David Reynolds Petitions Obama and Kaine to Pardon John Brown

3 pippin john brownI guess we should have anticipated such a move on this sesquicentennial of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.  It’s an indication that Brown’s reputation has taken a significant turn since the end of the 1960s and that even Virginia may have a different outlook (at least northern Virginia) on this crucial moment on the eve of the the Civil War.  While I don’t know much about David Reynolds, I am surprised to find his name attached to this project.  As many of you know, Reynolds teaches at CUNY and is the author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, which is one of the best of the recent crop of Brown biographies.  Reynolds has not issued a formal statement, but you can read his thoughts in the following news article.

Let’s remember that many Americans we honor had as many or more flaws in their character and behavior: Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Columbus has been understandably accused of genocide, and Lincoln shared the racial prejudice of his time and long wanted to deport blacks once they were freed.

I have no interest in signing this petition, but it is available here.  Interestingly, the Online poll has supporters of a pardon far ahead.  I’ve never had an interest in demonizing or celebrating John Brown.  That said, I’ve always found those studies that emphasized some kind of psychological imbalance to be completely off the mark.  It’s nice to see historians such as Reynolds finally work to place Brown’s plan in its proper context by analyzing the extent to which his plan and actions were influenced by slave rebellions in the Caribbean and elsewhere.  That we’ve spent so much time arguing that he was “crazy” tells us much more about the difficulty subsequent generations have had coming to terms with Brown.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

38 comments… add one
  • Thomas Dec 6, 2009 @ 21:53

    Murder is murder….I mean, what about the innocent killing of Heyward Sheppard and the Mayor of Harpers Ferry? You could agree with modern day Islamic extremist terrorists on western occupation of the Middle East, but WOULD NOT agree with terrorism methods! Terrorism is terrorism…no matter what form its in and should be not be legitimized by modern politicians. Slavery was wrong and the war ended it, but killing innocent people like Brown and his people did is terrorism

    • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2009 @ 10:35

      Thanks for the comment. It is unfortunate that Heyward Sheppard was killed, but it seems odd to describe it as an “innocent murder.” I'm not sure what that means.

      • Thomas Dec 7, 2009 @ 22:58

        I described it as an innocent killing…maybe not the right words, but the killing of innocent people and civilians. Heyward Sheppard is one example, the mayor of Harpers Ferry is another. His death is most sad because he in himself was not a big supporter of slavery and had actually freed some slaves himself. Some believe he was on the train platform to check on Heyward Sheppard…history is full of irony. I just hope we study this affair in our past and not try to modernize it with an act of clemency by the President and Governor. Much like the misguided notion of “slave reparations”

        • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2009 @ 23:05

          Surely, no one is going to disagree with you that it is unfortunate when innocent bystanders are harmed in any way. We should do our best to study the past on its own terms, though as you probably know that is difficult when it comes a traumatic event like our Civil War.

  • Sherree Dec 4, 2009 @ 6:25

    Thanks for responding, Kevin.

    I haven't read Reynolds' book, but I agree with his overall thesis, as you are presenting it–ie, that understanding Calvinism and Puritanism holds the key to understanding Brown. I don't agree with Reynolds' idea that our President should be asked to pardon Brown, though. Brown was not a hero to the African American community with which my family has been interconnected for several generations, as I have shared with you. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King were. This could be a generational shift in emphasis. I am not sure.

    Let me again take this opportunity to wish you a happy and prosperous holiday! As you can see, your readers are both reluctant to let you go, and happy for you at the same time. Congratulations on finishing your two projects. Also, my best wishes to Michaela. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2009 @ 6:37

      Thanks Sherree. I wish you and your family a safe and happy holiday.

      I definitely don't mind responding to comments. Actually, it's nice to know that regular postings are not necessary to keep readers engaged and active on comment boards.

  • Sherree Dec 4, 2009 @ 4:23


    I linked to the article on John Brown by David Blight at HNN that you reference on your “Friend’s List” and found it to be the most insightful article on this issue that I have read to date. I agree with Blight’s conclusion that in considering Brown’s legacy, our responses reveal as much about ourselves as they reveal about Brown. Blight also cautions against simplistic interpretations, as do the majority of your contributors, and adds that any figure in history connected, in our collective national memory, to the imagery of Christ is problematic on many levels.

    From my perspective, Brown seems to have seen himself as both Jehovah of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament, and consciously manipulated his own–what appeared to be–self delusion, proving to me that he was sane. I don’t think that a truly psychotic person can be so brilliantly calculated. The problem comes in with the “hacking” aspect of the righteous executions. Were the men who were hacked to death killed to avenge the tens of thousands of slaves brutalized in our nation‘s history and to bring about an end to the institution of slavery, or were they hacked to death because something much darker took over the executioners, as generally happens when vigilante justice is meted out, (particularly since the executions followed the brutal execution of anti slavery men by the pro slavery group)

    In one historian’s assessment of Brown’s actions, it was noted that Brown’s men killed the proslavery men the way in which they did in order to keep from being discovered by other pro slavery neighbors. I found that assessment to be bending facts and common sense to fit a theory. If this were true, a couple of sword blows would have done the job, it seems. (I read this article several months ago and did not bookmark it, so I don’t remember who this was.)

    To me, an often overlooked abolitionist who truly transcended his time is Silas Soule. Soule not only abhorred slavery; he fought to end it, and was also morally consistent, and refused the order of Chivington, (himself an abolitionist) when Chivington ordered him to kill innocent Cheyenne women and children at Sand Creek. Soule then testified against Chivington.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2009 @ 5:50

      Hi Sherree. The Blight article is very helpful in framing how to think about Brown as well as the many pitfalls that are associated. I think the key to understanding Brown is the Puritan/Calvinist streak that runs through his family. I've mentioned Reynolds's book a couple of times, but it really does a thorough job of outlining Brown's religious world view.

  • margaretdblough Dec 3, 2009 @ 16:37

    I actually got to talk to Tony Horwitz once, after a talk he gave at a Borders in York, PA. He's very nice and very easy to talk to. He was genuinely thrilled when I told him that “Confederates in the Attic” reminded me quite favorably of one of my all time favorite books, John Steinbeck's “Travels with Charley in Search of America.” One thing that has clearly influenced him was the years he worked as a foreign correspondent, particularly war correspondent, for the Wall Street Journal. In “Confederates in the Attic”, while he clearly liked reenactors, one of his major problems with Civil War reenactments was that they were so neat, clean, and calm and he knew from personal observation that war was none of those.

  • margaretdblough Dec 3, 2009 @ 6:32

    Reynolds and Tony Horwitz (“Confederates in the Attic”) have dueling pieces in the 12/2/09 NY Times opinion session for the anniversary of John Brown's execution. Reynolds' piece “Freedom's Martyr” is at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02rey…. Horwitz's is “The 9/11 of 1859” at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02hor….

    I lost considerable respect for Reynolds' position given the way he blew off Brown's activities in Kansas. He wrote, “O.K., some might say, but how about the blotches on his record, especially the murders and bloody skirmishes in Kansas in the 1850s? Brown considered himself a soldier at war. His attacks on pro-slavery forces were part of an escalating cycle of pre-emptive and retaliatory violence that most historians now agree were in essence the first engagements of the Civil War. ” That makes it ok to drag defenseless men out of their home and slaughter them because of their beliefs? That rationale could be used to defend Quantrill's massacre at Lawrence, KS during the war. I'm sorry but that rationale is the rationale of terrorists. One can agree with the ideals but condemn the methods. I thought Horwitz's article was more balanced.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 3, 2009 @ 6:39

      Thanks for providing the links. I read them yesterday and also thought that Reynolds was a bit too dismissive of Brown's activities in Kansas.

  • William Dec 2, 2009 @ 15:24

    The man was nothing more than a murderer, honor him if you want too, tells a lot about oneself if you do. Take the blinders off and see him as he was……….A terrorist of his times. As to the comment ” Murder and violence were not the way to go, even though it was the chosen tactic of the proslavery side ” I think one can say it was the favored tactic of both sides, pro-slavery and anti-slavery. Maybe next we should pardon John Wilkes Booth ? I am sure one can find things to ” admire ” about him as well.

    • Cash Dec 2, 2009 @ 21:45

      Most who haven't read much about Brown think he's nothing more than a murderer. Was he a murderer? Yes. Was he a terrorist? Yes. But he was also an idealist. He was also someone who was without racial prejudice. Even his hostages testified about his kindness to them. His jailer became a friend of his, and Gov. Wise of Virginia, who had him hanged, called him “a great man.” He's much more complex than the one-dimensional caricature drawn by proslaverites.

      Which abolitionists, outside of John Brown and his men, used murder as a tactic?

      • John Wise Dec 3, 2009 @ 7:25

        Ok, let's pardon all murderers who kill indiscrimantely.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 3, 2009 @ 8:05

          I don't think anyone is suggesting that. Your other posts were deleted and I suggest you make more of an effort to contribute to the discussion in a positive way if you hope to have your comments deleted.

        • Cash Dec 3, 2009 @ 16:48

          If you take a look at my first post on this issue, you'll see that I oppose the pardon suggestion. When one points out that a person has more than one aspect to their personality and is not totally bad, it's not a claim that person should be pardoned. One-dimensional caricatures are easy to throw around, but they are rarely accurate.

          By the way, Brown didn't kill indiscriminantly. He specifically targeted his victims. Reading the actual history is a bit harder than simply throwing out sarcastic comments, but it does open one up to what actually happened.

  • Cash Dec 1, 2009 @ 20:57

    There are a number of things to admire about John Brown, just as there are a number of things to despise about him. But the fact remains that his methods were wrong. Murder and violence were not the way to go, even though it was the chosen tactic of the proslavery side. No to the pardon. In fact, I'm about 90% sure if Brown were here he wouldn't want the pardon.

    • Ken Noe Dec 2, 2009 @ 6:47

      Cash, I see you went with the modern helmet 🙂

      • Cash Dec 2, 2009 @ 21:39

        Oh, yeah. This is the one that will win the National Championship. 🙂

  • margaretdblough Nov 30, 2009 @ 19:38

    I admit it has always baffled me how a state could try a man for treason who was not a legal resident of the state. However, I think a pardon is not a good idea. It oversimplifies Brown and, to put it bluntly, the man is an excellent case study of the making of a terrorist: how intense, fanatical belief in a cause can lead someone to destroy all of his/her moral barriers against murder and mayhem. The pro-slavery forces made the mistake of giving Brown the opportunity to make a martyr of himself and he played them like a violin. In any event, though, Brown met the only judgment he cared about after his death in the hereafter.

  • davidsilkenat Nov 30, 2009 @ 15:36

    As of 11/30, there are only 49 signatories to the petition, including one from “Charles Manson” whose comment on the petition was “I really dig Pottawatomie!”

    Even if you sympathize with Brown (and I vacillate on this issue), I don't see what a pardon would accomplish.

  • msimons Nov 30, 2009 @ 12:52

    Dead men need no pardons. They have already faced their Judgement on the other side. Only Christ can truly pardon men.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2009 @ 12:59

      Pardons for dead individuals usually serves some symbolic purpose such as Ford's issuing of a pardon to R.E. Lee. I fail to see how Christ has anything at all do with this.

  • Bob_Pollock Nov 29, 2009 @ 13:13


    I hope you're right.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2009 @ 13:40

      It's almost impossible for me to imagine a scenario where this is approved on the state or federal level.

  • Ken Noe Nov 29, 2009 @ 12:29

    Surely the last message President Obama wants to send in our current national climate is that it's okay if people die while you're seizing a federal weapons depot, just as long as you and others think your cause is right.

  • Larry Cebula Nov 29, 2009 @ 11:57

    It is so good to see a higher level of analysis of John Brown. The “crazy prophet” meme has always been 80% Lost Cause propaganda, playing into the “abolitionists were northern religious fanatics” line of thought.

    On the other hand the remaining 20% of the meme comes from Brown's actual behavior. He did perform horrible acts of violence. He does seem to have had some degree of disconnection from reality.

    I used to teach a Davidson and Kytle's After the Fact, a reader for U.S. history survey courses in which each chapter investigated a different historical era using a different type of history–a material culture look at colonial homes, a cultural history of taverns, an ecological history of the frontier, etc. The chapter on Brown looked at the promise and shortcomings of psychohistory, and prominently featured Brown's distinctly odd 1857 autobiographical letter to Harry Stearns. It is hard to read the letter and not realize that Brown, though on the right side of history, wasn't quite right:


    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2009 @ 12:14

      One of the reasons I recommend Reynolds's biography of Brown is that he situates him and his family within the culture and theology of Puritanism. Failure to do so leaves us with an incomplete picture of how he understood the institution of slavery and his role in bringing it to an end.

  • Paul Taylor Nov 29, 2009 @ 11:33

    Kevin –

    This one reminded me of your recent post on “Why Are We Forgetting to Order the Pedestals?” in that such actions are more about the living than the dead. IMO, Mr. Reynold's petition speaks more about making a public statement vis a vis contemporary racial politics than to whether the historical John Brown is deserving of a presidential pardon.


    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2009 @ 11:37

      Agreed. It's not even clear to me what Brown is being pardoned for.

  • Cenantua Nov 29, 2009 @ 11:25

    Like you, Kevin, I have no interest in participating in either the demonizing or celebration of John Brown. Rather, I think we should content ourselves with making an effort to better understand (and educate others about…) the history surrounding Brown, his actions, and the various reactions of all those (from slaveholder to abolitionist) who were impacted by Brown's actions. In the end, Brown's peers judged Brown for his actions, and frankly, (just as an example of some opinions of “Northerners” and/or those who weren't slaveholders) many in nearby Chambersburg, Pa. even had negative things to say about Brown's actions. No doubt, it sent a shock through many, North and South, who feared what a massive slave uprising might entail.

    That said, while we can agree today that slavery is wrong, we need to take care not to overlap too many of our beliefs with those held by others in the past. There is no doubt that Brown's place in history is secure, but we need to keep that in historical perspective. Personally, I believe that we benefit more as a society by focusing on what happened and how the “memory” of Brown changed in our collective “memory” as a nation over the nearly 150 years since his actions at Harpers Ferry. To me, a pardon has the potential of warping our collective memory of Brown and the events even more; shifting (more) away from the facts surrounding the history, tapping into emotions, and leading us down the road of mythology. It has no place in helping us to better understand Brown and/or his actions.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2009 @ 11:28

      Great to hear from you again. I couldn't agree more, which is why I did not sign the petition.

  • john foley Nov 29, 2009 @ 10:54

    I think it's time to pardon John Brown

  • woodrowfan Nov 29, 2009 @ 9:08

    I recently visited the Alexandria Black History Museum (which is very well-done FYI). They had a small counter-rack of postcards of famous Africa-Americans: Douglass, Harriett Tubman, black Union Troops, Tuskegee Airmen, etc. There was one white person included–not Lincoln, but John Brown… I thought that was an interesting choice..

  • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 28, 2009 @ 23:24

    Count me out on this one.

  • jfe Nov 28, 2009 @ 16:10

    I know someone who is simply going to go ballistic over this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *