Monday, May 09, 2005


John Brown and nonviolence

POSTSCRIPT: After reading this post, please continue to the comments, where I've moderated and modified my critique of the reviewers mentioned below.

A copy of David Reynolds' new biography of John Brown is on its way from Amazon. I'm anxious to read the book because I have already read several troubling reviews, including those by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times, Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. What bothers me about these reviews is their barely veiled implication that Brown, because of his willingness to kill for his convictions, had more radical and more authentic convictions than run-of-the-mill abolitionists who were not willing to kill.

All of the reviewers make clear that Reynolds wants to resuscitate Brown's reputation and to show that his violence was not maniacal or insane, but intelligible, radically egalitarian, and perhaps even necessary. Following the Transcendentalists' own celebration of Brown, Reynolds apparently portrays Brown as a hero. (In the best review I've read, David Blight reports that Reynolds casts Brown anachronistically as a "good terrorist.") But every hero needs a foil. And for the reviewers, as perhaps for Reynolds too, that part is furnished by Northern white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who are portrayed as though they were lily-livered sissies and passive pacifists until Brown came along to steel their nerves.

Gopnik, for instance, calls William Lloyd Garrison "the white Martin Luther King, Jr.," but he adds a "but." "But Garrison, like Dr. King, was a pacifist, and, right up to the moment when the war broke out, he had no really practical plan for ending slavery, aside from 'separation' (i.e., the decoupling of the North from the South) and moral suasion." While Gopnik tars "moral suasion" with the usual brush--it was not "really practical"--Hitchens goes farther. After noting that Reynolds goes to great lengths to rationalize Brown's violent methods, Hitchens glibly says that the "superfluity" of such apologies is "easily demonstrated. Not only had the slaveholders perpetrated the preponderance of atrocities, and with impunity at that, but they had begun to boast that northerners and New Englanders were congenitally soft."

Hitchens seems to agree that non-Brown abolitionists were "soft"; he relishes Reynolds' comparison between Oliver Cromwell and Brown, and he refers to moderate antislavery Northerners as "invertebrate Lincolnians." Ehrenreich echoes the spineless pacifists theme, writing that "antislavery activists ... were often pacifists and usually the victims of their political opponents -- a relationship symbolized by a South Carolina congressman's crippling beating of the abolitionist Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. With his guns and pikes, Brown reversed the equation -- stiffening the backbones of Northern abolitionists, terrifying the white South." Even Gopnik, who goes relatively easy on the Garrisonians, cannot resist saying, "Where Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling." And, referring to an 1835 incident in which a violent crowd of rioters attempted to lynch the radical editor, Gopnik avers that "even Garrison, a man of unexampled courage, could not face down a mob in Boston but had to be saved by the police."

Umm ... he was facing a lynch mob that had managed to tie a noose around him. Is Gopnik really prepared to say that Garrison was less courageous than Brown because the police rescued him from his attackers? (Actually, that's not even entirely accurate: Garrison was lifted to safety by a couple of burly rioters who took pity on him. And he was driven away to safety by an unidentified black hackney-driver, who used his whip to keep the crowd at bay. The police assisted in Garrison's rescue only grudgingly, if at all, and when Garrison was brought for protection to City Hall, he was told that he could not stay there because his presence made the building unsafe.)

There was probably never a day in Garrison's adult life when there was not a bounty on his head somewhere in the South. But was he somehow less courageous than Brown because, unlike the Old Man, he was unwilling to lop off the heads of Southerners?

When historians compare radical reformers, it is certainly appropriate to ask about the practicability of their different methods and even to judge the consistency of their convictions, not because historians are the best judges of character, but because making those judgments can help reveal what their bedrock convictions were. But there seems to be something more going on in these comparisons between Brown and Garrison. What seems to be driving the resuscitation of Brown's reputation is not just an historical judgment but an ethical judgment about his superior courage and radicalism. Read between the lines and you'll find the essentially ahistorical insinuation that principled pacifists are really cowards; that those who choose liberty or death to its enemies are more radical than those who would rather die than kill; that meekness is weakness; that the vision of lions lying down with lambs is a pleasing fantasy invented by lambs; that, by a process of elimination, people turn to pacifism when they don't have "practical" plans for making society more just. Pacifists, to paraphrase Ehrenreich, are seen as "victims." Only the violent are thought of as valient.

Clearly these statements are moving outside the realm of purely historical analysis and into the realm of ethics. I'm not necessarily uncomfortable with that movement; I don't believe people who tell me they can study history without allowing their thoughts to at least drift in the direction of ethical reflection. But so long as we are headed in that direction, allow me to point out the irony of book reviewers consigning "moral suasion" to the dustbin of history and dead pacifists to the ship of fools. What are historians and writers, after all, if they are not persons who believe that the word is more powerful than the sword? And if they do not believe this, then why are they in a byline instead of on a frontline?

I realize that question might not be entirely fair. Not everyone who believes that violence is more radical than moral suasion is thereby obligated to take up arms and rid the world of its wrongs. But such reviewers are essentially castigating people like Garrison for failing to live up to their convictions, to stiffen their spines, to get their hands dirty or bloody. So forgive me if I can't avoid poking a bit at the inconsistency of "inverterbrate Hitchensians." (One could point out the same thing about the Transcendentalist scriveners who were most responsible for Brown's apotheosis. Was Emerson really more courageous than Garrison simply because his words celebrated antislavery violence?)

But that's not the main point I want to make here. Skeptical as I am of the ethical claim that violence is always more radical than nonviolence, I am even more concerned that this view is historically suspect, for at least two reasons.

First, nonviolence was not merely an instrumental strategy for many radical abolitionists; for many of them, it was integral to their most radical ideologies. If we view their pacifism as nothing more than a strategy or personal trait, then it is easier to portray that pacifism as a sign of whimsy or weakness. But in fact, for many Garrisonians, a commitment to "nonresistance" was much more than a mere strategy, and certainly more than a simple sign of courage or its lack. It was at the core of their critique of slavery, government, and much else. According to nonresistants, any exercise of violence was an unjust usurpation of God's authority, an immoral abuse of power. From their perspective, that was a large reason why slavery was wrong--it assigned to the master violent power that did not belong to him or her. For many Garrisonians, then, their renunciation of violence was of a piece with their renunciation of slavery. To call their pacifism a mere lack of spine ignores how it shaped their posture towards slavery and other violent abuses of power--like the treatment of Native Americans, the hawkish expansionism that sparked the Mexican War, and unequal marriages.

I could generalize this point to other theorists of nonviolence like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. For both men, nonviolence was not simply a strategy or a practical plan. Both argued that direct nonviolent action was more expedient than violence, but this was not their only defense of pacifism. Rather, the commitments that informed their pacifism also informed their views of the state, of the human person, of justice; to remove the pacifism would not just be to make a change of "plan," it would force thinkers like Gandhi and King to rethink their entire philosophies. It's also simply false in their cases, as in the case of the Garrisonians, to suggest that nonviolence put a brake on their radicalism. Some of their contemporaries certainly did suggest that--think John Brown or Malcolm X--but they were not necessarily right. Progressives today usually praise King in his later years for moving in more radical directions in his thinking about poverty and the war in Vietnam, but they often forget that this trajectory was an outgrowth of his philosophy of nonviolence. His radicalism, like Garrison's, did not view pacifism as a mere tool in the reformer's hand, but as part of the hand itself.

Second: not only is nonviolence often integral to radical programs; violence is often integral to conservative or reactionary worldviews. It may seem as though John Brown's belief that slaves and abolitionists needed to rise up in holy war against the South could only have radical and egalitarian overtones. But that very belief was also integral to the arguments of those who opposed racial equality and emancipation. In an article in the Journal of American History that recently won the ABC-CLIO Award from the OAH, my friend Francois Furstenberg has argued persuasively that the definition of "freedom" as "resistance" to oppression might actually have served to legitimate personal slavery, since it allowed defenders of the system to claim that slaves who did not resist their enslavement were somehow "choosing" their plight autonomously. Implicitly, I think, calling Garrisonians or Lincolnians "spineless" can potentially point in a similar direction, since it suggests that those who do not, like Brown, put their swords where their words are must not "want" freedom as much.

There are also gendered overtones to the idea that Brown was more genuinely radical than Garrison, since violent resistance was defined throughout the antebellum period (as it probably still is for many people today) as a "masculine" virtue, an act in which men prove that they are manly men. The word "sissy" itself carries that overtone, and to imply, even indirectly, that Garrison was a sissy also comes across as a derogative accusation of effeminacy. The connected implication is that women are incapable of proving their mettle the way that John Brown could. Hitchens' review opens with a paragraph that suggests I'm not making this up. He relates the story of Lincoln's telling Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the woman who started the Civil War. Says Hitchens, "That fondly related anecdote [about Stowe] illustrates the persistent tendency to Parson Weemsishness in our culture. It was not all the tear-jerking sentiment of Uncle Tom's Cabin that catalyzed the War Between the States. It was, rather, the blood-spilling intransigence of John Brown, field-tested on the pitiless Kansas prairies and later deployed at Harpers Ferry." Women novelists become "tear-jerkers" and sentimentalists, on this view, and thus incapable of catalyzing social change. Rather, it's the "field-tested" violence of John Brown and his manly men that get the credit for emancipation.

In sum, while it certainly is appropriate for historians to compare and contrast Brown and Garrison, and to weigh the relative radicalism of their approaches to emancipation, it is historically misleading to suggest that their positions on violence are failproof indicators of their radical commitments. I'm looking forward to reading Reynolds because I think that Brown's reputation is in need of some resuscitating and subtle revising. But why is it that reputation-revivals in history must so often be zero-sum games, so that someone else's stock has to fall for someone else's stock to rise? In this case, I've suggested, it's unfair to praise Brown's radicalism at the expense of Garrison--at least if one is doing so by suggesting that Garrison's pacifism was nothing more than a lack of courage or clear thinking. It certainly is true that nonviolence sometimes is a sign of cowardice, but so is violence. It's always startling to me that despite the fact that most people accept detailed taxonomies of different kinds of violence, which range along a spectrum from justified and heroic violence to illicit abuse, very few of us have similarly well developed taxonomies of different kinds of pacifism, which can also range from the heroic to the thoughtless. I have suggested that a simple dichotomization of radicalism that places "fight" on the one hand and "flight" on the other does violence to history. I also think it does violence to our moral intuitions, but I don't need to make that argument to prove that, historically, (a) nonviolence is often integral to radicalism and that (b) violence is often integral to conservatism.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
Excellent points. (I haven't read any of the reviews yet. But couldn't the New Yorker have asked Nadine Gordimer instead of Adam Gopnik?) Would the political changes that catalyzed the war and by extension the end of slavery have taken place without the "sentimentalists" capable of mobilizing those who recoiled from Brown? Perhaps we are still interpretively hamstrung by the early-feminist (e.g., Ann Douglas) approach to the moral-religious vision of mainstream mid-century American Protestantism. BTW, visit sparked by AHA Perspectives article on blogging. No such thing as bad publicity. 

Posted by Michael Baenen

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/09/2005 10:12:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment and for stopping by! I completely agree that the "sentimentalists" were crucial in catalyzing Northern support for the War, since they could offer a moderate alternative to Northerners horrified by Brown (or an interpretation of Brown that emphasized his status as a Christian martyr instead of as a Christian crusader). Likewise, I would argue that the radical Garrisonian immediatists were important because they represented an extreme against which moderate antislavery voices could position themselves.

Lydia Maria Child, a popular sentimental writer and erstwhile Garrisonian, was important in framing Brown in her famous published letters to Governor Wise of Virginia . Reynolds may be more subtle about this than his reviewers, though, and I'm still looking forward to reading the book. (The reviewers make it sound like Reynolds gives the Transcendentalists most of the credit for framing Brown, but I'm not sure that the "sentimentalists" weren't more important shapers of popular opinion.)

You may be right that Douglas is rising again; the Garrisonians' and sentimentalists' reputations seem to go in cycles. Their reputation was recuperated in the 1970s but seems to be sliding again as historians revive interest in figures like John Brown and African American abolitionists who parted ways with white Garrisonians. I'm all for the interest in the latter, but as I suggested, I really don't think antislavery history has to be a "zero-sum" game. (Perhaps, though, abolitionists share much of the blame for the fact that it is: many of them certainly laid loud claim to the "genuine" character of their wing of the movement while denouncing the "spurious" character of others.) 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/10/2005 07:01:00 AM : Permalink  

One point you don't acknowledge is that it was the Southerners who viewed the violent Brown as more "authentic." I've only read the New Yorker review, but that was brought up by Gopnik and I think it's relevant to the discussion. I thought Gopnik was explaining the disproportionate impact Brown had on the Southern psyche -- Southerners feared and respected Brown specifically due to his violence. I'm not confident that just because Gopnik relates that point means that he personally agrees with it. (If I were responsible, I would re-read the review in case I'm misremembering it, but I've got finals to grade.) Similarly, I don't think Erhenreich herself thnks the abolitionists were "spineless." She merely points out that the Southerners were violent, while the abolitionsists -- aside from Brown -- were not. Just because reviewers show that Brown personified Southern cultural traits in the pursuit of Northern (or abolitionist) goals doesn't mean those same reviewers value Brown more than other Northern abolitionsits.

Your Hitchen excerpts, however, do seem to show that he does view Brown as more authentic. I totally agree with you that radical doesn't equal violent doesn't equal authentic. Garrison was an authentic radical. People sometimes wrongly use "radical," "violent," "revolutionary," and "militant" as synonyms. 

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/10/2005 11:03:00 PM : Permalink  

Jim E.,

Thanks for the comment. I can see how I may be overreading the Gopnik review, but when seen in the context of the other reviews, a pattern seems to emerge, and it's not unreasonable to at least see Gopnik as both an outlier and a part of the group.

He does argue that Brown's violence was "Southern," but I'm not sure I buy that particular part of the review, since it oversimplifies Brown's romantic view of violent struggle as a "Southern" trait. There were plenty of Northerners who also bought into the idea that Furstenberg's article finds at the center of early nationalist ideology in the United States: the idea that violent action in the service of liberty demonstrates that one's love of liberty is authentic enough to deserve its rewards.

It could be, too, that some of the reviewers intend words like "spineless" as synonyms for "nonviolent," without intending derogatory overtones. But I think that's unlikely. When you say that someone was spineless, you're saying more than that they were nonviolent. There is such a thing as "spineless" nonviolence and such a thing as "courageous" nonviolence, and I don't think that nonresistant Garrisonians can be lumped all together in the former category.

You're right that Ehrenreich's discussion of the way that Brown "stiffened the backbones" of Northern abolitionists is mainly part of her synopsis of the book under review. So it's hard to tell, without having read the book, whether she's reporting Reynolds' interpretation of Brown's impact or the interpretations of Brown's contemporaries. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/11/2005 12:06:00 AM : Permalink  

"It could be, too, that some of the reviewers intend words like 'spineless' as synonyms for 'nonviolent,' without intending derogatory overtones. But I think that's unlikely."

Can you show me a review that uses the word "spineless"?  

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/11/2005 07:37:00 AM : Permalink  

A fair question. Perhaps the word "spineless" was not used, but "invertebrate" was in Hitchens, and lack of spine was implied in Ehrenreich's word choice too. But I don't mean to object only to one particular word; the point here is more general than that--that many historians and writers approach nonviolence as if it were either a personal trait or practical proposal. Critics then simply say that it is not a good personal trait (because it is cowardly or some such) or that it is an impractical proposal. What I'm saying is that the integral place of nonviolence in many radical movements needs to be taken more seriously than either of those dismissive responses allows. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/12/2005 11:23:00 AM : Permalink  

Without having read the book, neither of us can be totally sure which parts of the reviews are the reviewers’ assertions, and which parts are the reviewer merely reporting the book’s thesis.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m still not confident that your characterization of the reviews is correct. I’m no Ehrenreich expert, but the little I know of her writings and her politics is totally at odds with your summary of what she wrote. Now that I’ve had a chance to actually read the review, I’m even more mystified as to why you think it bolsters your thesis. Ehrenreich is clearly troubled by Brown’s violence, even if she acknowledges Reynold’s pro-Brown arguments. She never hails Brown’s violence as being either more authentic or more radical than other foes of slavery. In fact, her review broaches few comparisons at all (and some of those are with pro-slavery folk), choosing instead to wrestle with the bloodiness of Brown’s approach. Contrary to what you imply, she never even mentions Garrison and she goes out of her way to provide an example of another abolitionist (Elijah Lovejoy) who was hardly a wuss, again contradicting your argument that non-violent abolitionists were portrayed in a lesser light.

Regarding Gopnik, you’ve backed away a bit (in the comments) and classify him as a “outlier” example. Yet, I don’t think that Gopnik, who calls Garrison “passionate and courageous” and “a man of unexampled courage,” did much disservice to Garrison in the review, as even you later admit. Gopnik never hints that he thinks Garrison was less courageous than Brown, yet you spend a lot of pixels disabusing him of the notion. I do think you continue to underplay the importance of Gopnik’s discussion of Southern codes of honor and violence, despite the Furstenberg's article you cite. (I haven’t read it, but does Furstenberg demolish the idea of a distinct – and violent – Southern tradition that contrasted with Northern culture? If not, I don’t see its relevance.) The favorable treatment Gopnik gives Brown’s violence is in the specific context of how it was received by Southerners. Because Southerners might have respected Brown precisely because of his violence doesn’t mean Gopnik does, too. Indeed, Gopnik might be channeling Reynold’s thesis for that part of the review, in which case your beef would be with Reynold’s and not Gopnik. And while you write that Gopnik “tars ‘moral suasion’ with the usual brush--it was not ‘really practical’,” you fail to point out that he also wrote that Brown’s “quixotic” plan for the Harper’s Ferry raid “was obviously a blueprint for failure” and “crazier than it sounded.” That doesn’t sound very pro-violence or pro-Brown to me. I don’t think Gopnik denigrates Garrison in his review; nor do I think Gopnik even broaches the argument that Brown was more authentic.

Your language – “tars. . . with the usual brush,” “spineless,” “lily-livered sissies and passive pacifists,” – is extreme and unfair in how it describes the Ehrenreich and Gopnik reviews. (Hitchens is another matter.) Neither of those two reviewers used language or terms remotely like those you used to paraphrase them.

And just so I’m clear, I don’t mean to come across as disagreeable or nitpicky. I just don’t think Gopnik or Ehrenreich made any of the arguments to which you respond so eloquently. Neither wrote a review comparing and contrasting Garrison and Brown, nor did either use Garrison as a foil. It’s fine to make your argument about violence-authenticity-radicalism, but you shouldn’t do so at their expense.

Just as way of explanation, I read the Gopnik review when it was published and had a whole conversation about it, which is why I’m so interested in your take on it. (Well, that, and I’m a regular reader of your blog.) I hope I’m not coming off too harsh. Tone is difficult convey sometimes. Consider me a fan who is momentarily disappointed at this particular post. Neither reviewer dwelled upon the cowardice of, or was dismissive of, the nonviolent abolitionists, so I don't understand your beef with them. 

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/13/2005 02:02:00 AM : Permalink  

The Hitchens review truly annoyed me, because he basically hijacked Brown, abolitionism, and antebellum America to make a not-terribly-subtle point in his continuing crusade about Iraq and Islamism. There were a lot of small statements in his review about the history at hand that were just factually wrong or at least distorted. I haven't read the Gopnik or Ehrenreich reviews, but I think your characterization of Hitchens is correct.  

Posted by Timothy Burke

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/13/2005 08:49:00 AM : Permalink  

Jim E.,

Thanks for your comments, and no need to worry about coming across the wrong way. Many of your points are well taken; I think the mistake I made in this post was to fail to put these three reviews into a larger context. I was aware while writing it that it was a bit of a rant, and it was motivated not just by these particular reviews, but by a larger sense I get that recent historians of abolitionism, in resuscitating the reputation of Brown in particular, have used non-violent abolitionists as foils. If that generalization is true, though, you're right that I would have to give much more evidence than these three reviews to prove it, and I didn't do that work here.

Your comments are helpful in pushing me to be clearer if I write about this subject in the future, and in challenging me to keep the ranting in check. I agree, for instance, that the line about "lily-livered sissies" was an example of the rant getting the best of me, insofar as it carelessly attributed that view to "the reviewers" collectively, instead of to Hitchens in particular. And perhaps the real lesson I should learn here is to wait until I've read a book before I take its reviewers to task. I think I was really shadow-boxing with Reynolds' book as it was portrayed by the reviewers, and that's not fair either to Reynolds or the reviewers.

With all of that said, and having backed away from the most aggressively critical parts of the post, I stand by the second half of the post, which outlines some shortcomings (as I see them) of some recent historical treatments of antislavery nonresistants. I'll grant that few historians will call Garrison a "sissy," as my inner Ranter hysterically implied. But I do think it is common for nonresistance to be viewed merely as an instrumental plan or a personality trait, and that view of nonresistance might lend itself (and sometimes does  lend itself, I'd maintain) to portrayals of its adherents as little more than impractical or invalorous. Perhaps not all of these reviewers demonstrate a sin of commission by calling Garrisonians cowards (as I strongly implied in the original post), but all of them commit a sin of omission in that they fail to consider nonresistance as a robust alternative to Brown's revolutionary romanticism. This, I would say, is even true of Ehrenreich. She's troubled about Brown's violence, yes, but she speaks of it as though, despite its costs, it were the only option for sincere abolitionists. Consider her concluding lines:

How do we judge a man of such different times -- and temperament -- from our own? If the rule is that there must be some proportion between a violent act and its provocation, surely there could be no more monstrous provocation than slavery. In our own time, some may discern equivalent evils in continuing racial oppression, economic exploitation, environmental predation or widespread torture. To them, "John Brown, Abolitionist," for all its wealth of detail and scrupulous attempts at balance, has a shockingly simple message: Far better to have future generations complain about your methods than condemn you for doing nothing.

Again, hard to say whether this is Ehrenreich's message as well. But at least she might have pointed out that abolitionists other than Brown weren't "doing nothing."

In sum, you're right that in the bulk of these reviews there is no explicit condemnation of Garrisonians or "moral suasion" or nonresistance. My modified point, then, is that there is no explicit assessment of those alternatives either, and perhaps in some there is an implicit dismissal of "moral suasion" as little more than the Plan A that failed before Brown's Plan B could be put in motion. I'll have to do more thinking about this, though. And rather than couching my point primarily as a negative criticism of these reviewers, I'll need to develop the more positive case that I started towards the end of the post: that nonresistance needs to be taken seriously as an integral part of antislavery radicalism for many abolitionists; it was not just a manifestation of weakness of will. Nonresistance, paradoxically, is not the path of least resistance.


Thanks for the comment. I got the same queasy feeling from the Hitchens review. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 5/14/2005 11:59:00 PM : Permalink  

I heard Reynolds on the Diane Rehm. I can't stand her voice, so the interviewee has to be really! fascinating to hold my interest. Reynolds was a great interview. I'd like to read the book as well, when I'm done with all the other German crap on my list. 

Posted by greg

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/16/2005 12:07:00 PM : Permalink  

You continue to misread and mischaracterize Erhrenreich. Although you claim that Ehrenreich presents Brown’s violence as though “it were the only  option for sincere abolitionists” (emphasis added), that is not substantiated by anything she actually wrote in the review. I’m sorry, you’re totally off base on that one.

You asked me to consider that block quote, so I will. Erhenreich closes her review by trying to come to terms with Brown’s brutal violence, and her take has absolutely nothing – implied or otherwise – to do with her judgment of nonviolent abolitionists. She’s only dealing with Brown and his methods, period. (An abolitionist, by definition, was doing something, not nothing, so she isn’t referring to them.) Her last sentence shows, importantly, that she (or is it Reynolds? – it is not clear) is still not necessarily sold on Brown’s bloody approach (hence the “complain about . . . methods” phrase), but that she appreciates that he was at least fighting on the right (as in “correct”) side of history. I don’t know how you could possibly interpret that line as an implied critique of nonviolence, or a full-throated endorsement of Brown’s killings. It is neither.

Erhenreich’s understanding of, and tepid support (at best) for, Brown’s specific methods is, it seems to me, reluctant and qualified. Erhnereich’s a principled left-wing peacenik (with a decades-long paper trail to prove it), and nothing she wrote in the review indicates anything different. Just because Reynold’s biography rehabilitates Brown, doesn’t mean the nonviolent abolitionists are being undercut in the process. It seems that it is you, and not Erhenreich or Gopnik, that is making zero-sum judgments.

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/17/2005 04:31:00 PM : Permalink  

Jim E.,

I'm willing to admit that I'm misreading Ehrenreich by saying that she implied violence was "the only option for sincere abolitionists." That was indeed the wrong choice of words, since the main point I was trying to make in my last comment was not that Ehrenreich explicitly endorses violence, but that she doesn't consider "nonresistance as a robust alternative to Brown's revolutionary" violence. Of course, I really shouldn't have taken her to task for this either ... at least not until I've read the Reynolds book.

I think it's important to reveal here the order in which I read these reviews, since that chronology might help explain where I've gone wrong. I read Hitchens first, Gopnik second, and Ehrenreich last. So I think from the beginning I've gotten Hitchens' reading of Reynolds stuck in my head as a faithful representation of the book. That was probably a bad idea to begin with--not fair to Reynolds, and perhaps even not fair to Hitchens. But, rightly or wrongly, once I got that representation of Reynolds in my head, I was more impatient than I should have been with Gopnik and Ehrenreich. If Reynolds makes the mistake of treating "radical" and "violent" and "active" as conceptual cognates (which both you and I seem to agree is a mistake), then I think its reviewers should call him on that and lay out some of the arguments I offered in the second part of my post. But since I haven't read the book yet, I don't really have the right to hold the reviewers to that standard.

In other words, I stand by my retreat. And I'm going to indicate within the post itself that I did not handle the reviews as carefully as I should have. The main point I wanted to make, at any rate, was in the two-pronged conclusion of the post, and I stand by the stands I took there.

I've learned a couple of things here that I knew already but are easily forgotten.

First, when I want to make a point, I don't have to have a foil against which to set my argument. (In that sense you're right that I'm guilty of what I'm criticizing.) It's always tempting (especially for graduate students, I might add) to think that the best hook for a historical argument is a historiographical critique. I'd like to think I usually resist that temptation, but here I was seduced, and I apologize. (I reserve the right, of course, to make such a historiographical critique after reading Reynolds; but if I do so, I'll certainly have to be more careful about how to frame the historiography I'm criticizing.)

Second, I think another thing fueling the ranting side of this post has to do with a strangely protective zeal I feel with regard to the Garrisonians. Perhaps I'm overreacting to a sense that their intellectual seriousness and radicalism is being given short shrift in much recent historiography. But (see above) the best way to respond to this is to demonstrate their intellectual seriousness and radicalism, not to rail against that recent historiography. And moreover, I need to be aware of that defensive impulse I have with regard to the subjects I study the most, since it may not be intellectually justified, and if I fall prey to it, I will be guilty of writing history to defend reputation, which is precisely what I think misleads some treatments of Brown.

I wonder if there are other historians reading this exchange who can testify to similar experiences--finding themselves rushing into the fray in defense of "their" Garrisonians or "their" reformers, only to find that the gauntlet was not really thrown down, and that the honor of their subjects was not really insulted.

My musings have obviously drifted from the main thread, and I hope you won't think I'm avoiding your points about Ehrenreich. I hope you'll see that (a) I'm conceding much of your point and (b) I'm admitting that I should have waited to write this post until I read Reynolds. And, as a result of (a) and (b), I've actually moved on to wondering what got me this worked up.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Please keep on keeping me honest. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/17/2005 11:31:00 PM : Permalink  

Wouldn't it be ironic if, after reading the book, you find that one of Reynold’s sub-themes is  that Brown was more authentic and necessary than Garrison and his wussy ilk? We’d both get a chuckle.

In any case, I hope you do post a review whenever you find the time to read the biography.

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/18/2005 11:34:00 PM : Permalink  

I look forward to reading the book. I offer these thoughts as an antidote to the national celebration of war we call Memorial Day.

Two important points get glossed over in discussions about John Brown: 1) the morality of what he did and 2) the failure to recognize an alternative to either violence or pacifism. For me, the important question is not how radical, how authentic, how revolutionary, how sane or how effective his actions were, but whether they were right or wrong. The facts are well known. In Kansas he and his followers committed pre-meditated murder of five men. In Virginia they took over a federal armory, took hostages and killed four men, including a free black trainman. Whether his cause was “righteous” is irrelevant. Just about every “terrorist” act on record can be justified in terms of a cause that is “righteous”, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The obvious alternative to violence and pacifism – and I don’t mean to disparage pacifism – derives from the principle that force can be justified only as a last resort for self-defense against an attack after all other options have been exhausted. This principle is institutionalized in both domestic and international law. I recommend to you, in this regard, the story of William Parker, an escaped slave living in Pennsylvania who defended himself and others against Maryland slave owners who attempted to take them back into bondage. (See Rebellion at Christiana by Margaret Hope Bacon.)

Posted by Steve Waite

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/31/2005 03:39:00 PM : Permalink  

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