“Malignant spirits” John Brown and North Elba, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

We left off looking at the resolutions that John Brown wrote for his League of Gileadites, wherein he laid out his plan for fighting slave catchers and remarkably declared that he considered black Americans his people just as much as he did whites. The League would take any who came and provide arms to those who couldn’t afford them. The young and infirm would serve as lookouts and messengers. From there the resolutions moved on to administration matters.

Brown got forty-four people to sign on as Gileadites, though it seems they never carried out his advice. Slave catchers never arrived in Springfield to give them cause and local law enforcement declined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anyway. His rhetoric made the league into an exceptional example of planned resistance to the law, part of the general northern revulsion toward it that elsewhere resulted in violent fugitive rescues.

A few days after the meeting, Brown wrote to his wife up at North Elba on the same subject. He knew that former slaves lived in the community, some of whom had stolen themselves. Brown told Mary that the relief of fugitives had occupied his mind in Ohio. They suffered “sleepless nights on account of either themselves or their wives and children.” He believed that the Gileadite meeting boosted their spirits, then he underlined in private for his wife what he said in public in the League’s resolutions:

I want all my family to imagine themselves in the same dreadful condition.

Few nineteenth century whites in the United States would bid one another to do any such thing. White abolitionists can come close to it, but their appeals tend to focus more on pity than empathy as such.

John Brown spent the next few years trying to repair his finances from the ruin of his wool business. That involved many trips, and court appearances. Brown fared poorly at the bar, traveling and losing most of his cases everywhere from Boston to Ohio. He finally settled down back in Springfield with empty pockets and ill with malaria. The rest of the family -Mary bore Brown’s nineteenth child in this time- didn’t do much better. The new baby didn’t make it, dying of whooping cough. That made nine children who didn’t survive to date.

Frederick Douglass

But North Elba called. Brown arranged for an in-law to build him a house there. He finally dissolved his wool partnership and aimed to quit Ohio as soon as he could afford it. To manage that, Brown rented three farms and hoped for an adequate payday come harvest. He remained on them when the Kansas-Nebraska Act appeared in the Senate. Brown wrote Frederick Douglass shortly thereafter:

What punishment ever inflicted by man or even threatened by God, can be too severe for those whose influence is a thousand times more malignant than the atmosphere of the deadly Upas-for those who hate the right and Most High.

Brown damned the legislators who voted for proslavery laws “malignant spirits” and “fiends clothed in human form.” He extended the description to everyone who enforced the laws and argued in their favor. Proslavery divines insulted the Almighty directly. What had become of the country, for such people to go on in impunity? He asked Douglass to revise his arguments into suitable form and bring them to public attention.

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