“A Ludicrous Tragedy or a Solemn Farce”

Today in my survey class we examined newspaper editorials from across the country in the wake of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. The goal of the lesson was to learn how to interpret newspapers and to get a sense of the extent of the sectional divide over Brown’s actions. Students tracked assessments of Brown that bridged North and South and ways in which they diverged. Even more interesting was watching them come to terms with the fact that not everyone in each region agreed on what Brown’s actions meant. Students struggled quite a bit with an editorial from Nashville, Tennessee.

Of course, I had to give them a couple of articles from Boston newspapers. They totally got a kick out of this one, which pokes a bit at Southern honor:

Boston Daily Evening Transcript, October24, 1859 (Republican)

A Gentleman from New Hampshire, who has been on a tour through the western and central parts of the Union, was in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, during the late difficulties, and was a witness to the closing scenes of that affair. According to his representations, the panic Mr. Brown with his handful of deluded followers created in Maryland and Virginia was not at all creditable to the people or authorities of the vicinity. They showed the “white feather” in a manner to plainly reveal the inherent weakness of society where slavery is tolerated and free labor regarded as degrading. The fact almost exceeds belief, that seventeen white men and five blacks — only twenty-two persons in all — should not only be able to take possession of the Armory of the United States, but retain it for hours, and not be driven therefrom until the arrival of the military from abroad. The gentleman above named expresses the opinion that five resolute men could have dislodged “the revolutionists” in five minutes. But terror seems to have seized upon all classes of persons in the immediate vicinity, and the population behaved as madly and wildly as the residents of the interior of New England, where a great fire does not occur more than once in half a century, do, when a large conflagration occurs. To use the word “chivalry” in connection with such cowardice as the Virginians displayed, is to be guilty of the severest sarcasm. The compliments Gov. Wise lavished upon the citizens of Harper’s Ferry when he ascertained the true state of the case, savored rather of strength than of righteousness. Well may the Baltimore American say:

Gathering all the facts and rumors concerning the late affair at Harper’s Ferry together, it is difficult to decide whether it should be called a ludicrous tragedy or a solemn farce.

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The writer for the Transcript makes a valid point. The proud, True Southron™ men of the Old Dominion were quite happy to call on the federal government to send troops to suppress a rebellion within their borders, and even after Colonel Lee arrived and took charge, declined to have their own local militia units take part in the assault on the engine house where Brown and his men were holed up, leaving it to the Marines from Washington to run the actual risk of getting shot or run through with a pike. Then, once dangerous work was done and Brown was captured and safely in irons, Virginia successfully demanded the right to try Brown for treason against the state. “Ludicrous tragedy or a solemn farce” is right.

The Nashville editorial was fascinating to me, in its almost prophetic anticipation of a civil war and its general similarity to Lincoln’s accusations of Douglas and over-zealous abolitionists. Angry people do angry things. The affair was neither “ludicrous tragedy” nor “solemn farce,” but a shot across the bow.

Hi, Kevin. I wish I could have been in that class and hope you’ll come back to the Adirondacks soon and lead this lesson/discussion.

Me too, Martha. Will be in touch. Sorry for dropping off the radar, but I’ve been swamped with teaching and writing.

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