Term Paper: John Brown

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John Brown was an abolitionist who was only one of the supporters of that movement until he led a band of men in an attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia as part of an effort to start a war. That was not the immediate result, though many have seen Brown's actions as contributing to the start of the Civil War a year or so later. Brown was wounded and taken with other conspirators for trial. He was hanged son after the trial. Historians have struggled with how to define Brown and his quixotic enterprise ever since, shifting from early condemnation on legal grounds to questioning whether he contribute fo the start of the Civil War or not, whether he helped or hurt the abolitionist cause, whether he was sane or insane, and generally whether he was a hero or a villain. Many of these possibilities are not really mutually exclusive so that several of these possibilities could be true at the same time. What is clear is that the view of historians of John Brown and his crusade has been changing and is tending more and more toward holding him up a s a hero rather than a villain.

Manisha Sinha details some of the history of how Brown has been treated in historical writing when he writes,

Few figures in American history have been the subject of so much historiographical controversy as John Brown. Like the scholarly debates over the causes of the Civil War and its significance, the early literature on John Brown is suffused with the passions of the participants in the sectional conflict over slavery and the prejudices of their historical heirs. Only in the post-Civil Rights era has John Brown received consistently favorable treatment at the hands of historians and writers, whose admiration for his unequivocal commitment to racial equality more than counterbalances their reservations about his violent personal warfare against slavery. (Sinha 161)

Sinha also notes that some of the attitude toward Brown depends on the race of the historian:

Of course, African-American historians and writers, starting with W.E.B. Du Bois, had long before consistently lauded the actions of the Puritan martyr to their cause. Today their view of Brown as a great white abolitionist who was willing to kill their oppressors and die for black liberation is ascendant. (Sinha 161)

An example of this is the book Sinha is reviewing, written by David S. Reynolds, and Manisha notes how much credence Reynolds gives to the view of Brown as hero:

Reynolds's most ambitious claim is to link John Brown's private war on slavery with the long duree of the struggle for black civil rights in U.S. history. Thus Brown's influence seems to stretch in an endless stream from the events of Harpers Ferry to the twentieth-century civil rights movement. (Sinha 162)

The term "long duree" refers to a French school of historical writing that gives priority to long-term historical structures rather than to individual events. In this approach, Brown is part of the long-term move toward equal rights for first slaves, then former slaves, and then the descendants of slaves.

John Brown has also at times served as a symbol for larger historical evens and movements. The first biography of John Brown was written by W.E.B. DuBois, the black civil rights activist and scholar. Donald E. Pease writes about this early biography and what DuBois said about the abolitionist:

Brown was a resounding symbol, it for very different reasons, to people in both the North and the South. To deal with him meant undertaking the immensely challenging task of rightly gauging his significance and, furthermore, coming to terms with the violence and murderous revolt that he unleashed. Less a biographer than an interpreter of charged symbols, DuBois probes the nature of effective protest, the imperative of revolution and the tragic appeal of violence, and, above all perhaps, the basis in black experience for the heroism that the white crusader Brown displayed. In John Brown, DuBois meditates upon his subject and reinterprets it so that it symbolizes black rather than white achievement. (Pease 307)

For DuBois, this study of John Brown becomes "an inquiry into the souls of blacks and a rich, if also disquieting, celebration of the revolutionary action that brave black people defined" (Pease 307).

Stephen B. Oates points out the range of opinion that has been expressed about John Brown and the way historians have often been unable to take a median position on the subject:

Americans have always found it difficult to write fairly about controversial figures in their past, and this has been especially true of John Brown. Since he died on the gallows for attacking Harpers Ferry, those who have dealt with him -- biographers, poets, novelists, essayists, and, alas, professional historians -- have with rare exception been either passionately for or against the man. Either Brown was right or he was wrong. Either he was an authentic and immortal hero who sacrificed his life so that America's "poor, despised Africans" might be free, or he was a "mean, terrible, vicious man," a demented horse thief, a murderer, a psychopath. (Oates 22)

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, newspaper reports were made with the aura of crime reports. The Evening Journal in Albany called the raid an "insurrection," while the Mercury ikn Charleston, South Carolina referred to "a serious outbreak among the employees on the government works at Harper's Ferry, Virginia." The Enquirer in Cincinnati, Ohio ascribed the raid to Northern Abolitionists. Other newspaper reports made wildly exaggerate claims of the size of the force that raided the town. A newspaper in Nashville blamed the Republicans, writing that "the fanatics engaged there would never have dared the attempt at insurrection but for the inflammatory speeches and writings of Seward, Greeley, and the other Republican leaders" ("John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry" webpage).

Another early assessment of Brown was written in 1882 by Albion Tourgee, describing Brown as follows:

John Brown! Monster and Martyr; Conspirator and Saint; Murderer and Liberator; Cause and Consequence! Alerting one-half of the land to emulate his example; stimulating the other to meet aggression; inciting both to shedding of blood!... The climax of one age and the harbinger of another. (Tourgee 608-609)

Robert Penn Warren, noted as a novelist and poet, also wrote an assessment of John Brown that has been much criticized for problems others have found with his approach. A recent critic of Warrens book writes,

The most significant paratextual element is the subtitle, "The Making of a Martyr," an indication that Warren's objective is to record not only the history of how Brown lived, but the history of how Brown has been historicized. This text is not simply about John Brown. It is concerned with how Brown has been constructed -- how he has been "made" -- as an historical figure. Warren set out to write a history about the "making" of history. While Warren's book has been criticized for its own unreliability, throughout John Brown Warren addresses the problem of creating an accurate biography of a mythologized figure. The result is a biographical narrative that is as much about the problems of the biographer as about his subject. (Cullick 35)

Warren examines the religious impetus for Brown's actions and finds ways in which Brown justified his plan for a war on those grounds:

He had faith in the will of God, and that faith was so great, perhaps, that he began to know what thing God willed. And to foreknow was to will also; at last his own will and the divine will were one. (Warren 63)

Much of the analysis of John Brown that has taken place has had a similar intent in that the effort is made to analyze what John Brown has come to mean to people more than to delve into the reality of what he did. Many of the analyses address specifically his role in the coming Civil War and how much his actions contributed to the start of that conflict, and he can be portrayed as either a hero or a villain in that determination as well. An early assessment of this issue from 1892 states,

On the other hand, it is certain that if John Brown had never lived, Lincoln would have been elected President, and secession would have ensued; although the Harper's Ferry raid did indeed furnish a count in the indictment of the Southern States against the North, and may have been one of the influences impelling Virginia to join the Southern Confederacy. (Rhodes 371)

Albert Shaw in 1929 wrote that beore the raid, "John Brown was treated as a hero in the Abolitionist communities of Iowa" (236). After the raid, many in the North were sympathetic, just as most in the south were not.

The actions of John Brown before the raid were such that he was seen as an influential abolitionist in some circles and as a moralist who wanted to start a war in order to end slavery and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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