Archive for Monday, February 18, 2008

Crazed or crusader?

Local author, professor delves into the psyche of one of Kansas’ most iconic historical figures

John Brown, pictured here in a 1859 engraving, is the subject of a new book by Jonathan Earle, a Kansas University associate professor of history. The book features writings by Brown involving his raid at Harpers Ferry.

John Brown, pictured here in a 1859 engraving, is the subject of a new book by Jonathan Earle, a Kansas University associate professor of history. The book features writings by Brown involving his raid at Harpers Ferry.

February 18, 2008


Kansas University associate professor Jonathan Earle is the author of a new book, "John Brown&squot;s Raid on Harpers Ferry." Earle is pictured Tuesday at the Dole Institute of Politics, where he is interim director.

Kansas University associate professor Jonathan Earle is the author of a new book, "John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry." Earle is pictured Tuesday at the Dole Institute of Politics, where he is interim director.

Audio Clips
Jonathan Earle on James Brown

Earle on Brown

What: Discussion of Earle's new book, "John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry" ($15.95, Bedford/S. Martin's Press)

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Auditorium, Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

John Brown had all of his marbles.

He had a wife and many children, too. A strict belief in his faith. Many failures in his personal and professional life. And a single-minded belief in the equality of man, black or white.

The famed abolitionist was more than just the crazy-eyed man with a flowing beard brandishing a Bible and a shotgun in John Steuart Curry's famous painting at the Capitol in Topeka.

Jonathan Earle wants you to know the man behind the historical caricature.

Earle, the interim director of the Dole Institute of Politics and an associate professor of history at Kansas University, spent five years sorting through documents - including letters, newspaper articles and legislative acts - to paint a concise, unique picture of Brown. The result is Earle's new book, "John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry," which he will discuss at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

"So many historical biographies now have to be a thousand pages and $50. That wasn't the idea of this," says Earle of his book, which barely breaks 150 pages and lists around $16. "It was a short, biographical sketch that explains John Brown's raid and John Brown's career and then shows (it) in documents, primary historical documents."

Compelled, not crazy

The first thing Earle wants readers to understand about one of the most controversial figures in pre-Civil War history? He had those aforementioned marbles.

"I honestly don't feel that he was crazy," Earle says. "I think that's part of what his image is, and that's just something I found not to be true during my research."

What he did find was a man who was compelled from a young age to stand up and fight for racial equality. As a 12-year-old driving cattle into western Michigan during the War of 1812, Brown stayed at an inn where the innkeeper owned a slave about Brown's age. That night in that inn, everything changed for Brown.

"During the night the innkeeper whacked on the slave with a big fireplace shovel," Earle says. "He writes about it later in life and never forgot being horrified by this and even as a kid saying, 'That is not right.'

"A lot of us when we're 12 see terrible injustice, but we don't end up dedicating our lives and end up giving our lives to finishing it off. That's not normal."

Earle says his need for action was compounded by chaos in his life - between his business failures and fathering 20 children. Earle believes that had Brown's life been more stable, he wouldn't have become as single-minded in his need to rid his country of slavery.

"I think had he been more successful in his business ventures, I don't think he would have been the abolitionist figure that he was," Earle says. "He might have given money, he might have signed petitions. But he wouldn't have moved to Kansas and planned an insurrection and trained an army and come up with this scheme to get rid of slavery - which, by the way, didn't work at all."

That move to Kansas happened in late 1855, and Brown's trail of blood in Bleeding Kansas began shortly there after, as Brown and his supporters were suspected to have brutally murdered five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856. Little more than three years later, on Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and his supporters raided Harpers Ferry, took the federal armory, engine house and hostages before being captured two days later. He was hanged Dec. 2, 1859, a radical among radicals.

"'Anti-slavery' is kind of a broad-based word that encompasses everyone who was opposed to slavery, from the mildest 'maybe we shouldn't let slavery expand into the West' to being an out-and-out abolitionist. Abolitionists are at the one radical end of anti-slavery - they are the people who want to immediately end slavery with no compensation for slaveholders, so they're pretty radical," Earle says. "Even among those abolitionists, the maybe 1 to 2 percent, John Brown is on the radical end of them. He actually believed in pure racial equality. Even other abolitionists and anti-slavery folks who saw the way that John Brown interacted with black people were shocked."

John Brown today

Today, Brown's "shocking" acts of race equality - "He sat with African-Americans in his church pew, he invited them to sit with them at the table, he addressed them as Mr. and Mrs., which is a term of respect," Earle says - are the norm. And Earle believes Kansans - who have honored Brown in everything from beer (Free State Brewing Co.'s John Brown Ale) to sports-minded T-shirts during the yearly "Border War" between KU and Missouri - have every reason to take pride in John Brown.

"There's the iconic figure that John Steuart Curry made at the Capitol, and there's a pride," Earle says. "Kansans committed acts of viciousness and violence on the other side of the border, too, but I think there's a pride that Kansans were on the right side of this. I think Kansans are right to be proud that on the great issue of the day they chose the right one."

And though Brown's ultimate goal of equality wouldn't shock any American today, his means - the strong arm of violence - sure would. Even by today's standards, Earl says, Brown was a terrorist.

"Nowadays we hear from the candidates on the campaign trail and the president about terrorism, and John Brown was a terrorist," Earle says. "Is it OK to commit violence or kill for your political beliefs? I think today we say, 'Of course not. That's way over the line.' In John Brown's case, the thing is that it turns out he was right. And I don't think that slaveholders would have let their slaves go without a fight. I honestly don't.

"For today, there's all sorts of issues - terrorism, violence, political murder, whether it's OK to fight for your political ideals using violent means, it's really a central part of today's world as well as 150 years ago."

That may be why crowds show up in droves to hear Earle speak about Brown. Right after the publication of the book, Earle gave a talk at the County Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City, Mo., Public Library on Jan. 20, the day of this year's highly anticipated AFC and NFC championship games.

Despite the perfect day to be a couch potato, more than 150 people picked John Brown and Jonathan Earle over Tom Brady and Brett Favre.

Henry Fortunato, director of public affairs at the Kansas City Public Library, believes both speaker and subject contributed to what Fortunato calls a "remarkable turnout."

"The combination of the enduring fascination of John Brown, and plus Jon Earle has a growing reputation as a leading, young scholar and a lot of people know about that, and so that was a pretty great combination," says Fortunato, a former KU graduate student in history. "And so they came."

Earle, though, gives all the credit to Brown.

"He's an exciting figure. It's a time in history when anything could have happened - it was one of those moments where it was wide open. It didn't have to come out the way it did," Earle says. "It's not that often that you find a person who epitomizes a movement as much as John Brown did."

Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.


mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

I would be interested in reading the book and hearing about what Earle has to say about John Brown. I would like to see how much it is the same or differs from David Reynolds.
But as a Kansan, I really don't have pride about John Brown. He lived in Kansas for less than two years and wasn't a citizen of Kansas, as several of his sons were. Kansas seemed merely an opportunity to fight slavery.
Whether or not he had all of his "marbles," he probably did, but there are moments you could definitely question it. Was he crazy to think that slaves would stand with him at Harper's Ferry or did he just misjudge those he wanted to help? Was he crazy to think about and plan Harper's Ferry for 20 years before it actually happened, or was he just focused on eradicating slavery?

l2decaro 10 years, 3 months ago

As a John Brown biographer and student, I would like to congratulate and commend Mr. Earle for his work on Brown and his new book, which I eagerly look forward to reading.

It is most unfortunate that cowardly, ill-informed anonymous writers like one of the commentors on this page continue to perpetrate the malicious gossip that Brown was a rank murderer. Likewise, even sincere people like the writer following the anonymous entry still entertains the possibility that Brown was mad. This only shows how much education is needed to redress the fallacies implanted in the minds of (mostly white) people throughout the 20th century.

The scholarly Mr. Earle joins a growing rank of published scholars like me, Jean Libby, David Reynolds, Evan Carton, and others who have done the research and have portrayed Brown as sane, humanitarian, decent, and admirable in their work. We may not all agree on every point concerning Brown, but we share the same conclusions concerning Brown's character. We continue to look forward to Brown's comeback in the 21st century. To put it in blunt terms: the people who have studied Brown the closest all know that he was a great man, and if not, a good man who tried to do something that the overwhelming number of whites were too indifferent or prejudiced to try. As conviction goes, he was a better man that Abraham Lincoln, who has been elevated to the status of a democratic demigod in this culture. The people who know the least about Brown, or the ones who harbor prejudice in their hearts, are the ones most likely to denigrate him or fabricate spurious charges without considering fact or context. He was neither a terrorist nor a madman; he was a counter-terrorist, a freedom fighter, and a representative of the best kind of people who have lived in this country. Unfortunately, there were far more bad or indifferent people in his time, and the ideological successors of such people continue to slander him because they cannot hang him again. But his soul goes marching on, and Mr./Ms. Anonymous there in Kansas can kiss the backside of my most recent John Brown bio.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D. New York City

Tom McCune 10 years, 3 months ago

Well, Rev. DeCaro, Brown may have been a potent force in the anti-slavery movement, and his actions may fall into the category of "the moral war against the greater evil." But it doesn't seem terribly Christian to use the terms "sane, humanitarian, decent, and admirable" to describe a man who oversaw the hacking to death of with swords of several unarmed men and an attack on a government facility that killed an inoffensive railroad porter in its opening salvos. If that is your position as a minister of God, I think I'll go join the Muslims or something.

theBIRD 10 years, 3 months ago

" Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

I have read about Lincoln, too, and am disappointed with how he is portrayed in history books. But at some point, history was written to promote patriotism and facts were whitewashed.
But history is interpreted differently by people in different eras.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

The Grimke sisters of South Carolina did exactly the same thing as John Brown did - treated all people as equals, shared their pew at church, and invited people of every race to their wedding. But they believed in non-violence.
BTW, I am not real crazy about the David Reynolds' book. But I haven't finished it yet.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

And I haven't read any of the authors, except for Reynolds, that Rev. DeCaro has mentioned or any of his for that matter.
Not sure I want to now.

Godot 10 years, 3 months ago

Brown was depressed over his failures, he was obsessive-compulsive about his deep and abiding faith in his God and was determined to impose his faith on others, he had a lifelong drive to correct a societal wrong that he first recognized as a child, he had megalomaniac tendencies, and, after cutting of the heads of people he disagreed with, he sent his sons to commit the murders of others who did not share his vision.

A diplomat, he was not.

Someone to fear? Absolutely.

A hero? Hardly.

Godot 10 years, 3 months ago

I have a question for Earle. How many of the five people Brown murdered in Palmyra owned slaves?

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

The majority of abolitionists advocated non-violence, but believed war was inevitable. Only a few felt the way of John Brown.
There is much to the story of John Brown which is not told on this page. The five which were killed in Pottawatomie did not own slaves, but were members of the pro-slavery party and had threatened free state settlers in the area.
I don't particularly like John Brown, but I respect what he tried to do, what his goals were. From what I have read and studied, if John Brown didn't think you were with him, then you were basically against him. He didn't get along with all the Free State leaders either, because they tended to like the non-violent way of settling things.
He had thought and started planning the insurrection years ahead. I think he mentioned it to Frederick Douglas like 15 years before he actually did it.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

According to Frederick Douglass, John Brown actually mentioned his plan to free the slaves in 1847. He had it pretty much laid out where and how. And according to Frederick Douglass, Brown had already been planning it for years. And Frederick Douglass did meet with Brown, two weeks before the attack, in Harper's Ferry.
Of course, this is only what Frederick Douglass says in his talk about John Brown.
Read it yourself in the Frederick Douglass papers, Library of Congress.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

Frederick Douglass papers on John Brown are quite interesting.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

Some historians are looking at the Denmark Vessey case again, because they don't think he planned anything. Only have read a bit about it, but in the trial, the judges talked to other slaves who did blame Vessey or even other people to save their own lives. But they never talked to Vessey, (and according to law at the time, they didn't have to).

Tom McCune 10 years, 3 months ago


I have read my Bible cover-to-cover at least once, and parts of it many times. although I take the whole thing "with a grain of salt." Most of the blood and guts I see are in the pre-Christian Old Testament except, of course, for Revelation which is the biggest gore-fest of all time, past, present, or future.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

John Brown will always be a controversial figure because there will always be different interpretations of him. I haven't finished the David Reynolds' book yet, but he is very sympathetic to John Brown.
I can't wait to read Professor Earle's book.

toefungus 10 years, 3 months ago

Good reading here on both sides. Thanks to all.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

Douglass mentioned "the scheme" was more than 20 years old at the time Brown mentioned it to him in 1847.
Douglass spoke very eloquently of Brown in his lecture on John Brown.

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