October 16, 2013

LOOKING KINDLY DOWN:

ON THE EVE OF WAR: JOHN BROWN AND HARPERS FERRY (TONY HORWITZ, NOVEMBER 9 , 2011, Command Posts)

While demanding of others, Brown was hardest on himself. In his autobiographical letter, he wrote of young John's "haughty obstinate temper" and inability to endure reproach. He "habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings" and felt sure his plans were "right in themselves." This drive and confidence impressed elders he esteemed, which in turn fed his vanity. "He came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit." Brown wrote that his younger brother often called him "a King against whom there is no rising up."

These traits--arrogance, self-certitude, a domineering manner--would bedevil Brown as he navigated the turbulent economy of the early nineteenth century. But they would also enable his late-life reincarnation as Captain John Brown, a revolutionary who took up arms in the cause of freedom, as his namesake had done two generations before him.

In 1800, the year of Brown's birth in the thin-soiled hills of Connecticut, the United States was just entering its adolescence. The Constitution turned thirteen that year. For the first time, a president took up residence in the newly built White House, and Congress convened on Capitol Hill. The young nation barely extended beyond the Appalachians; its largest city, New York, had sixty thousand people, equal to present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.

In many respects, daily existence at the time of Brown's birth was closer to life in medieval Europe than modern-day America. Most people worked on farms and used wooden plows. Land travel moved at horse or foot speed on roads so awful that the carriage bringing First Lady Abigail Adams to Washington got lost in the woods near Baltimore. Crossing the ocean was a weeks-long ordeal. News wasn't new by the time it arrived.

In this preindustrial society of five million people, almost 900,000 were enslaved, and not only in the South. Though northern states had taken steps toward ending the institution, most of these measures provided for only gradual emancipation. Brown's home state had almost a thousand slaves at the time of his birth, and New York twenty times that number.

Slavery was also safeguarded by the Constitution, albeit in convoluted language. The Revolution had raised an awkward question: how to square human bondage with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights? The Framers answered this, in part, by employing a semantic dodge. They produced a forty-four-hundred-word document that did not once use the term "slave" or "slavery," even though the subject arose right at the start.

Article I of the Constitution mandated that each state's delegation to the House of Representatives would be based on the number of free people added to "three fifths of all other Persons"--meaning slaves. In other words, every fifty slaves would be counted as thirty people, even though these "other Persons" couldn't vote and would magnify the representation of white men who owned them.

The Constitution also protected, for twenty years, the "importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper." "Such Persons," of course, were African slaves. Furthermore, any "Per-son held to Service or Labour" who escaped to a free state--that is, any slave who ran away--had to be "delivered up" to his or her master.

These measures reflected the horse-trading needed to forge a nation from fractious states. Another deal, struck in 1790, led to the nation's capital being located on the Potomac River, between the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. In all, slaveholders had deftly entrenched their "species of property," as one South Carolina delegate euphemistically put it.

Even so, as the turn of the century approached, there were signs that slavery might wane. The exhaustion of the Chesapeake region's soil by tobacco weakened the economic basis for slavery in Maryland and Virginia, home to half of all southern slaves. A growing number of owners in these states were freeing their slaves, driven in part by evangelical fervor and the Revolution's emphasis on personal liberty. Other slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged the "moral and political depravity" of the institution and expressed hope for its gradual end.

But all this would change markedly in the early de cades of the nineteenth century, as John Brown came of age. The cotton gin, the steamboat, and the rapid growth of textile mills made it possible and hugely profitable to grow and ship millions of bales of what had previously been a minor crop. Andrew Jackson, himself a cotton planter, championed the policy of Indian "removal," dislodging southern tribes and opening vast tracts of new land for cultivation. This expansion, in turn, created a vibrant market for the Chesapeake's surplus slaves, who were sold by the thousands to gang-labor plantations in the Deep South.

Southerners also dominated government, largely because the three-fifths clause padded the representation of slave states in Congress and the electoral college, throughout the antebellum period. Southerners won thirteen of the first sixteen presidential contests, ruled the Supreme Court for all but eight years before the Civil War, and held similar sway over leadership posts in Congress.

But this clout--economic as well as political--depended on continual expansion. The South needed new lands to plant and new states to boost representation, to keep pace with the industrializing and more populous North. This inevitably sowed conflict as the nation spread west. With the settling of each new territory a contentious question arose: would it be slave or free?

The first serious strife flared in 1819, when Missouri sought statehood. Missouri had been settled mainly by Southerners; its admission to the Union would carry slavery well north and west of its existing boundaries and upset the numerical balance between slave and free states. After lengthy debate, Congress finessed the crisis by admitting Maine along with Missouri and by drawing a line across the continent, forbidding any further slavery north of the 36° 30′ parallel. This deal--the Missouri Compromise of 1820--formed the basis for a three-decade détente over slavery's spread.

But Thomas Jefferson, then in his late seventies, immediately sensed the danger inherent in the agreement. In demarcating a border between slave and free, the compromise underscored the country's fault line and fixed the nation into two camps. "This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror," Jefferson wrote of the debate over Missouri and slavery. "I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence."

In his autobiographical letter to young Henry Stearns, John Brown said he felt the first stirrings of his "Eternal war with Slavery" at age twelve, when he saw a slave boy beaten with iron shovels. "This brought John to reflect on the wretched, hopeless condition, of Fatherless & Motherless slave children," he wrote. Brown, who was also motherless and subject to childhood beatings, may have identified with the slave boy. But his burning hatred of racial oppression had another source. Like so much else in his life, it reflected the influence of his father.

In most respects, Owen Brown's religious faith harked back to his Puritan forebears, who believed they had a covenant with God to make America a moral beacon to the world. In the eighteenth century, Calvinist ministers began speaking of slavery as a threat to this special relationship-- a breach of divine law that would bring down God's wrath upon the land. Owen was strongly affected by this preaching, and like many other New England emigrants, he carried his antislavery convictions to the Western Reserve.

He also displayed an unusual tolerance toward the native inhabitants of Ohio. "Some Persons seamed disposed to quarel with the Indians but I never was," he wrote. Nor did he proselytize, or damn natives as heathens, as Puritans of old would have done. Instead, he traded meal for fish and game; he also built a log shelter to protect local Indians from an enemy tribe. Young John "used to hang about" Indians as much as he could--the beginnings of a lifelong sympathy for natives that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing hostility of white Americans.

As Owen Brown established himself in Ohio, he and his neighbors helped fugitive slaves, making the town of Hudson a well-traveled stop on the Underground Railroad. John followed suit, aiding runaways who came to the log cabin he shared with a brother while he was still a bachelor. He continued to aid fugitive slaves after his marriage, but he had a great deal else to occupy him.

Posted by at October 16, 2013 9:06 PM
  

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