Monday, June 13, 2011

A Historian's Epic Fail: John Brown is not Osama Bin Laden

With the official government killing of Osama bin Laden last month, the issue of using violence in a good cause has once again surfaced. "Justice has been done," said President Obama as he announced bin Laden's death by a team of Navy SEAL operatives. Americans reacted, American-style, with bibulous celebrations in Times Square and, more quietly, with feelings of relief and contemplation. Some of that contemplation included the question: Did the United States have the moral authority to assassinate bin Laden, no matter how much evil he had committed?

Personally, I don't have a straightforward answer to that question, but I can tell you as a historian that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1859, an event that historians believe intensified the sectional controversy between North and South that eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And when I think about John Brown, a radical abolitionist who believed that violence could -- and should -- be used to end slavery in America, I can't help also thinking about the place he raided, Harpers Ferry -- one of the most peaceful, scenic spots in the entire United States.
In the world of advanced academic pedantry, sometimes folks miss the forest for the trees. That would seem to be the case with Glenn W. LaFantasie's essay, "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown" which was recently featured on

How anyone can parallel Osama Bin Laden with the Abolitionist freedom fighter Mr. John Brown is beyond me. Moreover, Professor LaFantasie's accompanying question of how and if America is a violent society seems to be a bit uninteresting and obvious. But alas, each academic subfield has its own compelling questions and inside baseball debates that others may not get or have ready access to.

[On a related note, check out the comments section on "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown." There is some serious sonning going on where lay-readers and other folks are tearing the good Professor to bits....which is one more reason many academics prefer to play in safer and more secure waters where the Queenberry rules apply].

There is a disturbing tone to LaFantasie's essay, one that is none too uncommon: the love and affinity of black folks for John Brown is viewed as somehow aberrant or a special case.
In our own day, Brown still stirs up controversy and sets people -- especially historians -- at odds with one another. Yet among one group of Americans -- African-Americans -- there seems to be a consensus about John Brown that exists among no other segment of the society. For black Americans, John Brown is a hero, and ever since his death they have sustained their high opinion of him and have elevated him to a place occupied by few whites.
This is myopic because the story of black America is the American story. Ultimately, to track it is to better understand some of the basic questions which this democracy in progress has struggled.

The more obvious problem with LaFantasie's analysis of John Brown's radical freedom fighting and revolutionary work is that his premise is misdirected and underdeveloped: The raid on Harper's Ferry is viewed as a wild eyed provocation against the South; Brown's deeds are misguided; the use of violence to settle political differences is wrong because it exists outside of the State's monopoly on force.

What is missing here is an acknowledgement that chattel slavery is a perpetual state of violence and war against those held in bondage. Simply put, the Southern Slaveocracy--and later the CSA--were military states that practiced daily acts of terrorism against their black American citizens.

One of the early commenters on "The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown" got it spot on when they observed that there is no hand-wringing over the violence committed by the Allies against the Nazis or the Japanese during World War Two. Those wars are simply viewed as "just." Thus, why all this introspection about the legitimacy of John Brown's violence (which the author characterizes as "abhorrent"), and not an emphasis on context? That John Brown acted in the name of liberating black humanity from the chains and shackles of inhuman bondage?

I am hesitant to say it, but in the eyes of some, even into the present, is black life that cheap? So cheap in fact, that all sorts of mental gymnastics have to occur in order to come to a decision rule for when acts of liberation balance out in the ledger?

John Brown understood the redemptive and necessary power of violence. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and many nameless others throughout the Black Atlantic also understood the prime directive of agency, resistance and survival. Many folks in the United States--both black and white, North and South--do not want to tell that story.

Thus the irony: the slave owners and slave resisters were all quintessentially American. They could also be quite violent, the former by definition much more so. In a world of simple, flat, binary answers many fear that uncomfortable truth.


stephen matlock said...

"This is myopic because the story of black America is the American story." (Emphasis added)

This is the best line (IMO), because it is the one most blatantly overlooked.

It's not some additional story, and (again, IMO) it is not the only story.

But it *is* the story, as much as bootstrap Lincoln.

Christopher Sharp said...

Excellent article. As a (white) amateur historian of the Civil War, I have read alot about John Brown's raid. I agree that it was definitely viewed by most Southerners as an unjusitifed attack on the South, and it was one of the key events that led to Southern secession. It is sad that their interpretation of the raid is now becoming the dominant historical perspective. On the other hand, there were also a very large number of Northern white abolitionsists who lionized Brown and clearly understood the redemptive and necessary power of violence. "John Brown's Body" was one of the most popular marching songs sung by Union solidiers during the Civil War, and the words leave no doubt that he was viewed as a virtual saint despite some of the horrific violence that he perpetrated, particularly during the civil war in Kansas.

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul's marching on . . .He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,His soul's marching on."

I guess this article is a good example of how our view of history can change over time, which is why it is important to read this stuff for yourself and draw your own conclusions, instead of blindly accepting the interpretations of others who clearly have a revisionist agenda.

Plane Ideas said...

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

There is a real historical parallel between the War on Terror and John Brown that the article's author missed: using perceived threats to justify abuses of power. Brown was charged, tried, and executed by the state of Virginia for treason, even though he had attacked a FEDERAL arsenal. They did not have the authority to try Brown for treason, but were afraid that if tried in North, he would be let free. While I have no love whatsoever for al-Qaeda, I am disturbed by the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which, like Brown's execution, is extralegal.

Oh, and as CS already mentioned, Brown's death was greeted much differently than bin Laden. Many is the North, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw him as a hero.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Excellent. Visit my John Brown blog to see another response:

chaunceydevega said...

@stephen. I wonder why so many want to segregate black folks as a sidetrack/peripheral narrative. Hmmmm....

@Chris. Thanks for stopping by. If you ever want to do a guest post by all means pitch us something.

@Thrasher. Thanks. What else do you have going on?

@Werner. Is your colleague just wrong? Or is there some other inside baseball going on with his piece and claims?

@Louis. Thanks. Will do. Same question as above. What is your take?

stephen matlock said...

Speaking only for me & my own knowledge -

1) Ignorance. I simply do not know all this stuff. (And yes, the ignorance is a combination of unchallenged assumptions and willful blindness; see below)

2) Fear. What will happen if I tip over this box? What might escape? How will this affect my worldview and my safe, ordered life? Best leave this unopened and unexamined. Who wants to face ridicule and exposure when if you do nothing the worst that will happen is that nothing will change?

3) Self-centeredness. I got mine.

4) Self-centeredness masquerading as kindness. That all happened so long ago in the past and no one alive is directly responsible so why not just let bygones be bygones and just move on?

5) I might be wrong. Not just wrong on the facts, which is correctable through knowledge, but wrong inside myself. Which is very hard to correct.

That's all I have for now. This is hard to write so that it's honest without sounding flippant or smug.

But from what I read and hear, there is very little room in the world for people who say for themselves "I might be wrong" rather than "you are so wrong." And an awful lot of people already have their minds made up even before a question is asked.

Plane Ideas said...


Read me on AOL/PATCH

Just a few things to keep a brother out of trouble:-)

Christopher Sharp said...

Hey Chauncey and thanks for the invite to post. I just found this blog yesterday but it's already on my favorites list. Looking forward to more of your insightful and funny posts about the crazy world we are living in right now. Based onther Repubs sorry performance last night, you should have plenty of material heading into 2012.

As you recently stated in another post, "you can't polish a turd" no matter how hard you try. Let's just hope that none of the Republiturds end up in the White House but in the meantime, after seeing last night's debate, I think I'm going to head home, kick back with a cold one and break out one of the best political songs ever written..."Funky President."

. . . Stock market going up, jobs going down, It ain't no funky job to be Brown. Prices keep going up, I'm chained to my bath, Now I drink from a paper cup, gettin' bad
People, people, we've got to get over Before we go under.

We've got to get together and buy some land...Raise our food just like the man....Save our money, do like the mob...Put up your factory and own the job....We've got to get over, before we go under