13 June 2009

The New, Emerging "Holy Cause Mythology"?














"A couple of the panelists on the John Brown session waxed somewhat romantic in their defense of the radical abolitionist, stimulating a useful exchange about what constitutes justifiable revolutionary violence." ~ Professor David Blight commenting on the Sesquicentennial seminar held recently at the University of Richmond.

Along that same line of thought . . .

"The picture of John Brown that has come down through time is largely that of a madman, a fanatic. The leader of the failed 1859 raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, who hoped to touch off a massive slave rebellion, was deranged, a violent psychotic, “a brutal murderer if ever there was one,” wrote the historian Bruce Catton in 1961. But Evan Carton, an English professor at the University of Texas, argues otherwise in his thoughtful, well-researched new biography of Brown, Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. As Carton sees it, Brown was no psychotic but rather an immensely principled activist, a revolutionary whose dedication—whose sacrifice of his life—to the cause of freeing America’s slaves has much to teach a morally relativistic, ethically relaxed age."

Of course, not all professional historians are of the same mind when it comes to John Brown:

"John Brown was, in effect, a terrorist. Whether you agree or that what he was doing was right or not. There are people in the Taliban who believe what they're doing is right." ~ Gerry Gaumer, spokesman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C.

And . . .

"The fifth victim floated nearby as John Brown and his men washed blood from their swords in Pottawatomie Creek. Brown said that the killings had been committed in accordance to "God’s will," and that he wanted to "strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people." ~ From PBS' American Experience

So, what you think? Are the first two comments reflective of an objective, careful analysis, and "sophisticated" approach to historiography? Or, are they similar in sentiment and motivation to what many academics accuse "Lost Causers" of?

And, just for some drama and shameless self-promotion, here's what I wrote about Brown's hanging in my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class:

On December 2, 1859, a largely military crowd in Charlestown looked on with vindication as the radical abolitionist John Brown was hanged. The only noise heard was the creaking of the wooden gallows and strained hemp as Brown’s “struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe.” When Brown’s body mercifully stilled at last, slowly “swayed to and fro by the wind,” there was a long, pained silence. Preston [John Thomas Lewis], present with the VMI cadets, cracked the icy air with his booming voice, uttering the words, “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!” He later wrote of the incident, “So I felt, and so I said, with solemnity and without one shade of animosity, as I turned to break the silence, to those around me.”

Yes, I know this controversy is nothing new but it (the sentiments expressed by the first two quotes) does appear to be evolving into a more acceptable interpretation and school of thought. But is it good history?

Hmmm . . .

40 comments:

James F. Epperson said...

It is fair to say that Brown is a difficult figure to assess. It is easy to dismiss him as insane and/or as a terrorist. I'm not sure he was insane; I think it is possible he knew exactly what he was doing and got, for the most part, the result he was looking for.

Was he a terrorist? Certainly the Virginians thought so. We can take a literalist point of view and say, yes, he was a terrorist, just as Menachem Begin was one when he worked for the Irgun in Palestine. Blacks are going to have a different view of Brown, perhaps, and I don't really see a problem with that. Sometimes one's perspective and personal history is going to color these things, and that is just the way it is.

I don't think modern scholars who may speak well of some aspects of Brown's story are at all guilty of approving of a murderer. He's too complex a figure for us to reach that conclusion.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"waxed romantic", "an immensely principled activist", "dedication", "sacrifice" -

I think we're seeing a love affair emerging. Emotionalism, mythology - all the same things the LC "school of thought" is accused of.

Quite ironic.

James F. Epperson said...

' "waxed romantic", "an immensely principled activist", "dedication", "sacrifice" ' --- The last three, as applied to Brown, seem to me to be accurate. He was principled and an activist and dedicated and he did, in the end, make a sacrifice. I'm not sure I understand your objection to "waxed romantic".

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No objection at all James, none at all. At least we agree this sentiment is the new alter-ego of LC sentiment.

RGW

James F. Epperson said...

"At least we agree this sentiment is the new alter-ego of LC sentiment." --- I don't think there is any comparison to the Lost Cause here. Assuming that I understand what you are saying, I don't think we are at all in agreement.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You're amazing James.

Vince said...

There's nothing new or emerging (maybe re-emergent) about the Civil War as a "holy cause", as any decent Civil War memory study will point out. It's always been around (although often intentionally suppressed)...Juneteenth celebrations, the Promissory Note metaphor in King's "I have a dream speech", etc.

For example, David Blight has objectively and carefully and sophisticatedly identified the three main "visions" of Civil War memory: emancipationist, reconciliationist, and white supremecist. (The Lost Cause falls into either of the latter two, depending on how it was applied.) It is clear in Blight's research, though, that he (and many other academics) sympathize with the emancipationist vision, because they sympathize with the racial healing it usually promotes.

Similar in sentiment and motivation? Surveying instances in which emancipationist visions have politically battled lost cause visions since the war, I'd bet the majority have been battles to indirectly or directly secure or deny the rights of African-Americans.

Bad history? From my reading primary sources and historical works, portraying "American History as a dialectic between the two forces of slavery and freedom"* is not from from the truth. It doesn't explain everything, but it certainly explains a lot of things better than a states' rights vs. federal power lens.

* Blight, Race and Reunion, 169. ( An explanation of what the emancipationist legacy meant to an early promoter)

chaps said...

Mr. Williams-

There is nothing so impervious to facts as the accepted, PC, historical narrative.
"but rather an immensely principled activist, a revolutionary whose dedication—whose sacrifice of his life" This can describe the most brutal dictator as well as the most benevolent leader. The questions not answered are: What principles? Dedicated to what? Sacrifice for what?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Chaps:

I agree. It's the same perverted logic used by the person who recently murdered the abortionist, Tiller.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince:

"New and emerging" as in becoming even more prominent than before. Not surprising, of course. But in this post, I'm specifically referring to the "John Brown as Martyr" mentality.

"portraying "American History as a dialectic between the two forces of slavery and freedom* is not from from the truth. It doesn't explain everything, but it certainly explains a lot of things better than a states' rights vs. federal power lens."

Only if you accept the fallacy that the Union went to war to end slavery (emancipationist).

The object of my post is to point out the irony/hypocrisy of those academics who criticize the romanticizing of the "Lost Cause" ("emotionalism", "unsophisticated", etc) and then turn around and romanticize John Brown.

To be clear, I don't have a problem with the fact that emancipation is part of how folks remember the WBTS. But neither do I have a problem with the reconciliation view (the more accurate, in my opinion) and the fact many folks who have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy wish to honor their service as part of the way they remember the WBTS.

I think we should respect both of those views.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Chaps:

Let me clarify my reply to your comment. Both slavery and abortion cheapen the value of God's gift of life. However, murder and violence to combat either is immoral.

It is anarchy. It is against the laws of nature and the laws of God. According to Blight, it appears the discussion at the seminar involved justifying Brown's actions.

James F. Epperson said...

"According to Blight, it appears the discussion at the seminar involved justifying Brown's actions." --- I would not draw that conclusion from the very brief comment Blight made in the Chronicle.

Vince said...

"Only if you accept the fallacy that the Union went to war to end slavery (emancipationist)."

No "emancipationist" proponent--some Northern veterans, academic historians, etc.--argues that the North went to war in 1861 to end slavery. On the contrary, a major aspect of the "emancipationist vision" has been "to explain how the war's first purpose (preservation of the Union) had transfigured into the second (emancipation of the slaves)." (Blight, Race and Reunion, 15) Naturally, things like the evolution of the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass get much attention and serve to illustrate how and why this change took place.

I can sympathize with you, though, in that Alan Nolan is a lawyer by training and that his style is to argue one side of a case, which he does with much talent, but doesn't always leave room for sophisticated understanding.

Michael Bradley said...

"Dedicated and principled." From one perspective those things can be said of John Brown. Dedication means nothing, it is a question concerning to what one is dedicated. The same applies to principles. There are bad as well as good principles.

John Brown committed murder and advocated the murder of hundreds of thousands of other innocent people. There were those who made a martyr of him in his own age and I am not surprised some extemists want to do the same today. However, the Springfield, Illinois, newspaper said, in 1860, that anyone who does not condemn Brown should be hanged. They were speaking specifically of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently it was not just in the South that Brown was seen as the vile man he was.

Those who wish to defend Brown will have to take on the same task for those who crashed the planes into the World Trade Tower and for those who plant improvised devices along roads in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those folks have principles and they certainly are dedicated.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James:

"in their defense of the radical abolitionist"

What other conclusion would you draw?

Brief, admittedly, but that leaves little wiggle room, assuming Mr. Blight is accurate.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince:

"transfigured" - I agree, but, the reasons, in my opinion and that of many others, was the "change in emphasis" was much more for political calculations than over any concern for the welfare of the slaves.

I think you overstate Nolan's talent, but I get your point.


Thanks for your input.

Vince said...

For now, I'll have to leave it as a disagreement on whether it was shameless opportunism that motivated Lincoln and others in the North. Informed by thousands of hours with my nose in front of the microfilm reader viewing primary sources (particularly Pennsylvania newspapers, both Republican and Democratic), I'd say it was something more than opportunism--but that's another issue for another time.

Thanks for hosting a forum where different ideas about history can be cordially discussed.

James F. Epperson said...

"What other conclusion would you draw? (about Blight's comments re Brown)" --- It is possible to engage in a defense of someone (in the large, so to speak, and perhaps theoretically) w/o defending each and every action the man took. Just as an example, I defend Lincoln "in the large" an awful lot (ditto Grant), but I would not defend each and every specific action he took (just most of them ;-). Without knowing more of what was said in this seminar and the panel discussion which followed, we just don't know enough (IMO) to make harsh judgments. Maybe this is just my innate inclination to be tolerant of folks' opinions. Of course, if you are inclined to trash academics and such, the opening is there.

James F. Epperson said...

"Those who wish to defend Brown will have to take on the same task for those who crashed the planes into the World Trade Tower and for those who plant improvised devices along roads in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those folks have principles and they certainly are dedicated." --- Valid points, up to a point. We are allowed (indeed, must) consider the goals of the two enterprises. Brown was trying to right a wrong, and history has agreed with him that it was a wrong. I do think he chose the wrong means to address the wrong, but we should understand and acknowledge that he was trying to end a wrong. The folks in Iraq and Afghanistan have not succeeded in making their case to the world. Certainly I don't think they have a case to make.

Let's consider a third case: The French Resistence in WW2. If they had had the muscle, they would have gladly embarked on a reign of terror and death that would have made Brown's effort seem puny by comparison, and if they had, we would today be congratulating and honoring them for it.

Violence in pursuit of honorable goals leads to some uncomfortable conclusions. That is a reality; we don't have to like it, but it is nonetheless real.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince:

"For now, I'll have to leave it as a disagreement on whether it was shameless opportunism that motivated Lincoln and others in the North."

Fair enough.

"Thanks for hosting a forum where different ideas about history can be cordially discussed."

That is one of the kindest compliments I could receive about this blog. Thank you.

And thank you for participating. Please chime in any time you wish.

Best,
RGW

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"It is possible to engage in a defense of someone (in the large, so to speak, and perhaps theoretically) w/o defending each and every action the man took."

I agree to a point. I wish that courtesy was more often extended to those who defended the likes of Lee and Jackson.

Thanks for your input James, as always.

Kevin said...

Richard and James,

Instead of arguing back and forth about what Blight might have met in his comments about the session on Brown why not just watch the session?

http://www.virginiacivilwar.org/2009conference_webcast.php

James F. Epperson said...

"I wish that courtesy was more often extended to those who defended the likes of Lee and Jackson." --- It has become more commonplace to dump on Lee and Jackson, and much of that (not all of it) is unfortunate. To some extent this is the price of being in the public eye: You get criticized. That's life in the major leagues! The way to deal with it is to buckle down and keep making your points. If your arguments have value, they will produce appropriate effects. If they don't have value, well, that's the end of it.

James F. Epperson said...

"I wish that courtesy was more often extended to those who defended the likes of Lee and Jackson." --- It has become more commonplace to dump on Lee and Jackson, and much of that (not all of it) is unfortunate. To some extent this is the price of being in the public eye: You get criticized. That's life in the major leagues! The way to deal with it is to buckle down and keep making your points. If your arguments have value, they will produce appropriate effects. If they don't have value, well, that's the end of it.

Snirkelsnorkel said...

Could it be that the strict "state's rights vs. slavery" discussion is oversimplistic and distorting because both positions in a sense interpret one side as idealistic and the other as cynical? I.e. seeing the Union side as progressive emancipators and the Confederacy as an attempt to protect slavery while hiding behind a mask of state's rights on one hand. Seeing the Confederates as valiant freedom fighters/patriots fighting a cynical federal government bent on maintaining control and using emancipation as a weapon on the other.

James F. Epperson said...

"I agree to a point. I wish that courtesy was more often extended to those who defended the likes of Lee and Jackson." --- Lee and Jackson certainly deserve no small degree of positive credit. A cynic might say they got oodles of that between, say, 1870 and 1940, and the cynic would be mostly right. That doesn't mean it is wrong to give them credit, just that there is nothing wrong with the scale shifting to the other side some. It shouldn't be done at the expense of historical truth, of course.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'll do that Kevin. Thanks for the link. But it still does not change how Blight characterizes the session in his commentary.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Could it be that the strict state's rights vs. slavery" discussion is oversimplistic"

Snirkel:

I agree, it most certainly is over-simplistic. I've stated that before. There were intricacies and nuances on both sides, for sure.

Kevin said...

Richard,

"But it still does not change how Blight characterizes the session in his commentary."

No, but it might give you a better sense of what he meant by what he said. As far as I can tell you will find 4 scholars serious scholars trying to make sense of John Brown, his raid at HF, and his legacy. I found it to be quite interesting.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

I've already listened to part of it, but won't be able to listen to all of it until later tonight. What I've heard thus far supports my contention that there is a school of thought becoming more prominent and acceptable among academics which advances the mythology of "the holy cause" as opposed to the mythology of "the lost cause."

Manisha Sinha's very first comment was:

"Its interesting that *we* are *celebrating* the life of a man who committed treason against the state of Virginia."

So, based on what I've heard thus far, Professor Sinha favors celebrating the life of John Brown but did not want President Obama to honor the Confederate dead at Arlington.

Celebratory history for John Brown, but none for dead Confederates?

Don't you find that problematic for Professor Sinha? It certainly lends fodder to those like me who question much of academia's "objectivity" and who also believe that they are guilty of the very thing they accuse "lost causers" of - slanting history.

Nonetheless, I will give it a fair hearing and hopefully find time to post something later.

Thanks,
RGW

James F. Epperson said...

"Celebratory history for John Brown, but none for dead Confederates?" --- I'm not sure this is an accurate summary. Prof. Sinha's comment, which you quoted, does not imply *he* thinks we should "celebrate" John Brown; rather, it is a simple acknowledgement that he is participating in a seminar on John Brown. Brown is an important enough figure that we ought to be able to have seminars on him without accusing the participants of favoring murder. (I wouldn't have used the word "celebrate," though.) Similarly, his position on the wreath-laying should not be blown out of proportion. To many people, the problem with that was more the particular memorial than honoring Confederate dead.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James:

First of all, Professor Sinha is a "she" not a "he."

Secondly, she *did* use the word celebrate and the word *we* and I am not blowing the wreath-laying incident out of proportion, rather, you are making an extremely weak attempt to downplay it and overlook the connection here.

Kevin said...

Richard,

As you know I was in attendance at this conference. I think Prof. Sinha was referring to the conference as a recognition of Brown rather than an opportunity to praise what he did or didn't do. You seem to be obsessed with certain key words rather than the content. As far as I can tell there is nothing celebratory in what any of the panelists say about Brown. Of course, you will have to decide for yourself.

It would be nice, however, if we could get beyond individual words and consider the content.

James F. Epperson said...

"I am not blowing the wreath-laying incident out of proportion, rather, you are making an extremely weak attempt to downplay it and overlook the connection here." --- The fact is, some folks who have no problem with honoring Confederate dead, in general, have serious qualms about doing it at that particular monument. You don't have to believe me, but it is true. Now I don't know where Prof. Sinha stood on this point; maybe she thinks we shouldn't honor Confederate dead at all. Certainly that is her right. But before I claimed some new historigraphical vision was emerging, I'd want to have more to base it on than a single seminar comment plus a petition signature.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

Not obsessed. Intrigued. Content is made up of individual words. And since Professor Sinha made public her opposition to honoring the Confederate dead at Arlington (something every President since Wilson has done), then its fair to consider that in analyzing her positions and interpretation of historical events.

I will, however, listen to the whole discussion and give it fair consideration.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Now I don't know where Prof. Sinha stood on this point; maybe she thinks we shouldn't honor Confederate dead at all."

Why don't you know? She made her views public by signing the letter.

"Certainly that is her right."

Absolutely and I would not deny her that right. But it is also my right to draw certain conclusions from her public acts and comments and weigh them against any claim of "pro" or "con" when it comes to the study of the WBTS.

Furthermore, as I've already stated, what I've read and heard thus far simply bolsters my contention that many academics are guilty of the same thing they accuse "lost causers" of - a preferred memory of the WBTS.

James F. Epperson said...

"...bolsters my contention that many academics are guilty of the same thing they accuse "lost causers" of - a preferred memory of the WBTS." --- I'm not sure that simply having a "preferred memory of the WTBS" is the sole problem with the Lost Cause.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"I'm not sure that simply having a "preferred memory of the WTBS" is the sole problem with the Lost Cause."

Nor is it the only problem with the Holy Causers.

Of course, as we've agreed, there are many aspects to the "Lost Cause."

Anonymous said...

I read these comments and find it so amusing that it appears that we all lose traction by arguing trivial details that can more easily be addressed from a broader perspective. Who can dispute that had there been no war, the existing Constitutionally-legal US right of slavery would have continued? It was the threat of disunion that catalyzed the conflict. Any evolution of views toward slavery came about as a result to leverage a Union advantage over the Confederacy and subsequently gave a moral excuse to the Union government's invasion of its citizen states.

Can we respect a terrorist's decision to love his children? Yes, but we can't excuse his murderous actions against a law-abiding civilian population. Similarly, we can respect Brown's ability to come down on the morally progressive ideas of abolition in the 19th century, but that doesn't mitigate his terrorism in KS and VA. I mean do we remember Lee Oswald for his devotion to his wife or for his assassination of Kennedy? Or "yes, your husband has been shot in the head, but how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?"

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Who can dispute that had there been no war, the existing Constitutionally-legal US right of slavery would have continued?"

Continued for a while, yes, but it would have eventually given way to progress - if for no other reason than economics. Forced labor is an inefficient system and slavery would have collapsed of its own weight.