The Old Puritan

Published:May 8, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


In a previous post, I mentioned John Brown. The “Old Puritan,” as he was sometimes called, was the subject of an hour-long discussion at the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Conference in Richmond last week. Four scholars gathered together to present an understanding, fit for 2009, of the infamous liberator-or-terrorist (depending, perhaps, on your section) who has been a-mould’ring in his grave for a century and a half now. (You can find the video here; if you have RealPlayer, you can actually watch it.)

The esteemed experts* discussed and debated the following:

  • The amount of slave involvement at Harpers Ferry;
  • Whether Brown’s was a good plan or a disastrous one;
  • Brown’s versus the South’s vision of Christianity;
  • Virginia’s bad PR move in allowing Brown to write letters from his jail cell;
  • The Pottawatomie Massacre and Brown’s co-option of a Southern culture of violence; and
  • The mystique that surrounded Brown then and still does now.

The assumption governing such a discussion, of course, is that John Brown was not a simple man and that understanding the nature and meaning(s) of his actions is not simple, either. It’s an assumption that has long been anathema to textbook writers, a fact I was reminded of when I set off looking for understandings of Brown fit for earlier times.

Here, for instance, is Robert Mackenzie in his 1870 history of the United States:

Simple men, guiding themselves by their conviction of the wickedness of slavery, were growing ever more vehement in their hatred of this evil thing.

John Brown was such a man. The blood of the Pilgrim Fathers flowed in his veins. The old Puritan spirit guided all his actions. From his boyhood he abhorred slavery. He was constrained by his duty to God and man to spend himself in this cause. There was no hope of advantage in it; no desire for fame; no thought at all for himself or for his children. He saw a huge wrong, and he could not help setting himself to resist it. He was no politician. He was powerless to influence the councils of the nation. But he had the old Puritan aptitude for battle.

Without knowing anything about Mackenzie you know that he is from the North (“this evil thing”) and that he does not trust young people to think critically. Notice, too, how he completely buys into the Calvinistic notion, outdated even in Brown’s day, that Brown was an instrument of God (“constrained in his duty”) who is therefore not responsible to history for his actions. (He certainly was responsible to Virginia!) Mackenzie’s Brown has no free will (“he could not help . . . himself”), the pawn of an “irrepressible” history and “powerless”—he being “no politician”—to influence affairs of state.

Which is nonsense, of course, but it’s interesting nonsense. Even after the Civil War, the North still was deeply invested in defending Brown’s violence.

So what about the South? Mary Tucker Magill‘s History of Virginia, first published in 1890 (I own the 1908 edition), introduces Brown this way:

One of the fiercest of the Free-soilers, as they were called, was John Brown, of Kansas. His whole life had been one of adventure, and now, in his old age, the idea of freeing the slave seems to have taken full possession of his thoughts. He seems to have been utterly destitute of fear, and although his life had been a very wicked one, on this one pint I think he believed himself right, and was perhaps not so much to blame as many intelligent men at the North who encouraged him in his violent course of conduct.

Contra Mackenzie, here is a man of free will (“he believed himself right”). Which is hardly a surprising portrayal, I know, given the South’s interest in holding Brown accountable for his actions. But here, too, is an adventurer, one who “seems to have been utterly destitute of fear.” And one who “was perhaps not so much to blame as many intelligent men at the North.” Contrast that with the 1964 edition of a textbook of Virginia history, Virginia: History, Government, Geography, that labels Brown “a half-mad fanatic” and pretty much leaves it at that.

He was a complicated dude, in other words, but more than that, our relationship to him is complicated. Which is why it’s great the Sesquicentennial started with John Brown and why you should go check out that video.

* By name: David W. Blight, David S. Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, and Clarence E. Walker

IMAGE: Tragic Prelude (1938–1940) by John Steuart Curry, illustrating John Brown and Bleeding Kansas