Abolishing History’s Asylum: Contesting the Legacy of John Brown by Andrew Epstein

Introduction: Guest Blogger—Andrew Epstein

Just who is this Andrew Epstein? According his own, self-titled blog, he’s a carpetbagger in our midst, straight from the Big Apple.  With that in mind, you’re probably also wondering what in the world of Albion Tourgee is going on at Bowtied and Fried? Rest easy, comrades. While Andrew is a native New Yorker his qualifications for this particular topic are as good as it gets. Who better to blog about a controversial figure than the guy who spent a day about town with Ward Churchill? Who better to blog about the oft-debated psychological stability of John Brown than the author of a piece entitled “Super Bowl Fetishization, or, the Reincarnation Powers of Doritos?” Yes, exactly.

Academically speaking, Andrew Epstein is a graduate student of history at the University of Georgia. When he isn’t running his own blogs: Andrew Epstein: Observations and analysis of politics, history and struggle from a carpetbagger in the south (http://andeps.blogspot.com/) and Jews Against Israeli Chutzpah (http://jewsagainstchutzpah.blogspot.com/), Andrew’s work focuses on 20th century Indian Policy, Native Removal, American Imperialism, and the History of Capitalism. Amongst the bottom floor dungeons of LeConte Hall, Andrew is perhaps best-known as the graduate population’s resident theory wonk and Marxian analyst. In 1971, when Noam Chomsky famously confessed that “I have never effectively understood what he was talking about”… he might actually have been referring to Andrew.

All kidding aside, Andrew’s contribution to Bowtied and Fried couldn’t be timelier. As Sesquicentennial conferences, symposiums, reenactments, and memorials kick into full gear, equal importance must be placed on the plethora of characters, personalities, and events that played critical roles in shaping what historian William Freehling coined the “Road to Disunion.” By 10th or 11th grade most Americans are familiar with the alleged basics of John Brown: Bleeding Kansas, abolitionism, the raid on Harper’s Ferry, and his eventual execution. Andrew’s blog seeks to render surface-level narratives of Brown obsolete; he desires to infuse the story of a man whose body later became the subject of a Union marching tune with new degrees of tactical, political, cultural, and even psychological complexity. Whether or not Andrew has rescued Brown from the condescension of posterity, is, however, ultimately up to you, the reader…

– MCH


Abolishing History’s Asylum: Contesting the Legacy of John Brown

“Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth today?” – W.E.B. Du Bois

In the wake of the January 8th shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others in a Tucson grocery store parking lot, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann aired one of his famously erudite “Special Comments” to condemn violence in American political culture. Reaching back for historical examples of irresponsible rhetoric exploding in brutality, Olbermann warned, “We will not return to the 1850s, when a pro-slavery Congressman nearly beat to death an anti-slavery Senator,” referring, of course, to Preston Brooks’ infamous 1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner. Olbermann continued, “[or] when an anti-slavery madman cut to death with broadswords pro-slavery advocates.”[1] While the latter figure of Olbermann’s (deeply problematic) equivalency may be far less known to the average student of American history than the former, one word may have rung a bell: “madman.” It is a moniker – like its close cousin “fanatic” in that dysfunctional family of history’s infamously “insane” –  so firmly fused to the memory of John Brown that even the otherwise critically-minded repeat it with hardly a moment’s hesitation. Since beginning my graduate career a few months ago, no fewer than two professors (neither of whom could in any way be accused of harboring “lost cause” sympathies) – along with a handful of graduate students – have spoken of Brown this way, addressing both large undergraduate lectures and more intimate graduate discussions.

Where does the consensus on Brown’s insanity originate? This is a rather large question, requiring not only an examination of contested narratives, political agendas, sectional conflict, and media representations, but also unpacking the sordid and shifting discourses of insanity and mental illness, and the delicate terrain of race, violence, and the politics of white solidarity with the oppressed. I intend here only to pursue a few lines of thought on the narrative of Brown’s insanity and the investment in its perpetuation, which is very much alive and well today. Note that this brief paper presumes a basic understanding of John Brown’s life or, at very least, his raid on Harper’s Ferry; I will not rehash details or timelines here. Ultimately, I hope that scholars and educators both abandon the reflexive pejoratives attached to Brown and problematize their deployment of the word “insane” in historical and contemporary contexts. As historian Benjamin Quarles writes of Brown’s black contemporaries, “They held that society, rather than Brown, was deranged.”[2]

One common retort to Brown must first be dispensed with as justification for his “madman” label. As one of the esteemed core contributors to this website has reminded me on frequent occasions, John Brown’s tactical skills left much to be desired. The audacity of his plan to carve out an egalitarian state in the heart of the South was matched only by the apparent absurdity of his decisions at Harper’s Ferry during his fateful raid of October 1859. But history is littered with the strategically inept; surely their miscalculations do not necessarily indicate their insanity. And perhaps his tactics were not so far fetched after all. Historian David S. Reynolds argues that Brown in fact, “reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war,” formed upon Brown’s study of Maroon rebels in the West Indies.[3] Brown’s record in “Bleeding Kansas” also demonstrated his ability to lead, and – in a requisite attribute for underground militancy – act with ruthless violence. His premeditated retributive slaughter of five pro-slavery settlers (another misunderstood event deserving of its own revisionist treatment) is a dramatic illustration. Had Brown abandoned the garrison at Harper’s Ferry just hours earlier and opted instead for the rocky mountains of western Virginia with his stockpile of seized weapons, his rebellion may have lasted far longer with untold consequences.[4]

In any case, the narrative of Brown’s madness emerged long before any thorough consideration of his tactics at Harper’s Ferry. Just one day after Brown’s arrest, The New York Times opened its front page article, “The excitement is subsiding to astonishment at the insane undertakings of the insurgents.”[5] A week later, The Times praised the dispassionate response of Virginia’s political class, writing, “The virtue of patriotism has not yet succumbed to the violence of fanaticism.”[6] In the same editorial, patronizingly titled “Practical Abolitionism,” The Times denounced Brown’s cohort as “mad and misguided men” who, like demons of destruction, “came upon the South in a whirlwind of fanaticism and fury.”[7] The Times was not alone in its characterization of John Brown as a lunatic. Historian Louis Filler writes, “Northerners of every persuasion were eager to repudiate Brown’s action and to ascribe it to madness.”[8] The New Hampshire Patriot opened its report on the matter, “the public mind…has been much agitated by the deplorable events at Harpers Ferry.” Playing upon common fears of America’s purportedly bucolic villages besieged by savage uprising, the paper wrote, “A quiet community, in the night time, was startled by an insurrection in its very midst.” Blaming “black republicans” for instigating such mayhem, the Patriot – a paper named for those violent men who fought in America’s own bloody revolution – stated unequivocally, “We could not admit violence or force as, in any case, a necessary or proper recourse, in this country, for the establishment of any political principles, or for the relief from political evils.”[9] In Albany, The Evening Journal, a paper that claimed to support Brown’s abolitionist goals, labeled the raid a “lawless enterprise” and called for abolitionists to respect the Constitution, a document that, for now, protected the right to own another human being as property.[10]

Even at this early date, disagreement on Brown’s insanity emerged from some surprising corners. After hearing of the insurrection, Governor Henry A. Wise joined a small group of Virginia’s elite who interrogated Brown just hours after his capture. An ardent Democrat and implacable supporter of slavery whose last official act was to sign Brown’s death warrant, Wise was nonetheless impressed by Brown’s character. “He is a man of clear head,” Wise observed. “He is cool, collected and indomitable…He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, truthful and intelligent.”[11] Such characterizations of John Brown from a figure like Wise would surely undermine much of the prevailing opinion regarding Brown’s insurrection, yet no mention found its way into the popular press. Indeed, the entire transcript of this interrogation – compellingly documented in Truman Nelson’s classic The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry – reads less like the deranged rantings of a fiend than a profound reflection of a man far ahead of his time. When Senator James Mason demanded to know Brown’s justifications for such an affront, Brown responded with quiet dignity, “I think, my friend, you are guilt of a great wrong against God and humanity – I say it without wishing to be offensive – and that it would be perfectly right in anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you wickedly and willfully hold in bondage. I do not say insultingly.” His equanimity even converted some of the crowed that had gathered to witness the historic interrogation. Nelson writes, “There was a half-suppressed murmur of admiration from the onlookers.”  During the entire affair, Brown lay wounded and bleeding on the floor of the armory, fading fast from exhaustion and trauma. Even here, his powers of persuasion remained unconquerable.[12]

The most prescient exchange occured when a militiaman, lingering by the door and overhearing Brown run rhetorical circles around Virginia’s elite and his supposed “betters,” called out, “Brown, suppose you had every nigger in the United States, what would you do with them?” “Set them free!” Brown replied. “Carry them off and free them?” the militiaman asked in disbelief. “Not at all,” Brown retorted, “Free them here. The slaves should have this land, everything on it, the fruit of their labors.” After a moment’s hesitation as the crowd considered this unnerving proposal, a clergyman announced, “To set them free would sacrifice the life of every white man in this community.” “I don’t think so!” Brown shouted back. “I know it, I know it,” the clergyman intoned without acerbity. “I think you are fanatical.” Brown replied, “And I think you are fanatical. ‘Whom the Gods destroy they first made mad.’ And you are mad!”[13]

This dialog vividly illustrates the dilemma. Brown must be a lunatic, for how else could a white man envision, let alone dare to articulate and seek to bring about, a state of actual equality? Certainly the abolitionist movement claimed thousands of members throughout the northern states; still, as Quarles reminds us, “Despite their high-principled hostility to slavery, anything smacking of social equality with blacks was distasteful and painful when it was not indeed deemed as an offense to nature’s laws.”[14] Brown rejected racism in all aspects of his life, including – perhaps most significantly – in his tactical approach to abolition. Since a widespread movement to end slavery began in earnest several decades prior, “moral suasion” remained the dominant strategic paradigm. Even in the wake of Brown’s assault, few white abolitionists ever seriously considered engaging in violent resistance. Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist of the mid-19th century, articulated the movement’s task in an 1848 speech before The New England Anti-Slavery Convention. “What is the denunciation with which we are charged?” Phillips asked. “It is endeavoring, in our faltering human speech, to declare the enormity of the sin of making merchandise of men.”[15] Speaking the truth, rather than acting upon its implications, reflects a persistent praxis of white dissidents in the United States throughout history. The point is not to physically intervene upon institutionalized oppression, but to bear moral witness to it, speak its name and return to the comfort of privilege with hands unsullied.

Brown differed dramatically from other white abolitionists. Years before the incident at Harper’s Ferry, Fredrick Douglass wrote a letter to the North Star declaring that Brown, “though a white gentleman, is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”[16] While northern abolitionists occasionally expressed admiration for slave rebellions, Brown did not think himself above actually employing the tactics endorsed and engaged in by the likes of Nat Turner, Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delany. For the millions held in bondage, avoiding violence was not an option. A system of such coercive magnitude as slavery can only be maintained through the constant threat and use of physical force. A state of civil war had already existed long before the establishment of the American Republic let alone the first shots on Fort Sumter – a war where one population pitted itself against another to maintain total domination. Brown, it seems, simply chose sides. “There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done,” he declared on the eve of his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown stepped outside the role usually assumed by white abolitionists, absorbing but a small taste of the violence routinely visited upon the bodies of African Americans. His final words at the trial which would end with his execution summarized this perspective. “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slavery country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done,” Brown declared.[17]

Perhaps this explains why Brown remains such a controversial historical figure. Though his predictions would ultimately prove correct – that chattel slavery would only vanish with an explosion of violence and bloodshed (namely, the Civil War) – contemporary scholars and popular writers still perpetuate the myths created just moments after Brown’s capture. A case in point: to mark the 150th anniversary of his raid on Harper’s Ferry, The New York Times ran a series of op-eds exploring Brown’s legacy. In an article entitled “The 9/11 of 1859,” Tony Horowitz wrote, “…it may be worth pondering the parallels between John Brown’s raid in 1859 and Al Qaeda’s assault in 2001. Brown was a bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery.”[18] The same week, Julian Baggini of The Gaurdian commended Brown’s goals, but concluded, “The rightness of the cause does not in any way negate the wrongness of the fanaticism.”[19] George Mason University’s History News Network asked, “Was Timothy McVeigh Our John Brown?”[20]

We need a new historical lineage to inform our understanding of the actions and legacy of John Brown. Three brief anecdotes may help point the way. On May 28, 1863, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison stood on a balcony in Boston watching the 54th black regiment march south to fight the slaveholders in Virginia. Nelson writes, “Garrison stood with his hand resting lightly on a marble bust of the Old Man. And when the black troops looked up and saw that, the band struck up ‘John Brown’s Body,’ and the marching columns all stand and stamped to its cadence.”[21] Forty-three years later, nearly one hundred black activists gathered at Harper’s Ferry amidst the tightening vise of Jim Crow apartheid to mark the one year anniversary of the inaugural Niagara Movement Meeting. The militant journalist J. Max Barber wrote in the Voice of the Negro newspaper, “John Brown could not have imagined as he looked through the barred windows of his dungeon that some day such a remarkable tribute would be paid to him on the very ground where he made his gallant stand.” He concluded, “But the old Puritan is not one of the vanishing figures of history.”[22] Finally, in 2007, political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote an essay commemorating Brown from his eight by ten foot cage in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 180 miles northwest of Harper’s Ferry. “We have tended to remember Brown, if at all, as this God-intoxicated madman. If he is indeed mad, then he may be safely jettisoned to the netherworld of Otherness, for we are sane, John Brown was mad.”  Abu-Jamal continues, “Whites who would put their lives on the line for blacks are rare creatures…When the going gets rough, the whites get going it seems.” He concludes, “Brown betrayed whiteness, and for that, earned the moniker ‘mad.’”[23]

Andrew Epstein
University of Georgia


[2] Benjamin Quarles, ed., Blacks on John Brown (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), 9.

[3] David S. Reynolds, “Freedom’s Martyr,” New York Times, December 1, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02reynolds.html?_r=2 (accessed February 13, 2011).

[4] Fiction writer Terry Bissom explores the ramifications of this path in his fascinating (if not heartbreaking) novel Fire on the Mountain.

[5] “Harper’s Ferry Rebellion,” New York Times, October 20, 1859.

[6] “Practical Abolitionism,” New York Times, October 28, 1859.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Louis Filler, The Crusade Against Slavery. (New York: HarperCollins, 1960), 273.

[9] Jonathan Earle, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History and Culture) (Boston: Bedford, 2008), 105-9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Filler, 272.

[12] Truman Nelson, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 186-98.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom: Blacks on John Brown, F ed. (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001), ix.

[15] Louis Ruchames et al., The Abolitionists (New York: Putnam, 1963), 220.

[16] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage, 2006), 104.

[18] Tony Horwitz, “The 9/11 of 1859,” New York Times, December 1, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/opinion/02horwitz.html?_r=1 (accessed February 13, 2011).

[19] Julian Baggini, “The Dangers of a Closed Mind,” Guardian, December 2, 2009.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/02/john-brown-fanaticism-philosophy (accessed February 13, 2011).

[21] Nelson, 304.

[22] Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 3.

[23] Mumia Abu-Jamal. “John Brown: His Truth is Marching On.” Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Radio Broadcasts. 26 Sept. 2007. Prison Radio. <http://www.prisonradio.org&gt;.

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5 Responses to Abolishing History’s Asylum: Contesting the Legacy of John Brown by Andrew Epstein

  1. MCH says:

    First of all, let me just say that this is outstanding stuff Andrew.

    That said, I do have a question concerning Brown’s raid and tactical shortcomings within the broader context of extra-legal and/or guerrilla violence, specifically with regard to race. Certainly, the mountains (or any rugged rural setting, really) would have afforded Brown and his followers an excellent backdrop from which to prolong hostilities… but what sort of traction–given that Brown’s followers were supposed to be liberated African American slaves–do you think his movement could have gained with white mountaineers who, even if they weren’t slave owners, probably wouldn’t have been thrilled with the idea of ex-slaves armed to the teeth roaming “their mountains?”

    I think you’re right, however, to plant Brown firmly within a tradition of extra-legal violence and justified-homicide. In many ways, while William C. Quantrill and Jesse James play(ed) the part of social bandit for pro-Confederate mythologies, Brown seems to carry the same connotation in many pro-Union/pro-Abolition circles.

  2. Andrew Epstein says:

    You raise a good question about local hostility to Brown’s party had they taken to the mountains before the arrival of Lee and Stuart. But there are a few things they’d have going for them over the scattered mountaineers.

    You indicate one when you say “armed to the teeth”; the Harper’s Ferry armory was teeming with the latest in firearms, in far greater quantity and accuracy than Virginia’s mountain poor could ever hope to muster and presuming Brown had absconding with the full load, they could easily subdued scattered resistance.

    Also, as one of the anecdotes above suggests, Brown had a knack for inspiring admiration in even the most unlikely of people – namely the militiamen who fought him at Harper’s Ferry. I don’t know that a situation would’ve arisen in which Brown might be able to articulate himself to the mountaineers, but perhaps some may be receptive to his message.

    Finally, don’t underestimate fear. An armed slave uprising was everyone’s worst nightmare. The first inclination may be for them to head out of the hills – to reverse the idiom – rather than stay and fight Brown’s crew.

    In the long run, Brown and his men, even if they inspired uprisings across much of Appalachia, could not single-handedly bring down slavery. The one likely result of his efforts happened anyway – a full-on Civil War. But had Brown persisted just a little longer, emancipation may have been sought by the Union far earlier in the conflict, as a de-facto situation of insurrection would’ve existed already…

    • MCH says:

      We’ll have to defer to one of our Appalachian specialists, but I think Brown and company would’ve run into bigger programs than simply ingratiating themselves with the local population. Superior weaponry withstanding, the issue of sustaining a supply chain is always an issue with guerrilla warfare (minus an official state mechanism for procuring food, shelter, etc.). So, while poor mountaineers (who might’ve been willing to stand ground and fight much more readily than we’re giving them credit) lacked the up-to-date arms found in the armory, by way of that same relative poverty they probably also lacked the supplies necessary, even if Brown had let his men fall into outright plunder, to keep them fed, content, and under his command? Even still, we’re getting somewhat ahead of actual events at the Ferry–no substantial force ever materializes. So, even if Brown had foreseen a longer-term guerrilla conflict in the mountains, his greatest tactical fault might’ve been underestimating the hold of masters (via threat and physical force) on slaves? Considering how few slave insurrections in the United States actually worked out well for the slaves (I’m drawing a blank)… you can hardly blame them?

  3. Basheer Bergus says:

    Phenomenal article Mr. Epstein. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  4. Ben says:

    I like the Black Commentator’s take on this, specifically:

    http://www.blackcommentator.com/33/33_cover_story_pr.html

    one related gem:

    “If an individual were found to live in such a “perfect” fantasy of the mind, he would be diagnosed as deeply psychotic. But in America, the inmates run the asylum. Until very recently, high school history books taught that mental illness put John Brown on the path to Harper’s Ferry, where he would be hanged for inciting insurrection among the slaves. Confederate President Jefferson Davis? Well, he was a “man of his times.””

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