John Brown’s Conviction

John Brown

Gentle Readers, as you might have guessed the blog got a bit ahead of my reading. I didn’t notice in time so I ended up reading a book on black slaveholders in South Carolina rather than getting the necessary biographies to best understand John Brown. Redpath’s hagiography makes a fair start at that, but we must read it as essentially an antislavery campaign document. His protestations aside, he published at a time when white Southerners damned the Republican Party as a collection of John Browns. The Republicans denied this and condemned Brown’s ill-fated campaign against Harper’s Ferry.

Redpath’s book takes a different approach by vindicating Brown against his critics. Still, he had the clear cooperation of Brown’s family and friends as well as living in Kansas himself at the same time Brown did so we can’t just dismiss it entirely. I now have better sources to supplement him with: David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Reynolds bills his book as a cultural biography, as much about John Brown’s world as Brown himself. Oates’ wrote a conventional life. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both authors also have more distance from Brown and less commitment to making him into a saint or a madman than his contemporaries or past biographers.

Redpath gave us John Brown’s ideological reason to go to Kansas: to fight slavery. He also acknowledged in passing that Brown intended to help his sons and others who had preceded him out of both a general benevolence and from his genuine frontier expertise. These bear a closer look.

John Brown lived on the frontier of white settlement for much of his life. He grew up mostly in Ohio, in close company with Native Americans. His family had an unusually positive and close relationship with them. Reynolds points to this as evidence that Brown grew up free of any racial prejudice, raised by his father to treat all people just the same. Many incidents in Brown’s life argue for something like that. He raised his children to act as he did and he both aided fugitive slaves and appears to have socially mixed with non-whites in ways quite unusual for a nineteenth century American. I doubt he completely lacked prejudice, but in a pervasively and openly racist society that does count for something.

Reynolds also makes the point that Brown always considered himself a servant of the community. He had his famous hard, uncompromising side, but he also spent his time on the frontier building institutions and aiding his neighbors. In John Brown, they had the kind of man who would insist that the sheriff arrest and hold a man who committed a crime even when the sheriff wanted to grant leniency. They also had the kind of man who knew that the loss of labor and income would harm the accused’s family and provided for them out of his own quite modest means for the duration of his imprisonment. He built schools and hired teachers. He served as volunteer postmaster. The same uncompromising attitude toward his cause also applied to his duties.

We remember John Brown as a man who failed at everything he did. His business dealings bear that out. For example, Brown worked for as a time as a wool factor. He took in wool on consignment from farms back home, graded it, and put it for sale in the east. Brown had a good eye for wool and priced accordingly, with the worst stuff sold at below market rates and the best above. This resulted in buyers scooping up his low quality stock for less than it could go for and leaving his high end product in the warehouse. He would not budge from the prices he stated unless absolutely forced to, which meant he took a bath on most everything. His repeated errors seem to stem from a basic unwillingness to bend that served him well elsewhere. When Brown thought he had a duty to do something and do it right, he did not move.

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