I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the conundrum that John Brown presents for any thoughtful AmericanStudier; Brown’s cause was just and many of his ideas on race and nation profoundly progressive and inspiring, but his actions were thoroughly violent and murderous and his perspective a terrifying combination of megalomania and religious extremism. Moreover, since Brown only rose to prominence through those murderous actions—first against pro-slavery settlers and families in Kansas and then especially in his takeover of Harper’s Ferry—it’s not really possible to separate the inspiring ideas from the actions and the perspective that drove them; Lydia Maria Child wrote in favor of racial equality and even intermarriage decades before Brown, after all, and didn’t advocate bloodshed nor believe herself to be a holy instrument and prophet.
Yet to a significant degree the duality that I’m framing in that paragraph, between being inspired by and critiquing Brown—a duality that is very difficult to avoid when it comes to a figure like him, not least because of how much contemporary figures like Timothy McVeigh seem to parallel Brown’s perspective and identity and actions—is for AmericanStudiers a bit of a red herring. That is, while we can’t necessarily avoid considering how we would judge different historical actors and actions, the more salient and productive questions are both how we would analyze them and, most AmericanStudies of all, what they can help us to understand about our national identities and narratives. There is a great deal to be made, for example, of the details and narratives presented at and surrounding Brown’s 1859 trial for the Harper’s Ferry raid; as his own statements to the court (linked below) indicate, the trial connected not only to narratives of race and slavery, but also for example to contemporary debates over insanity and the law, making the whole event a hugely complex and meaningful mid-century text.
And speaking of complicated and significant texts, Brown created one of his own roughly a year before Harper’s Ferry: what he called his “Provisional Constitution,” a new founding document (also linked below) for a United States of America reorganized around racial and other equalities. The exercise was far more than just hypothetical for Brown, as he asked members of his family and small community to swear an oath to uphold this Constitution; while certainly that request can be used as evidence for his megalomania (and his own attorney at the 1859 trial would in fact point to the Constitution as evidence of Brown’s insanity, a move with which he vocally disagreed), it also illustrates the seriousness with which he took this second founding and its potential contributions to American life and identity going forward. Again, it might be difficult to separate the document and its ideas from the actions that Brown and his community would subsequently take; but by that same logic, the US Constitution would have to be connected to (for example) the government’s brutal treatment of Native Americans, a connection that would seem tenuous at best. That is, whatever we think of Brown’s practices, we must it seems to me acknowledge the power of his political philosophies, as expressed in this strikingly unique and impressive text.
Brown’s attempt to textually and political reconstitute America failed, and of course in literal terms the nation has been reconstituted only twenty-seven times (with the twenty-seven amendments that have been added since ratification). Yet by any practical and analytical measure, the Civil War represented one of many historical moments in which the nation was greatly reconstituted, its basic identity and community fundamentally redefined and expanded. And through that lens, Brown’s relevance to his era becomes much more complicated, and potentially more constitutive, still. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Brown’s Constitution: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/johnbrown/brownconstitution.html
2) Brown’s statements to the court: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/johnbrown/brownaddress.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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