01 July 2009

More Celebrating John Brown


We so often hear criticism today about "celebratory history" - especially if those celebrations involve Confederate war heroes. However, the silence regarding the "celebration" of John Brown is deafening. See my previous post regarding this here.

Now, read this story about the recent unveiling of a plaque about John Brown.

I think the plaque in this story is certainly appropriate and is done very well. Ironically, the print story refers to John Brown being "celebrated" while Tim Riford (the man unveiling the plaque) refers to the marines who "saved the day" [at Harper's Ferry]. Hmmm . . . the United States Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, "saved the day" against someone who is being "celebrated?" I'm confused.

Well-known Harper's Ferry park historian, Dennis Frye, was at this "celebration" about John Brown while another park historian, Gerry Gaumer, recently referred to Brown as a terrorist and compared his actions to those of the Taliban.

Perhaps they're just offering something for everyone? Could we be seeing a new tone of reconciliation?

47 comments:

Brboyd said...

Can the celebration of "Nat Turner" be far behind?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Understand that some of my commentary regarding this subject is tongue-in-cheek. Brown and Turner, and their motives, make interesting discussion. It is, admittedly, a complicated subject.

At what point does one break the law to address what one perceives as injustice? Civil disobedience is certainly justified in many instances, but violence?

Both Brown and Turner went outside the law and innocents were murdered. There can be no justification for that, despite the evils of slavery. We see similarities with abortion today. Abortion is seen by many as evil, but going outside the law and/or committing murder to stop it is also evil and cannot be justified.

The relationships between slave and master, as many scholars have pointed out, differed from household to household and region to region. Some had familial connections, others did not. Of course, many also yearned to be free and treated as equals.

I think Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese have done a fair job of addressing some of these issues on their books.

Bob Pollock said...

Richard,

We agree again, it is very confusing. I'm wondering though, do you see any parallels between Brown attempting to sieze a Federal arsenal and secessionists siezing Federal arsenals in 1861?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Bob. Similarities? Not really. The secessionists at least had an organized body of elected officials who ostensibly represented the views of their citizens. We know the secessionists saw the "the states" as superior to the federal government so, in their view, what they were doing was perfectly legal.

I know there is disagreement over whether or not their views were constitutional at the time, so I don't want to get into that old argument, but the secessionists did SEE it that way.

Brown, on the other hand, was acting as an outlaw or, in the words of the NPS spokesman, a terrorist.

So no, I don't see much similarities.

Kevin said...

I wonder if you could explain what access to the law Nat Turner enjoyed in Virginia.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

Very limited, as we both know. Your point?

Anonymous said...

I think we can celebrate John Brown in the sense that justice was served when he was hanged. The same can be said of Nat Turner.

Michael Bradley said...

Has anyone done research into the material John Brown wrote at his Maryland lair before his raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry? The papers are extant.

Brown proposed to set up a black republic in the mountains of Va, Ky, and N.C. but he proposed that he and his sons should be the head of the republic and all its administrative divisions.

Bob Pollock said...

Richard,

Even if we agree that secession was legal and that it was properly determined that it was the will of the people (points I don't concede), isn't federal property still federal property, belonging to all the people of all the states? How does it become legal for anyone to sieze it?

Also, I'm reading Glatthaar's "General Lee's Army" and I just came to this:

"Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton...took command of the 1st Georgia and siezed Fort Pulaski for his home state before it had even seceded."

From whence did Lawton's legal authority come?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon:

I don't believe celebrating their death is appropriate. While I certainly can't condone their actions, I understand the emotion connected to the circumstances.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bob:

"isn't federal property still federal property, belonging to all the people of all the states? How does it become legal for anyone to sieze it?"

Good question. I assume part of the reasoning could be that the respective states seizing would also be losing (in other seizures) and also what they had "invested" in the federal government in other locales.

Also, since Lincoln's call for troops to "put down the rebellion" was in affect, an act of war against the states, that could also be seen as justification for seizing the arsenals.

And . . .

"Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton...took command of the 1st Georgia and seized Fort Pulaski for his home state before it had even seceded."

From whence did Lawton's legal authority come?

Assuming this is correct, my opinion would be that Lawton acted illegally. I also assume a jury of his peers would have acquitted him.
;o)

James F. Epperson said...

"Also, since Lincoln's call for troops to "put down the rebellion" was in affect, an act of war against the states, that could also be seen as justification for seizing the arsenals." --- Except that most of the seizures being talked of here came before Lincoln was inaugurated...

To return to the subject of your post, you might want to check out a dictionary definition of "celebrate." Dictionary.com has the following as its second meaning: "to make known publicly; proclaim: The newspaper celebrated the end of the war in red headlines."

Bob Pollock said...

Lincoln did not call for troops to put down the rebellion until two days after Ft. Sumter. From my Library of Congress CW Desk Reference:

January 1-6: Fort Pulaski, in Savannah, Georgia; two forts and an arsenal in Alabama; and the United States Arsenal at Apalachicola, Florida are occupied by state militias.

January 10: Florida secedes.

January 11: Alabama secedes.

January 19: Georgia secedes.

April 12-13: Ft. Sumter

April 15: Lincoln calls for 75,000 U.S. militia to serve for ninety days.

Regarding Lawton being acquitted by a jury of his peers, you are likely correct, but this goes to Kevin's point regarding Turner. At what point was Turner allowed a jury of his peers?

By the way, I agree that none of this should be "celebrated." It should be commemorated, though sometimes the distinction between the two is difficult to ascertain.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Then why all the negativity regarding the "celebration" of Confederate war heroes?

I think most people would associate the word celebrate with much more than just "proclaiming."

If I'm invited to a celebration, I usually have a little more in mind than a proclamation.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Regarding Lawton being acquitted by a jury of his peers, you are likely correct, but this goes to Kevin's point regarding Turner. At what point was Turner allowed a jury of his peers?"

I acknowledged that this is complicated and that there are no "easy" answers. Are you suggesting that both Brown and Turner were justified in murdering others?

We, as a society, are still dealing with a situation that has strong similarities to the slavery issue - abortion.

The child, were it located outside the womb of its mother, would have all the rights afforded by the Constitution - but he/she has no voice in the womb. At what point is the child allowed access to our laws? He/she has no choice in the matter.

If Kevin's point, and yours, is that Brown's and Turner's violence was justified (the end justifies the means) then, to be consistent, the same logic could be applied to those who commit violence against abortion providers - "answering to a higher moral law" - I reject that logic and, while I'm opposed to abortion, I think those who commit violence against abortion providers should suffer the full consequences the law provides, including the death penalty, if applicable.

While I acknowledge the difficulty of the issues, I don't believe taking the law into your own hands and committing violence against others is what a civilized society should condone.

James F. Epperson said...

"Then why all the negativity regarding the "celebration" of Confederate war heroes?" --- Just so we have something specific to talk about, could you give me an example of what you mean here?

I agree that "celebrate" implies to most folks some kind of "happy event" which should not be assciated with things like John Brown's raid, so I think it was a poor word to use. But I think that is the extent of the error, not that anyone is saying Brown's effort should be "celebrated" like VE Day. I understand that you think otherwise; we'll have to agree to disagree.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Examples? Just read a few of the academic CW blogs - you'll find all you need.

Yes, we disagree on Brown. I believe that will become more and more evident as time passes. I'll be sure and remind you.

;o)

James F. Epperson said...

"Examples? Just read a few of the academic CW blogs - you'll find all you need." --- No, Richard; I want you to give me an example of what you mean. You made the complaint, you provide the example. I'm not saying such examples don't exist, I just want you to provide the one to discuss.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Sorry James - I set the rules here. As I've told you on numerous occasions, I do not have time to argue the obvious.

Brboyd said...

Was it "legal" to own slaves in Virginia during Nat Turner's rebellion? If so, then was it legal for him to have no rights to a jury of his peers?

I thought this was an interesting site to pass along:

http://www.cslib.org/slaveryCt.htm

Anonymous said...

You may find this interesting:

http://www.wv.gov/news/tourism/Pages/Commemoratethe150thanniversaryofJohnBrown%E2%80%99sraid.aspx

It describes the efforts of WV, VA, MD, and PA to commemorate John Brown's raid. The language within actually uses the word celebrate on many occassions regarding both the raid AND the military assistance used to quell it. It's perfectly acceptable to celebrate justice meted out for acts of terrorism against a civilian population.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BR:

Of course, your rhetorical question makes a point. I think Kevin was referring to the injustice of the realities in posing his rhetorical question.

Thanks for the link.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon:

Thanks.

"The language within actually uses the word celebrate on many occasions regarding both the raid AND the military assistance used to quell it."

I suppose numerous officials are trying to offer something for everyone.

Similar to the effort after the war to acknowledge the bravery and heroism of both sides in order to foster national healing and reconciliation.

Bob Pollock said...

"I acknowledged that this is complicated and that there are no "easy" answers. Are you suggesting that both Brown and Turner were justified in murdering others?"

Absolutely not.

My point, as I just stated on Robert's blog, is that if Brown was outside the law, and the Federal response led by Lee to Brown's seizure of Federal property was appropriate, then the response of Lincoln and the Federal government to secessionists' seizure of Federal property was also appropriate. This is where I see similarity. Secessionist actions were far more widespread than Brown's, but does that make them legal or any more justified than Brown's?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Since those who seceded believed secession was constitutional, then I would say yes. One of the reasons Davis was not prosecuted for treason was the fear of federal prosecutors that the courts would rule secession legal.

Bob Pollock said...

I think we are going in circles here. The legality of secession is not the point, it is the illegal seizure of Federal property.

I do want to thank you for the discussion. These blog discussions help me think and clarify my own opinions.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bob:

Yes, "circling" is often the case in these discussions. I sincerely appreciate your input. The discussions do help us clarify our opinions - and change them once in a while. Hopefully, they also helps us at least understand the opposing opinions as well.

Have a great and safe Independence Day.

James F. Epperson said...

"One of the reasons Davis was not prosecuted for treason was the fear of federal prosecutors that the courts would rule secession legal." --- I'm not sure this is true. The Davis Papers at Rice used to have a discussion of this issue on their website. It's been a while since I looked at it, but my memory is that the prosecution was terminated for a number of reasons: The chaos in Johnson's Cabinet meant there had been several Attorneys General, each of whom had to come up to speed on the case; Chief Justice Chase was of the opinion that the 14th Amendment's punishment of Davis meant a trial would constitute a kind of "double jeopardy;" there was concern about "jury nullification" since the trial was set for Norfolk. So Chase actually communicated with Davis's lawyers (indirectly, of course), that if they made a certain motion, he (Chase) would grant it and the indictment would be tossed (I've forgotten the technical legal term in Latin). Davis didn't want this---he wanted a trial---but he was travelling at the time and his lawyers decided, since it was a capital case, that they had to take the opportunity offered by Chase. I'm working from memory and I am being too lazy to look at the Davis Papers website.

Michael Bradley said...

After the recent attempt to convince President Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument in Arlington Cemetery and the letter that was sent accompaning that request I don't see how anyone can question that there is strong objection in some quarters to celebrting/recongizing/remembering Confederate heroes. How can anyone have so quickly fortotten what was done in May of this year?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James:

I'm operating from memory as well but I believe your recollection is partly correct. But if my memory serves me correctly, there was also concern from the feds that the case would end up in the Supreme Court and what had been "won" with 4 years of bloody conflict would be "lost" in a court room.

Clint Johnson, who recently wrote a book about the whole Davis affair wrote this;

"Chase met, in private, with Charles O’Conor to go over the legal strategy O’Conor would present in federal court in the case against Davis. Chase was convinced that bringing Davis to trial would prove secession was legal and Davis was innocent of treason."

Kevin said...

Richard,

I apologize for not following up my point earlier. It seemed to me that you were implying that both Brown and Turner had the ability to bring about change from within the legal system. That wasn't the case for Turner so it seems to me that comparing their actions and the moral justification doesn't work. This is not to say one way or the other that I approve of their actions. I certainly sympathize with Turner since he did not have access to a legal system. Furthermore, it seems to me that the concept of "innocent civilians" is problematic in the context of Turner's actions. That is not something I wish to debate at this point.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael:

Exactly, which is why I told James I don't waste time arguing the obvious.

Thanks.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

I can understand Turner's actions, but not condone them. I don't think there's any question that he murdered innocents.

As I stated, it is a difficult subject. What's your thoughts on the abortion correlation?

James F. Epperson said...

"How can anyone have so quickly fortotten what was done in May of this year?" --- I hadn't forgotten anything. I simply wanted Richard to choose *his* example as the basis of discussion. I didn't think it would be right for *me* to choose the example of something Richard was complaining about. Richard (and Mr. Bradley) incorrectly thought my request was an attempt at denial.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for clarifying James. Quite frankly, I wouldn't no where to begin.

James F. Epperson said...

"there was also concern from the feds that the case would end up in the Supreme Court and what had been "won" with 4 years of bloody conflict would be "lost" in a court room." --- The Chief Justice at the time was Chase, who had quite a record of opinion that secession was treason while in Lincoln's Cabinet. He's only one judge, of course, but as is pointed out to me every time I bring up Texas v. White, Lincoln had appointed a number of justices, so there should have been a measure of confidence that the Court would not rule in favor of secession. I'm afraid this notion that Davis was not tried out of fear he might prevail is not supported by the record.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James:

I have some other sources which would support my view. I'll either post a response here to your comment or do a whole post on the subject to explore the issue further.

As always, thanks for your input.

Kevin said...

Richard,

To be honest, I am not interested in discussing my views on abortion with you. As far as I am concerned the abortion correlation is irrelevant to whether your comparison of Turner and Brown is relevant. You asked me to clarify my point and I did.

John Brown was a citizen of the United States who had access to a legal system to bring about change. Nat Turner did not. "Stealing his body" to the north as did Frederick Douglass would also have been going outside the law.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

That's fine, but they are hardly irrelevant. There are numerous correlations - as I've already pointed out. We'll have to disagree on that.

John Brown did have access and should have chosen that path instead of murder. We can agree there.

Nat Turner did not have that access. Escape would have been outside the law, yes, but would not have required murdering others.

Thanks for your input.

James F. Epperson said...

The FAQ that the Davis Papers has on its website is still there. Here is the URL:

http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/faqs.cfm

The material on the trial is about one screen's worth down the page.

Anonymous said...

"I am not interested in discussing my views on abortion with you"

What he means is the abortion example is relevant, and he has no rebuttal. In addition, not having access to a system of written laws does not mean Turner did not have access to social norms, bibilical and natural laws which forbade his actions. Turner chose to murder a civilian population rather than attack a military target or flee. Thus Turner, as Brown, will always be remembered as a murderer.

James Bartek said...

"In addition, not having access to a system of written laws does not mean Turner did not have access to social norms, bibilical and natural laws which forbade his actions."

This is an interesting point, but what if we were to view Turner's rebellion through the prism of Just War theory?

JWT, which is deeply rooted in Christian doctrine, forbids indiscriminate war. Civilians, in other words, are never legitimate targets - with one exception. In the event of a so-called "supreme emergency," all bets are off. Surpreme emergencies, which allow for the disregarding of noncombatant immunity are, by necessity, narrowly defined but certainly include the threat (or actuality) of extermination OR enslavement.

Lest I bring down the wrath of the blogosphere, it must be said that the killing of innocents, even to counter a supreme emergency, can never be viewed as a moral action. It can, however, be seen as justified.

Comments, anyone?

James F. Epperson said...

My "politics" with regard to the Civil War era, are far to the side of abolition and emancipation. I therefore *understand* both Turner and Brown. But neither was *justified* in what they did. The killing of innocents simply has no place in these things. I'm sure professional revolutionaries would scoff at me, but I will gladly stand on my notion of humanity.












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Johann Van De Leeuw said...

How can murder of innocents be justified, even in *emergency* cases? Are you referring to the use of the A-bomb on Japan or something? I have mixed feelings on the subject.

I echo the "Comments, anyone?"

Bill Vallante said...

No one ever seems to go into the gory details of Turner’s “rebellion.” Allow me to do the honors.

As I remember, the unofficial tally of whites killed in Turner’s affair was 61, 47 of them being women and children. About 8 or 9 years ago I remember seeing a website that belonged to a descendent of someone whose ancestors had been victims of the Turner massacre. The accounts handed down in his family seem to correlate well with Clifford Dowdey’s account in “The Land They Fought For.” And, given the bloody nature of “servile insurrections,” (Haiti, Jamaica, etc) I have no reason to doubt their veracity. Btw - “the Preacher” is a reference to Turner, and “Will” is one of his band who essentially is his second in command.

***“Last The Preacher went into the baby's room. He had often played with the child and fondled it, and the baby smiled at him when he woke up. The Preacher backed out, unable to touch the child, and sent in Will and another follower to knock the baby's brains out against the brick fireplace.”

***“When The Preacher's force got there, Mrs. Whitehead's grown son had already been hacked to death in a cotton patch while his own slaves looked on. Inside the house three daughters and a child, being bathed by his grandmother, were dead. Will was dragging the mother of the family out into the yard, where he decapitated her, and a young girl who had hidden was running for the woods. The Preacher caught her and, his sword failing him again, beat her to death with a fence rail. Another daughter, the only member of the family to survive, had made it to the woods where she was hidden by a house slave.”

***“Two of Mr. Francis' nephews, eight- and three-year-old boys, were playing in the lane as the Negroes rode silently toward them. The three-year-old, seeing the familiar Will, asked for a ride as he had many times before. Will picked him up on the horse, cut off his head, and dropped the body in the lane.”

***“On the way The Preacher's formidable force passed more deserted places, but got its biggest haul at Waller's, a country comer. A children's boarding school was there and a large distillery, a blacksmith shop, and the wheelwright, and it had taken some time to gather all the people in the neighborhood. Before they could start for Jerusalem, the Negroes were on them. Some escaped to the screams of those being chased and butchered. More than ten were killed there, mostly children.”

The question has been raised, are people celebrating John Brown or Nat Turner? That’s easy to answer. Do a Google search on either one and see how many celebratory web pages or sites you come up with. You may or may not be surprised at how many folks consider these two to be heroes. i.e., http://myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=Turner_enloe_MS_06

Pardon me if I don’t shed tears for either Brown or Turner. Turner and his men committed murder on a large scale, and Brown set out to do the same thing on a mass scale. The fact that both got their respective necks stretched doesn’t bother me one iota. In fact, I’d have been volunteering to pull the lever on the trap door myself had I been alive at that time.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bill:

A bloody affair indeed. Just as sadly, innocent slaves were killed by local whites seeking "justice" after the murderous rampage.

According to one souce:

"In total, the state executed 56 Blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the bloody aftermath, close to 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by angry white mobs."

Is there any wonder God visited our Nation with 4 years of bloody conflict?

Anonymous said...

"the state executed 56 Blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the bloody aftermath, close to 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured and murdered by angry white mobs."

How many were children like Turner's victims?