"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Friday, March 10, 2017

"Mr. Bias" and His John Birch Screed Against John Brown

An article has been called to my attention written by a history teacher from Oklahoma named Steve Byas, entitled, “John Brown’s Lethal Legacy,” which was published on February 7 on the website, The New American.  The New American is published by a subsidiary of the rightwing John Birch Society, an extremist, reactionary, and right-wing organization whose message is a default expression of white nationalism. 

Is it any surprise, then, that the JBS would hate John Brown?   How could it be otherwise, that a white nationalist, right-wing, and “pro-Constitution” organization upholding “patriotism” would not also despise the most radical and authentic “white” freedom fighter in US history? The author, Mr. Byas is “Mr. Bias,” and his bias is definitely from the rightwing—from the same side that hates abolitionism and any criticism of the status quo of white supremacy.

Byas’ article is long and tedious and I do not want to lend any more energy than necessary in highlighting this malignant piece of propaganda.  A series of bullet points should suffice:

·      Byas premises his screed on an erroneous and one-sided reference to the Pottawatomie killings of 1856, in which Brown and his men killed five proslavery conspirators and thugs.  Byas presents them as “innocents,” skewing context and information.  But like most anti-Brown screeds, a selective use of Pottawatomie is their mainstay.

·       Perhaps the real motivation behind the article is Byas’ contempt for film director, Paul Schrader, who evidently invoked John Brown in some anti-Republican, anti-Trump tirade.  Byas finds it “interesting” that Schrader “knew enough about Brown to include the historical point that Brown and his sons participated in the Kansas murders.”  I don’t know why this is so “interesting” given that John Brown haters are always talking about the Kansas killings as sheer murders.   Frankly, whatever Schrader’s politics cannot be automatically attributed to Brown.  People on the right and left have invoked Brown; the only question that matters is what Brown believed in the context of his own political life and times.

·       Like the late, malignant Otto Scott, “Mr. Bias” desperately wants to make much out of the fact that Brown got support from the “Secret Six,” which he characterizes thinly and inaccurately. Byas says that the wealthy members of the Six (that would be Gerrit Smith and George L. Stearns) “were prepared to support him with dollars as much as they could.”  This is not true.  They did support him consistently, but they hardly gave him as much money as they could have given.  Brown got by, and while he ended up with the Sharps rifles that Stearns bought for a Kansas committee (only after the latter defaulted on payment), he was not financially floated in the way that conservative monies have poured out in support of rightwing reactionary forces in Africa and other parts of the world.

·      Byas mistakes the writing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as having a veiled double entendre for Brown. “For abolitionists,” Byas writes, “the words had a ‘double meaning,’ referring more to Brown and abolitionist activities than to God.”  To the contrary, Byas missed the point of the writing of the Battle Hymn.  In fact, the pacifist abolitionists (claiming “divine inspiration”) rewrote the “John Brown Song” to remove him from their antislavery mathematics because he used force.  Instead, they substituted a Unitarian reading of the Bible and appealed to God’s judgment in the Civil War, but definitely took Brown out of the spotlight and reconfigured the song to suit their theology and their politics.   Byas is just wrong.

·      He insinuates that Brown was bad because his “Secret Six” were Unitarians.  But Brown disagreed with them on points of theology, being a strident evangelical and biblical conservative.  This is a non sequitur. 

·      Likewise, Byas wants to diminish Brown because one of his supporters, Theodore Parker, referred to the South as “the enemy.”  First, Brown never used inimical language in speaking of southerners.  He made it clear that he was against slavery, not against southerners.  He would have invaded Connecticut if it were a bastion of slavery.  His sons later made it clear that Brown did not rear his family to hate Southerners, but he did rear them to hate human bondage and the stealing of labor and human bodies—something that is written into the Constitution and had to be amended.

·      It’s hilarious that Byas finds it negative that another one of Brown’s supporters befriended republican Italian independence leaders like Mazzini and Garibaldi.  So what?

·      Byas takes a statement Brown made completely out of context to prove Brown believed in “genocide.”  Brown reportedly said: “Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should be swept away than that this crime of slavery should exist one day longer.”  It was a statement in principle about the costs of losing many lives over against allowing slavery to triumph over freedom permanently.  But Byas turns this into Brown’s call for genocide.  This is either irresponsible or idiocy on Byas’ part.

·      Amazingly, Byas even turns on Brown’s father, Owen Brown, because he was a trustee of Oberlin College.  “Owen had a low view of Southerners, a feeling he passed on to his son,” writes Byas.  But this is flatly false.  One of Brown's sons lived, worked, and died as a newspaper man in New Orleans. The Browns always hoped that southern people first might be persuaded for moral reasons to give up their slaves, but slaveholders wanted the world to bend to their ways and profits.  At any rate, there is not one bit of evidence to support that the pious Owen Brown either hated Southerners or passed hatred down to his children.   Brown in Kansas was always respectful of his proslavery neighbors, as he was also in Missouri.  He didn’t lift the sword until they threatened his life and the lives of his family.

·      Byas misrepresents Brown’s victory over that slaveholding schmuck and brat, Henry C. Pate as because the former “surprised” Pate at breakfast and this made Brown a “war hero.”  Actually, Brown beat Pate at his own game in the field and it did make him a hero to the antislavery cause.  Nothing wrong there.

·      Byas conveys the same old mistaken notions about Harper’s Ferry, including the notion that he was going to “arm the slaves” with the Harper’s Ferry weapons, and then overthrow the government.  We know Brown had no such plan and made no effort to take the arsenal weapons.  He merely had them guarded during his occupation so that Virginians could not get to them.  Brown denied having any designs on the weapons and superior guns.  I discuss this in Freedom’s Dawn, along with the reason why Brown chose to seize the armory as a “demonstration.”

·      Byas says that despite the warm support that Brown received from the North after his capture, “such opinions were not those of the majority of Northerners, but they were certainly read with a growing animosity in the South toward their Northern countrymen.”  He's probably correct here, although he understands this incorrectly.   Most Northerners were not immediately converted to Brown admiration; most Northerners were racial bigots who did not want to go to war over black freedom.  What Brown did do for many Northerners was to give them the clarity they needed to see how badly and excessively the government had been used against them by the South. 

·       Byas says that “John Brown was an ‘instrument’ to be used by radicals on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.”  This is nonsense.  Brown was an independent force and no one manipulated him.  If others “used” him after the fact, that is again no reflection upon him or his role in history. 

·      Byas shows his motivation in his summing up of the story of John Brown “in light of modern violent protesters who invoke his name.”  Since so much of his narrative is really just a screed against people supporting people who oppose his conservative views, it is clear this is just a propaganda piece that is really aimed at the current liberal establishment, especially the radical left that is calling for revolutionary action. If the shoe was on the other foot, Byas would probably call them patriots and invoke the “Founding Fathers.”

·      Byas says that “violence committed in the name of a cause, backed by powerful people, can cause a reaction that will further advance that cause. This was true in Brown’s day and is true in our own.”  This is a stupid conclusion that would be self-evident for a sixth-grader.  We all know that when causes are backed by powerful people they can cause a reaction.  I doubt the JBS is opposed to using money and power to support their cause.  So the issue is not violence, or powerful people, or a reaction.  The issue with Byas and the JBS is political. 

Steve Byas and the John Birchers are hypocrites because they say they believe in freedom but they clearly mean only white nationalist freedom.  If John Brown had done what he did to free a population of enslaved whites the Birchers would consider him their patron saint.  The rightwing has always been a movement that operates according to white racial priorities.  If Byas and the JBS are really concerned about a “violent legacy, why didn’t they criticize slavery and slaveholders, who used violence, terror, and murder every day to keep millions of black people enslaved for generations, and to take steal “slave crop” land from the Native Americans?  Why attack a Christian man whose whole life was devoted to ending slavery?

Let the John Birchers come to their senses and change their name to the John Brown Society.  Therein they would find a true sense of freedom and liberty.   John Birch was a Christian soldier who, having been caught breaking the laws of another land as a spy, died as an instrument of US political interests. John Brown was a Christian liberator who, having been caught violating the laws of tyranny, died for humanity.  

We have no use for a John Birch when we have a John Brown.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

John Brown, a "Frustrated American"?

The Voice of America (VOA) website currently features a piece by Chris Simkins entitled "Debate Still Rages Over Controversial American Abolitionist John Brown" (16 Feb.).   The article is fair for the most part, primarily featuring the input of Dennis Frye, the go-to-guy for John Brown information at the National Park Service, but happily also including our friend, Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of Brown's through his daughter Anne Brown Adams.

The article begins with a quote from Frye: "Some believe [Brown] is a tyrant, and even use the word terrorist. Conversely, others say no, he is a freedom fighter, he is a martyr, he is a hero." Well, given the nature of his job, Frye does a good job of presenting in a noncommittal manner.  While such an approach is hardly satisfying to those that know that Brown was neither a tyrant nor a terrorist, it is much preferred over the biased nonsense that I once heard from another NPS employee at Harper's Ferry. (See "A Harper's Ferry Return: Reflections from My Visit, October 15-17, 2009.")

"Frustration" versus the Facts

Frye further says that "John Brown is a very frustrated American," a man who was "so angry that he determined the only way to remove slavery from the country was through violent overthrow of the institution, to literally eliminate it through war."

The point is well taken--to a degree.  Brown was deeply frustrated and even angry over slavery, although he was not the only one.  Even so, only two men had a plan to end slavery in 1859, John Brown and Lysander Spooner, and the latter was still dealing with pen and paper when Brown was experimenting, planning, and acting in the field.

However, even in a short statement like Frye's remarks, there are two problems, which I'll call Point 1 and Point 2.  Point One further requires two sub-points, which I'll refer to as Point 1A and Point 1B.

Point 1A:  "Nothing But War"

Colorized Harper's Ferry postcard image, early 20th century
It is a matter of history that by the the late 1850s, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Dred Scott Decision, and the violent determination of the South to force slavery upon the Kansas Territory all proved that John Brown was correct:  There was no way to end slavery without violence.  Not only was slavery deeply embedded in the political, economic, and social infrastructure of the nation, but the South was determined to have slavery regardless of the outcome of the presidential election in 1860. Historians have erroneously blamed Brown and other radicals for the secession crisis, although in reality the proslavery leadership of the South was determined to keep slavery.  Thus, if the Democrats had won in 1860, the Union would have been preserved at the cost of the South's continued push for political control of the nation and slavery's further expansion into new territories.  However, if the Republicans won in 1860, the South was prepared to secede.  Brown knew this in the late 1850s and he knew that there was no way to end slavery.

The journalist William A. Phillips preserved Brown's clear reading of the facts in a remembrance published twenty years later in The Atlantic Monthly.  In a conversation with Brown in early 1859, he recalled how the Old Man “sketched the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the colonies," and showing the young journalist how the proslavery element had grown powerful and tied patriotism to compromise, also countering religious antislavery voices with the threat of secession.
“‘And now,’ he went on, ‘we have reached a point where nothing but war can settle the question….They never intend to relinquish the machinery of this government into the hands of the opponents of slavery.  It has taken them more than a half century to get it, and they know its significance too well to give it up… .The moment they are unable to control they will go out, and as a rival nation along-side they will get the countenance and aid of the European nations, until American republicanism and freedom are overthrown.”*
So Frye's approach is actually less than neutral since he conveys that impression that Brown's conclusions might have had equally reasonable alternatives, and that he was driven by frustration more than a factual reading of political reality.

Point 1B: The Inherent Racism of Counterfactual "Solutions" to Slavery 

Whatever Mr. Frye himself believes, there have long been those who blame Brown and the radical abolitionists for the violent outcome of the civil conflict of 1861-65, and contend--or at least insinuate--that other courses might have been pursued toward the end of slavery.

Any argument that an alternative to war was the better way of ending slavery is really arguing from and for white privilege

The problem is that the historical road to Civil War is itself testimony to the vanity of compromise. Those who argue today that the Civil War should have been avoided are missing the obvious point that compromise was repeatedly tried and failed because of the determined greed of slaveholders. They also miss the point that compromise always privileged white interests overall and left black people in slavery.  No possible compromise or alternative would have resulted in a just conclusion for the oppressed community.  Either enslaved blacks would have been held captive for many more decades in the name of "gradual emancipation," or they would have been deported without compensation while slave holders were financially remunerated by the federal government.  So any argument that an alternative to war was the better way of ending slavery is really arguing from and for white privilege.  I doubt that most of the counterfactual appeals to alternative solutions to slavery are consciously argued with racist intent, but there is an insensitivity to it that reflects the root problem of white priorities being upheld over black necessities.

So, respectfully, Mr. Frye's position here is misrepresentative in two ways: first, Brown's view was not a mere opinion, but a realistic reading of political absolutes.  Second, the notion of a peaceful alternative to ending slavery is politically unrealistic and premised on racial priorities that overlook black human rights.  As Brown would put it, it violates the Golden Rule.

Point 2: Something Other Than War

Another misleading feature of Frye's brief assessment is that he says that Brown wanted war.  He then misrepresents Brown's intentions and plans.

As Brown himself both demonstrated and repeatedly contended in words to the press and to the court in 1859, he neither intended nor attempted to launch an insurrection.  Yes, Brown was willing to use violence in measure to throw slavery's daily operations into a panic, but he was not an advocate of full blown warfare.  Up to his last day, in his famously scribbled words, "I John Brown," the Old Man made it clear that his effort was an attempt to avoid war on a grand scale.  His intention was not war, but a kind of armed subterfuge of slave society.  The priority effort of his plan was to lead away as many enslaved people as possible to the mountains, and then break them into small cadres of armed people who would further the movement into the depths of the South.  The fighting under Brown's plan would be mostly skirmishes here and there, while the greater emphasis was on evading conflict and tapping into the real desperation of enslaved people to escape bondage.  The outcome of Brown's plan would not have been war per se, but a panicked and dysfunctional slave society, with masters selling their slaves deeper into the South, and the routines and operations of slavery increasingly sabotaged.   In the end, Brown lamented that he had failed to accomplish his plan, and now fully anticipated that "much bloodshed" would be required to end slavery.

John Brown intended to arm fugitive slaves
with pikes, not the HF rifles
I would recommend that Mr. Frye read my book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, to correct the hackneyed notions that he continues to disseminate in the name of expertise.  Brown was not a warmonger, but a strategist with religious and humanitarian intention of deescalating the nation's movement toward war, and rescuing four millions of black people from being permanently kidnapped by a likely secession if the Republicans won in 1860.  This is the actual intention of the Harper's Ferry raid, not "war."

Frye further errs by saying that Brown and his men "planned to steal 100,000 rifles from the Federal Armory and distribute them to thousands of black slaves and white abolitionist fighters in an effort to overthrow the government."  This is sheer nonsense and it is a shame that a man with such an obvious role as a public educator and historical guide would be repeating these erroneous notions, so as to perpetuate the flawed notions of Brown that abound in this society.

No, Mr. Frye, Brown had no intention of seizing the Harper's Ferry weapons.  Not only did he deny this, but he said he didn't need those breech-loading guns because he had better guns.  Nor did he remove the guns, or even bring the wagons to remove "100,000 rifles."   There is absolutely no evidence that throughout Brown's hours of controlling the armory that he made any effort whatsoever to remove the Harper's Ferry rifles.  Indeed, he posted men to keep the rifles from being removed by Virginians.

Now Frye is correct that "John Brown wanted his army to orchestrate a huge migration of slaves from southern plantations," but the migration was not to the North as he concludes.  Brown's operation was not an armed underground railroad, but rather for a kind of counter-state existing in the mountains and margins of the South.   His hope was to sustain this presence until slavery collapsed, the Southern economy became completely destabilized, and it became impossible to effectively hold humans in bondage, especially with growing support coming from the North and allies abroad.

Brown in his Virginia jail cell, 1859
Detail from NY Illustrated News 10 Dec. 1859
Conclusion: History Reconsidered, Not Revised

Over 150 years after John Brown's death, the reason why there is still controversy and debate over his meaning to our nation is in no small part due to prejudice and misinformation.  While much of it is not deliberately malicious (some of it is), the unwillingness of many people (including people who should know better) to acknowledge Brown as a protagonist of liberty reflects the stubbornness and slowness of heart that sullies understanding and makes bitter that which should taste sweet in our mouths.  Some of this might be corrected by simply reconsidering history with a deeper commitment to research rather than recycling old rhetoric and flawed notions.  But I suspect with the passing of years that if there are good people like Mr. Frye who present some mistaken notions with no malice intended, there are others whose discourse is that of their forefathers--a narrative of deep racial bigotry and selfishness that is not so much a matter of the head but rather of the heart.--LD

      * William A. Phillips, "Three Interviews with Old John Brown," Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879), p. 743.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Nothing to Marvel At: An Independent Civil War Historian Gets Brown All Wrong

To my knowledge, it was Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown scholars, who was the first (and probably the only) to find an interesting albeit minor connection between Brown and Abraham Lincoln in the person of Edwin M. Stanton.  Stanton is remembered as the disagreeable Secretary of War in the Lincoln administration, who served from 1861-65.  Famously, it was also Stanton who sat by the assassinated president on the early morning of April 15, 1865 and spoke the memorable words, "Now he belongs to the ages"--although he may actually have said, "angels."  (You can ask the Lincoln scholars about that one.)  

Wool Business

Stutler probably discovered that Brown had known Stanton when he obtained the business letter books of Perkins & Brown, the wool commission operation that Brown ran in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1846-49. As I have briefly documented in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, Brown partnered with his wealthy Akron patron, Simon Perkins Jr., becoming his partner in a venture that was well needed, but still ahead of its time (Brown was in advance of his generation in more than one way.)   Contrary to the hackneyed narrative that unfortunately is embraced as fact, Perkins & Brown posed a real threat to the New England manufacturing establishment because Brown introduced weighing and pricing on the producers' end.  Throughout the three years of operation, the firm was beset by resistance and challenge from the manufacturers, and Stutler believed that an operative was even planted in the Springfield office to undermine operations.  Normally, the failure of the firm is blamed solely on Brown's blundering, but in fact he was waging a classic battle against a powerful union of manufacturers and learned the lessons of capitalism the hard way.   Worse, the wool growers themselves were not sufficiently matured as a community to look beyond their personal interests, and so they squabbled, cheated, and nagged Brown over cash, making his work that much harder.  In fact, it seems to have taken another generation before wool growers in their region could effectively organize and seize control of pricing their own wools for market. 

Edwin M. Stanton
A Pittsburgh Lawyer

Although the firm closed its doors in 1849, Brown and his partner were tied up in litigation for several years, and in some cases their legal controversies were covered by local papers in the northeast. During this time, Brown restlessly presented the face of the firm in court, interacted with lawyers, and endured the drawn out and wearisome trials, although his mind increasingly drifted toward matters of slavery and liberation.  

In 1854, when working with a lawyer in New York State, he nearly abandoned the office to go to Boston when he heard about the controversial seizure and trial of Anthony Burns, a black man who was forced into slavery courtesy of the Fugitive Slave Law.  "Anthony Burns must be released," Brown told his lawyer, "or I will die in the attempt."  Brown was finally persuaded to stay, but "it took a long and earnest talk" by the lawyer.1

Among the lawyers that worked with Brown during the post-Perkins & Brown period was Edwin M. Stanton.  Stanton was from Steubenville, Ohio, and was admitted to the bar in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1847, where he relocated the following year.  As a successful lawyer, Stanton had supported the Pittsburgh and Steubenville railroad and made a name for himself as one of the city's leading attorneys, which is perhaps why Brown sought his services.2  Stanton is one of two lawyers addressed by Brown in a letter written in April 1851, relating to lawsuits involving wool growers in western Pennsylvania.3   In the same letter, Brown addressed another leading Pittsburgh attorney, Andrew W. Loomis, a native of Connecticut who came to Pittsburgh via Ohio in 1850.4  

In the firm's letter, Brown writes (and the copy exists in Brown's own hand) that he is interested in these suits so far as time, trouble, & expence [sic] of suing them in our own name are concerned; & no further."5  It seems that Brown was concerned that the lawsuits be expedited only if they involved their personal finances--this being an era when there were not yet limited liability laws.  Whatever the case, Brown's path briefly crossed that of Edwin Stanton, an associate of Lincoln, just as it did in the case of his black associate, Thomas Thomas, of Springfield.   Thomas, who was close to Brown in Springfield, Mass., also became acquainted with Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. prior to his election to the presidency in 1860.6

A Marvel in His Own Time

What prompted this entry is that in looking for information on Stanton's early days as a lawyer, I came upon a biography by William Marvel, an independent Civil War historian based in New Hampshire.  I am not particularly interested in Civil War history and was interested in learn about Marvel, who reportedly is a lifelong resident of South Conway, New Hampshire, and an independent scholar specializing in 19th-century American history. The New Hampshire Gazette reports further that Marvel "has written fourteen books about different aspects of the Civil War," and nearly took the Lincoln prize in 1995 for his book about the Andersonville Prison story.7   To say the least, Marvel is an interesting guy, the author of a good many books about the Civil War, and one who has made a name for himself without playing the academia game.  A vigorous researcher and historian with a background in journalism and a independent spirit might usually be the stuff of heroes.  

In an article for another New Hampshire publication, Marvel provides a thoughtful autobiographical reflection that casts light on his approach to doing history:
Most of my friends in this field followed an academic track. In a world where credentials are routinely confused with competence, a Ph.D. was their basic requirement for making a living. Many of them complain that academic obligations leave them little time to actually practice their craft, and when they do find time they often discover that the pressure to be politically correct can discourage them from the course of strict honesty. They wonder what slip of the tongue will destroy their careers, or what misinterpreted comment will force them into a Galileo-like public confession of error and contrition. Having no university affiliation, I am troubled by none of that.8
William Marvel
New Hampshire Gazette
Here's a scholar that I would very much like to admire, and even though I have a Ph.D., the scholars that have most impressed me in the twenty-five years of my own scholarly quest have been grassroots and independent researchers and writers who are not caught up in the academic realm.  As a teacher in a small graduate program that focuses more on teaching than publishing, I do my work largely with a solitary sense, since the school where I teach shows little or no interest in my scholarship.  This suits me fine because, like Marvel, I too believe that in veritas beatitas, "in truth is happiness," just as I believe finding a niche in which to work--one that you really love, is its own greatest reward, regardless of the recognition one may or may not receive.  This blog has lasted for over ten years in no small part because of love of the study and because there is indeed happiness in truth.

Ad Fontes!

Another phrase that serves the work is one that echoes from the time of the humanists and the Reformers, ad fontes!--to the source!  Marvel seems to get that this is essential in the work of the historian.  In another article, he recalls how as a young researcher, he had to learn "how crucial it is to evaluate sources."  He came to see that newspapers, official documents, diaries, and letters "written at the time of an event often tell a much different story from accounts written from memory decades later."  Marvel recalled doing his work in the 1950s and '60s, when so much of the primary material was still being held by collectors.  This meant that "[p]opular historians had to depend heavily on published recollections and regimental histories [of the Civil War], and inevitably they wrote the history of the war as the veterans and the politicians wanted it recorded."  Marvel says this produced
 "an unjustifiably glorified image of the era and the combatants that persisted late into the 20th century because so many in the next generation of historians used existing secondary works as the foundation for their own books — even though a multitude of manuscripts had become available for research by then."

Marvel shows a keen insight that is badly needed in the historian's craft: the ability to evaluate materials, deep research, and refraining from just recycling information culled from secondary works. As he points out, even though more primary resources became available, many professional scholars continued to build their writings on previous publications rather than doing the hard work on the sources themselves!  Marvel says this was especially true with "famous" themes, where "subsequent students simply built on those conclusions instead of reinvestigating the issue from new sources. That saved the time and expense of visiting manuscript repositories, but it only compounded earlier errors and tainted the new interpretations.
"  Marvel says that as a newspaper reporter, he found the same tendency among journalists, "to rely on the work of earlier writers and accept official interpretations of events."9 

But No Marvel This Time!

While my heart is strangely warmed by William Marvel's reflections on writing history, including how his treatment of Edwin M. Stanton upset the Lincoln establishment (!), I was quite disappointed to find that in the same Stanton biography, Marvel betrays his own claims when it comes to how he writes about John Brown.  Frankly, it is rare when a Civil War person knows--really knows--John Brown.  But based on what Marvel says about sources and research, I would have expected more. Certainly, I would have expected him to rise above the typical jaundiced, bigoted rhetoric that is common among Civil War types when it comes to describing John Brown.  But quite to the contrary, Marvel highly resembles the tendency he describes as inferior scholarship--a lack of depth in research and a reliance on secondary writings.

In his recent book, Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton, Marvel mentions John Brown twice, although he seems to be unaware that Brown and Stanton knew each other in the early 1850s. To no surprise, Marve's first reference to Brown is the Pottawatomie killings of 1856: “An abolitionist zealot named John Brown retaliated by slaughtering five unarmed and perfectly innocent Southern emigrants.”  Then, in reference to the Harper's Ferry raid, which he erroneously calls an "insurrection," Marvel writes:
John Brown—a perpetually scheming, occasionally dishonest, and invariably unsuccessful businessman—had diverted his talents to a murderous brand of social reform late in life, and he devoted his final months to a crackbrained plot to foment a slave revolt in Virginia.10
Marvel even makes the defeat of Brown by Robert E. Lee sound like an errand.  He writes, “On the second morning of the insurrection Lee ordered a few of the Marines to attack the station house, where they broke down the doors and killed or captured most of the insurgents."11  A "few marines"? Did they "break down the doors" Mr. Marvel?  Marvel does not seem aware of the difficulty that the marines had in breaking into the engine house, and that they could not break through with their tools, and fortunately found a ladder left from the previous day, which they finally used to break a hole into one of the doors?  

Needless to say, Marvel is completely off track.  Whatever genius he may show as a researcher and writer in his field is completely lost in this precious nonsense presented as the work of a historian.  Indeed, these few lines about Brown suggest how utterly unfaithful and inconsistent Wililam Marvel is, not only by loading such compact narrative sound bytes with his own bias and dismissive contempt, but by clearly failing to take Brown seriously enough to do his own research.

William Marvel, were the Pottawatomie five really "perfectly innocent Southern emigrants"?  On the strength of what primary sources do you draw this description?  And why is John Brown "perpetually scheming" instead of persistently seeking to provide for his family and fulfill his dreams as a man?  Yes, Brown had an ethical lapse as he pushed back against the probability of financial disaster in the 1830s, but it was a single incident which he owned up to, and for which he sought to make right, even to his dying day.   Was his brand of "social reform" really "murderous", and was his plan in Virginia really "crackbrained"?  Did he really wish to start a "revolt," and what does that term mean?  The number of errors, just in this short passage, along with the evident prejudice he shows, completely disqualifies Marvel by his own standards.

William Marvel may be a marvel of Civil War history writers, but there is no marvel here.  There is only shame.  A man with such clarity, discipline, and rigor should have known better and done better in regard to John Brown.   Instead, he simply wrote from prejudice and ignorance.--LD


       1 Relayed in Franklin B. Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), 80.
       2 History of Pittsburgh and Environs, Vol. II (New York: American Historical Society, 1922), 162 and 204.
       3 Perkins & Brown to Messrs. Loomis and Stanton, 18 Apr. 1851, in Gee Papers, Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.
       4 The Twentieth Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania, Vol. II  (Chicago: H.C. Cooper Jr., 1903), 830.  It is also possible that the Loomis addressed by Brown was Cyrus O. Loomis, another lawyer in Pittsburgh, but I suspect Andrew Loomis was his contact, being the leading figure of the two relatives.
       5 Perkins & Brown to Loomis and Stanton, 18 Apr. 1851.
       6 For a discussion about Brown in Springfield and his association with Thomas, see my book, "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002).
       7 "William Marvel to Speak at Portsmouth Athenæum," New Hampshire Gazette, 31 May 2011.  Retrieved from http://www.nhgazette.com/2011/05/31/marvel-to-speak-at-athenaeum/.
       8 William Marvel, "In Veritas Beatitas," Conway Daily Sun, 9 May 2016.  Retrieved from:
       9 William Marvel, "Flawed at the Source," Conway Daily Sun, 7 Aug. 2014.  Retrieved from:
      10 William Marvel, Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2015), 80-81, 112.
      11 Ibid.