David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker
It is interesting that we are commemorating the life of someone who committed treason. Research is now being done on just how many blacks from Jefferson County were involved in one way or the other – we must move beyond the standard number of 5. New research suggests that it might have been around 300. John Brown’s plan was a military disaster and we must account for why blacks in the region were so suspicious of him. According to Blight many slaves were suspicious of their would-be friends. Brown had not really laid the groundwork for what was needed in a successful raid at H.F. There were 16,000 slaves in the six counties around H.F. In areas where there were large black families men were very cautious so as not to risk their families – this may explain their caution in response of Brown. Most people, including Douglass viewed it as a “suicide mission.” We must see the Brown raid as the culmination of agitation on the part of the black community throughout the 1850s; it was not an aberration given the number of blacks that escaped to the north. Many blacks debated the appropriateness of the use of violence to bring about emancipation. Brown was extremely conscious of a long history of black resistance that extended into Jamaica. Three slave rebellions took place in Va., but they all failed. So, what lessons did Brown gleen from these failed attempts? In 1848 Brown paid to have two poems on black resistance published; he also reflected on the failed rebellons of Spartacus.
Unlike many abolitionists, Brown was not condescending to blacks. He attended their churches and treated them as equals – he adhered to a God that was omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally just. Brown viewed himself as an agent of that God – bounded by his religious sensibilities. To grasp what he did at H.F. we must get our heads around B’s Calvinism: innate depravity, providential signs, and predestination. Brown did not enjoy the prosperity that many white northerners enjoyed during the Jacksonian Period. This may have driven him further into the realm of religion and emancipation.
“Bleeding Kansas”: Only selected members of pro-slavery families at Pottawatomie Creek. It must be seen as part of the immense violence that took place in Kansas at that time. It was an act of war in a vigilante war. The PM and the battles that flowed from it is where Brown’s reputation begins to grow back East. Brown believed that slavery must be understood as a declaration of war against blacks. Slavery was not an abstraction for Brown. His repulsion goes back to his early life when he watched a slave being beaten with a shovel as well as his disgust over how free blacks were treated in the North. Brown probably spent more time with blacks than with white abolitionists.
Harper’s Ferry: John Brown created a conspiracy, including the raising of money and recruits, though he was very secret about it. Very few people were brought into Brown’s circle; most people had very little understanding of Brown’s intentions. Brown hoped to recruit hundreds for the expedition, but ultimately only 19 joined. It’s not clear what Brown intended to bring about. It was not like Gabriel and Vessey in that they involved thousands, Brown’s model was Nat Turner – begin with a slave rebellion and hope that it spreads. Why did Va permit him to make his statements and hold a trial? Henry Wise was an admirer of Brown. The trial reflects Virginia’s committment to the rule of law, even in these extreme circumstances. Brown’s accounts were printed because the reporters understood implicity that most of their Southern readers would think Brown insane. In the end, Va’s decision to hold a public trial allowed Brown to make his case and began the process of martyrdom – this is how Brown gained victory from failure.
Reaction: Initial response in both North and South was negative. At first the transcendentalists publicized Brown’s actions, which was soon taken up by some in the abolitionist community. Most important reaction from across the north was the religious response – it became an “American crucifixion” for many northerners. Blacks in the North declared him to be a hero from the beginning as well as within the abolitionists. Unionists and conservatives held meetings to try to prove to the South that they did not support him. Republicans also tried to distance themselves from Brown. Most northern town rang their bells to mark his hanging; they condemned the act, but used it to shine the light on slavery. In a matter of weeks white northerners sympathized with Brown owing to the language that was marshaled to describe his actions as well as his behavior in the face of the gallows.
No surprise that white Southerners viewed him as insane who had perverted Christianity. It was the height of un-Christian behavior. Southerners used Brown to demonstrate what most Northerners wanted to do to them. Brown was thinking about the timing of the raid in light of the upcoming presidential election. According to Blight he wanted to hold it earlier.