northeast found that the Emigrant Aid Company badly oversold the territory’s amenities and soon went home. Even beside that, people from the Northeast often didn’t know to expect quarrels over land claims and the generally rough situation on the white frontier.

John Everett thought he might reach his neighbors, though:

If you have more than one key to Uncle Tom, we would be very glad if you could send us one. We could do good with it by lending it. They need light here on that subject.

After writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe faced charges that she made up all the information in it about slavery. Thus she hit the books and produced a second volume arguing for the accuracy of her book. Stowe’s critics had a point; she did the research after the fact. However, she could get it as right as she did partly from being an informed antislavery American before writing the book and possibly with the help of enslaved informants she met while helping them escape Kentucky through her Cincinnati home. The facts might not move Missourians, for whom they couldn’t be news, but maybe they would shake loose a few from the Old Northwest for whom slavery remained something more theoretical.

John Brown’s New Neighbors

John Brown

We left John Brown, his son Oliver, and his son-in-law Henry Thompson just over the Mississippi. They hadn’t gotten their guns on time in Chicago, which delayed them. Otherwise, they had a reasonably decent trip with much shooting of chickens. On the morning of October 7, Brown rode into Brown’s Station. Oliver and Henry went ahead the night before. He found Kansas with more timber land than expected and his sons in dire straits.

The Browns lived in tents, or something a generous person might call a tent. They shivered through the bitter winds. Sickness laid up everyone except Wealthy Brown and John III, to the point where they couldn’t harvest their crops. Most had malaria, which Brown also suffered recurrent bouts with, but Salmon nearly died of a colic. Their livestock roamed freely. Constant thunderstorms, high winds, scarce food left everyone in Kansas little better. Emigrant Aid Company promotional literature left those facts out. Brown set to tending everyone while Oliver and Henry unloaded the guns, swords, and other provisions. They also brought out Austin Brown’s body, which John dug up on his way across Missouri to return to his parents.

I can’t say I’ve heard of more awkward surprises, but Junior and Ellen had to bury Austin in a hurry and leave him behind. The chance to do it right improved their spirits to the point where she agreed to remain in Kansas and Junior started thinking about orchards and vineyards again after so much misery. Junior also gave Brown the skinny on recent events: The free state party had elections set for only a few days out. The antislavery side had its strengths and failings, the latter most notably in their general loathing of black Americans, but proslavery neighbors must have loomed larger in Brown’s mind.

Dutch Bill (Sherman), -a German from Oldenburg, and a resident of Kansas since 1845, -had amassed considerable property by robbing cattle in droves and emigrant trains. He was a giant, six feet four inches high

Sherman and his brother ran a tavern and general store on the California Road since that year, first squatting illegally. Whether or not they bolstered their income by theft or not, they were loud proslavery men. The rumors went around that, in addition to pilfering, they hated Native Americans but didn’t pass up the chance to keep a Native woman for their “criminal purposes” now and then. we have only the rumor-mongering of hostile witnesses to support all that, but none of it would put the Shermans far out of pace with normal white colonists on the frontier. If Brown heard such things from his son -we have the account from one of his later co-conspirators, August Bondi- then he probably believed it. Either way, it’s likely that the Shermans at least made occasional threats against antislavery whites. Bondi has them

frightening and insulting the families, or once in a while attacking and ill-treating a man whom they encountered alone.

Allen Wilkinson had a greater distinction than that of local bully with a reputation for rape and theft: he served as a postmaster and illegal votes made him into a member of the Bogus Legislature. Wilkinson didn’t get his own hands dirty, but Bondi put him forward as a local leader of the proslavery faction who always got advance notice of Missourian invasions. Rumors cast him as a wife beater, which his wife would later deny. She would know.


Guns, Chickens, and Checks: The Journey to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

John Brown had letters on hand from three of his sons when he started for Kansas. Junior told him the general situation and advised him against expecting to make money raising livestock or land speculating. He did suggest that antislavery men in the territory should arm themselves, though. Jason wrote of his and his wife’s depression at the death of their son. Salmon wanted food and summer clothes. Further correspondence kept Brown up to date on the political situation  and asked if he could raise some money to send guns to Kansas. In better news, Junior also wrote that while all the territory’s surveying had all been contracted out it went so slowly that Brown stood a chance of getting work at it all the same.

All of this goes to the elder Brown’s motivation in coming to Kansas. John Brown went to Kansas to fight slavery and help his sons. He also wanted some means of support while doing so and took a keen interest in money making opportunities, inquiring about prices and the feasibility of various agricultural operations. When Brown got news that he would probably not make piles of money and an at best qualified endorsement of his plan to work as a surveyor, he still went. A person driven entirely by pecuniary interest would have looked elsewhere. Much later, sitting in a Virginia jail, Brown told Clement Vallandingham essentially the same thing:

Vallandingham. How long have you been engaged in this business?

Brown. From the breaking out of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, and they induced me to go. I did not go there to settle, but because of the difficulties.

Vallandingham then asked why Brown came to Virginia. Brown gave an answer that would fit his trip to Kansas just as well:

We came to free the slaves, and only that.

Brown made his arrangements. From Chicago, he wrote explaining the progress of his journey since leaving North Elba. He picked up a good horse for $120

but have so much load that we shall have to walk a good deal-enough probably to supply ourselves with game.

Brown traveled with his son Oliver and son-in-law Henry Thompson. He continued on this theme on September 4, by which time they had reached just into Iowa. They tarried longer in than expected in Chicago because “our freight” hadn’t arrived. That freight included guns, of which Brown had a crate from Cleveland as well, and some artillery swords. In further firearms news, he told the family that Oliver turned out to have a good aim and had brought down many free-roaming chickens for the party. Brown closed with instructions for Watson, left in charge back in New York, on how to cash a check for some cattle Brown ordered sold.

The GOP Tax Bill is Another Attack on Us All.

Gentle Readers, it’s that time again. The Republican Party, which once produced our greatest president, has continued to dig its way through the concrete slab beneath the fallout shelter in its quest for the bottom. A tax bill has passed the House, with the vote of my Representative and maybe yours too, which will dramatically slash taxes for the extremely wealthy and corporations. Because they are using budget reconciliation to get that bill through the Senate without a filibuster, that means they need to write a bill that doesn’t add to the deficit over ten years. (Adding to the budget deficit within that time is allowed.) To make the math work, the GOP has decided that the rest of us should pay for it.

You may have heard that you will get a tax cut. Who ever told you that either told you on the deck of your yacht or wasn’t telling the truth:

By 2023, a key middle-class tax break expires. Many of the people facing tax hikes are solidly middle class ($40,000 to $75,000) or else in the “upper upper” middle class ($200,000 to $400,000), JCT found. A key savings for the middle class — the Family Flexibility Credit — goes away after 2022. The House bill also uses a low measure of inflation after 2022, meaning more and more people start to jump from the 12 percent tax bracket to the 25 percent bracket (which starts to kick in at $67,500 for heads of households).

That’s the House bill, but the Senate will be doing something similar and also repeal the ACA’s insurance mandate. You may know that as the pain that requires you to get insurance. It’s also the provision that gets enough of us into the risk pool that insurers can afford to take care of the sick and people with pre-existing conditions without demanding ruinous premiums from them. That may not sound just to you, and I will not defend the morality of for-profit health insurance, but it is how the system works. Insurers count on premiums from healthy people to keep them above water when someone gets very sick. Chronic illnesses, cancer, childbirth, and injuries can all make any of us extremely unappealing to the insurance industry unless we have a private pool made of solid gold. The estimated impact of removing the mandate is that thirteen million people would lose coverage. Some of those people would drop it voluntarily and take their chances, but many would not; the new rates would be too much for them to afford. This is a backdoor Obamacare repeal. And by the way, if you do get sick this bill removes your ability to deduct medical expenses from your taxes.

That’s cruel in itself. The bill also includes offenses against the historical profession and, for that matter, almost every profession. In the United States, becoming a professional usually requires a college degree to get your foot in the door. More than that, it tends to requires a graduate degree. Some disciplines have their own names for it, but most of these are Masters and Doctorates. Graduate school is ruinously expensive, much more so than ordinary university already is. Grad students who aren’t independently wealthy get by largely through the fact that universities ruthlessly exploit them in exchange for a pittance salary and waiving their tuition. The GOP’s bill will remove the deduction for that tuition waiver and tax it as income. Thus a person working to become a historian, or an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, almost any middle class or higher job, will be expected to pay taxes on an income two or three times what actually goes into their bank.

Gentle Readers, I’m friends with some people in grad school and others about to start it right now. None of them can afford that. They are your future historians and librarians. People with advanced degrees designed your car. They developed your medicine. They are essential to the survival of modern society and all the benefits it brings us. If you value what they contribute to the world and hope it continues, you can’t support this bill unless you also think that those roles should be open only to those of us lucky enough to be born fabulously wealthy.

There is some good news, though. If you’re a corporation you could deduct the cost of supplies you buy for your workers to use to make you money. To pay for that, among other things, the GOP will remove the ability of teachers to deduct money out of their own pockets that they spend on supplies for your kids. Virtually every teacher does this every year.

All in all, three-quarters of the cuts in this bill go to businesses and corporations. The extremely rich get the rest. In exchange for that, we are promised that money will rain from the heavens to make up for it. We’ve been promised that for every prior cut like this and none of them has ever paid for itself. This is the largest yet. If you believe them now and that this time will be different, I don’t know what to say.

If none of that moves you, then consider this: The House bill will knock a 1.4 trillion hole in the federal budget by design. That’s what it’s for. The plan is to create a massive deficit and then use it as an excuse to radically cut programs that people depend on for their very lives: Medicaid and Medicare top the list and would face immediate cuts to the tune of billions of dollars. This bill will kill people. It will devastate higher education. It will hurt teachers and children. And then the GOP will use it to come back around for more blood from the same people. It’s all being done with an almost total absence of committee hearings, chances for the minority to offer amendments, in haste and largely in secret just like ACA repeal.

This is sadism. I would call it inhuman, but I study people who do things like this to other people. Even the people at Forbes, not known for their bleeding heart liberalism or love of taxes, think this bill is madness. As these cuts will disproportionately harm those with the least, and we have ordered our society such that people who we don’t consider white tend to have the least, I consider this also a white supremacist piece of legislation. I cannot study what I do in good faith and let it pass entirely in silence.

Get in touch with your Senators, especially if they’re Republicans and doubly so if they’re Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, or John McCain, and let them know what you think about all that. You can get contact information for them here or use ResistBot’s automated system through Facebook Messenger or your smart phone. If all of this sounds great to you, then those systems also work the other way. I hope you agree with me that this is a fight worth having, but if not then we still have something like a democracy. You deserve to have your voice heard too. We are all Americans. is open for business right now. Go get insured.

Gentle readers, because the Trump administration slashed the budget for Affordable Care Act outreach by 90% something like one third of Americans don’t know they can get insurance for themselves and their families right now. The early enrollment rates still look good for this year -better than last, I think- but a third of us don’t know about it. Please spread the word.

This post will remain at the top of the page until open enrollment through ends on December 15. Some states have extended the deadline and the Obama administration did so as a matter of course, but you probably don’t have until January this year. Don’t let the GOP take away your health care.