Session 3 “Making Sense of John Brown’s Raid”

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.



I doubt that there are 2,000 people in attendance, but this is still a significant turnout.  The panelists from the two morning sessions are now taking questions from the audience.  I’ve met a number of blog readers and had a chance to talk with Andrew Dupstadt (Civil War Navy Blog) who is here with a contingent from North Carolina who are organizing their sesquicentennial.  Both sessions have been informative and the verdict of the participants thus far suggests that the format is working.  A wide range of issues have been raised to give the audience a sense of the state of the Union in 1859.

No surprise that this is an overwhelmingly white audience and if I were to guess the average age is somewhere in the mid-50s.  Well, it is a workday.  The overall tone is markedly different from that of the centennial.  I had a chance to talk with David Blight about this contrast during the last break.  Panelists have analyzed its importance with a certain comfort and ease that would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.  Walter Johnson just referenced the fact that a few slaveholders were, in fact, black.  There is no celebratory tone in this hallway.  This is an audience that has come to learn about American history in all of its complexity.  Given the constant Online banter that emanate from certain quarters about disengaged scholars I can only wish that you were sitting here today.  I am looking at eight of the top scholars engaging and arena full of people.  What a treat.

I can’t think of a better way of opening Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.


Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South” (Part 2)

If you visited Richmond in 1859 you would have witnessed a great deal of change, including ships going down the James with wheat for Australia, an increasing number of railroads, and a noticeable immigrant population.  Within this, slavery played a vital role and it was being utilized in a growing number of industrial settings within the region.  [Was this the future of the South?]  Insurance policies were more and more being taken out for slaves.  Slaveowners wanted to protect their property and Richmond legislators supported it.  Enslaved population of the South was worth more than all the railroads and factories in the North.

Va’s Role in the South: 1810 there were 22 congressman and in 1859 there were 11 – on a national level Va’s influence was in decline and its population did not have the prestige they was garnered, though Va still had more representation than other southern states.  Virginians felt a sense of loss and influence of powere in the federal government.  Important to note that other southern states still looked to Va for leadership – it had the largest slave population.  Within this there was an increasing loss of power from the Upper to Lower South.  A potential regional crisis might place Virginia in an awkward position.  Richmond’s modernity was used to further the institution of slavery (especially the railroads and sales).

The panelists have done an excellent job of highlighting just how interconnected Richmond was with both the rest of the South as well as the North.  We need to move beyond these static regional distinctions that fail to acknowledge the multiple connections that Richmonders experienced on a daily basis.

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Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South”

john_brown_1859Bob Kenzer, Charles Dew, Gregg Kimball, Lauranett Lee

While the population of Virginia was expanding there were problems.  Va was a net exporter of people.  Many white Virginians had to make very difficult decisions such as Cyrus McCormick who moved to Chicago.  Important to distinguish between the many geographic sections of Virginia.  Keep in mind that the state included the present state of W. Virginia.  Free blacks lived precarious lives; at different times they were forced to leave the state.

The largest crop in Virginia in 1859 was the wheat crop though it was growing more slowly than other parts of the country such as the west.  The emerging crop was the bright leaf tobacco, which was the new cash crop.  This was one sector where Virginia was holding its own and helped to sustain the loss of the population south and west of Richmond.  Richmond was a vital exporting node for the nation in 1859 – think of it as the southern point of the northeast transportation network.  The state of Richmond in 1859 serves as a reminder that the South was not monolithic.  The city was connected to the rest of the nation as well as the broader Atlantic economy.

Slave Trade in Richmond: Weekly sales figures for Hector Davis (Richmond slave auctioneer in 1858: $1,77321 and 1859: $2,671,572).  Tredegar didn’t bring in anywhere near this amount of money, which should give us a sense of how profitable the slave trade was at the end of the 1850s.  There was no stigma of being a slave trader in Richmond in the 1850s.  Sales were held at Shockoe Bottom as well as hotels in the area (Anthony Burns was resold into slavery in this location).

Remember to send questions to me at for the panelists.  You can still send questions for the first panel.


Session 1: “Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859″ (Part 3)

The 1859 census will show that 99% of the north is white.  Most people in the North do not wake up thinking about the South.  They are thinking about jobs, the possibility of moving west – if the Indians are taken care of.  Indians were a concern for northern whites because many of the tribes were not yet forced on reservations or eliminated.  Most of the Louisiana Purchase is still vacant – a vast interland is still Indian country (something less than 25% is still unorganized)  Nothing is settled about the future of the west.

Northern cities and industrial growth: What does it look like?  New York City is the largest city at right around 1 million.  There are also great river cities like St. Louis.  According to Walter Johnso we’ve exxagerated the industrial development in the North; most of these cities are still mercantile – England is still much further evolved.  It’s an important point because of our sharp distinctions between industrial north and slaveholding South – much more complex. 1859 census will show that production of flower and meal is the most popular product followed by cotton and low on the list is iron and other industrial products.  Most northerners farm as in the South.  There are cities in the South that look much like Northern cities.  The second biggest port in 1859 is in New Orleans.

Why is the tariff so important?  The degree of urbanization was higher in the 1840s and 50s as opposed to any other time.  Defenders of slavery return to (1837-59) the fact that it exports far more than it imports and as a result is dependent on northern banks and merchants.  South has a favorable tariff after 1857 under the Buchanan administration (rate is around 20% and is not at that moment a major issue).

Free blacks in the South: The FB population is relatively low (3-4%) thought they are living in roughly the same places that enslaved blacks were living.  There is a free black population in Richmond working in warehouses and on farms as well as skilled trades.  There lives are precarious, especially in parts of the South, because unless your status can be verified your freedom could be taken away.  Certificates of freedom were not registered.  Free blacks lived outside of society thought they were impacted directly by it.  There is an active campaign in the South (LA) to pass legislation enslaving free blacks.  There was even a law that allowed free blacks to reenslave themselves.  General population believes that the black population needs to be controlled.  This issue has split major churces such as the Baptists.

Most people did not wake up in 1859 thinking that they are fast approaching a civil war or living in the Antebellum Age.