John Brown's Dream

Jesse J. Gant is a graduate student in the PhD program in history at the University of Wisconsin, and an editorial assistant with the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Last week brought to mind a landscape of a different sort for John Brown and those who remember him.  One hundred and fifty years ago, on December 8, 1859, Brown was buried near his small cabin at North Elba, New York, following his one-week journey from the gallows at Harper’s Ferry.  Blacks and whites, men and women, came together in the Adirondacks to remember and mourn those executed for the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Yet we rarely associate John Brown and the other conspirators in the raid with the hills and valleys of his upstate New York farm.

This month’s sesquicentennial of John Brown’s execution did not go unnoticed, of course.  Recent editorials written to commemorate the execution have made abundant note of the parallels connecting Brown’s legacy to our own times. Tony Horwitz, for example, took to the pages of the New York Times to call Harper’s Ferry the 9/11 of 1859. With President Obama ordering an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, it does seem hard to avoid thinking about Brown through the narrow lens of a troubled world still at odds with the problem of revolutionary violence.

The routine debates about John Brown’s legacy reflect bigger problems within American thought.  Primarily, it’s because we never seem to move beyond the dusty “madman or martyr” question. Passionate as these arguments may be, the loony-bin John Brown will never reconcile with the hero/martyr John Brown.  American liberalism doesn’t have room for what transpired at Harper’s Ferry. Do we really want to answer whether John Brown was crazy?  What would the world capable of answering that question look like?

The lands near North Elba deserve space alongside the other frames of John Brown’s life--Harper’s Ferry and Bloody Kansas. On December 8, 1859, Brown’s body returned for the last time to a farm he had purchased in 1849. Though the majority of Americans remain unfamiliar with this story, Brown had purchased the property with the explicit intention of living with and among freed African Americans, whom he hoped he could help in farming and living sustainably on the land. The Adirondack lands were made available through the efforts of wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who hoped to distribute his lands to freed people. 

Brown believed that living in an interracial society was the most important step in overturning slavery.  At North Elba, Brown made it a custom to seat blacks at his own dinner table.  His motivations at Harper’s Ferry gain a new perspective when we consider the profound anxieties 1850’s Americans had about racial integration, lending new depth to Brown’s prediction that the nation’s woes would not be purged but with “blood.”   

Though the antebellum black community founded by Brown and other abolitionist leaders, black and white, ultimately failed to take root, North Elba—not Harper’s Ferry--demonstrated the most critical element of Brown’s vision. Tragically, it has been overlooked in both the history books and in the contemporary debate surrounding him in our myopic post 9/11 worldview.

The North Elba memory of John Brown should challenge us in our ideas about past and present. “Madman or martyr” may tell us much about our fears, but it explains little about our hopes.  Brown understood that real change demands an entirely new birth of freedom.  In his time, that meant not only dying for the slaves, but also living with them, too. It meant Emancipation, but also fundamentally re-making the American landscape as well. It is time to dream beyond a world that demands us to be either with John Brown or against him. 

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More Comments:

Alice Keesey Mecoy - 12/23/2009

Thank you for the even keel of your words. I agree that we need to stop arguing about the "crazyness" or "sanity" of my great great great grandfather and concentrate on his message - All People Are Created Equal.

Alice Keesey Mecoy
Great great great granddaughter of John Brown

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/15/2009

John's dream seemed to have been a bloody civil war. It came true.

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