“Commit no rash act”

John Brown

We have three versions of what happened before John Brown and a few others went off to make their mark on the bodies of some proslavery men down by Pottawatomie. Henry Williams told everyone that the murders Brown directed there came as a complete surprise. James Hanway said that Brown approached him individually. Salmon Brown would have posterity believe that everyone in the militia camp that night had a good idea of what Brown intended and eagerly approved, to the point of the aforementioned Williams writing up a literal hit list for Brown.

As always, our sources come to us with agendas attached. Salmon wants to make his and his father’s acts more conventional and thus his story emphasizes how everyone knew what John Brown meant to do and approved. Williams and Hanway, who didn’t take part in the killings, don’t want any connection to them and so respectively plead total innocence and personal refusal. One has a natural temptation to pick someone who lied and ignore their account. People do lie in their own interests all the time, so it makes sense to find the liars and discard them. When we have clear indications of falsehood, doing so might even make for good historical practice.

With the Browns in camp, we have a genuinely ambiguous situation. Even if everyone shaded the truth, we can’t presume that someone spoke only falsehoods. That leaves us with contradictory stories to reconcile. Stephen Oates does his best with the unclear, conflicting testimony. He suggests that Brown might have had a general council of war among his own small company of six men, Salmon included. Thus his son could later say that the full company knew what Brown meant and things could still come as a surprise to Hanway and Williams. However, that still leaves Salmon’s story that Williams wrote up a list of men to kill in grave doubt. Williams might have done so, but it seems unlikely that Brown either needed help picking targets or would have accepted it if he did. It also strains credulity to think that Salmon meant only a half dozen or so people when he said that

The general purport of our intentions -some radical retaliatory measure – some killing- was well understood by the whole camp.

That said, it wouldn’t take a lot of insight to imagine that John Brown meant to do something violent to proslavery men. If he had his council among his own group, maybe with a few hangers-on, then it seems that John Junior caught word of it and tried to step in. This may have happened about the time that Brown went out recruiting Hanway or another man, which would make sense if Brown aimed for some secrecy, but Junior could have overheard his father’s angry talk as easily as Hanway did and acted from that. As Oates puts it, Brown got Theodore Weiner to sign on, on the grounds that he’d caught the wrong side of the Shermans and Doyles before, and then Junior spoke up:

“Father, I object to any of the men leaving. We are getting up here near the enemy and may need them.” Apparently an argument broke out between father and son. Then the old man stomped off with Wiener following. Suddenly apprehensive, John Jr. called out, “Father, be careful and commit no rash act.”

 

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