An Interview with Marty Brown
Marty Brown is a descendant of Jason Brown, one of John Brown’s children. She lives in Portland, Oregon. We contacted her after we read a letter that she had written to The New Yorker which challenged the assumption that the novel Good Lord Bird and the new TV series based on it was an accurate biographical representation of John Brown. We are especially pleased that she agreed to an interview. We believe that her answers provide an invaluable perspective on the life and ongoing significance of John Brown.
Would you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a white, middle aged, middle class, college educated, urban, professional woman. I work in a creative industry and have never considered myself political. I’m a pretty good example of white privilege. I vote for progressive candidates and causes, and I pay my taxes, but I’m not an activist. I have no gift for leading or for following.
How did you come to know that you were related to John Brown?
I don’t remember. From my parents, I assume.
When you were growing up, what did you know about him?
I wasn’t very interested in history when I was growing up. The simplified story I learned from my family was that John Brown started the Civil War and helped end slavery in America. I was taught to view him as an important American figure, so I lumped him in my mind with Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln and all the other dead white men who didn’t seem especially relevant to my life. My father had a portrait of John Brown in his study – a print of the 1859 photograph in which he is standing with his hands in his pockets, looking very patrician. So he had a presence in my life as an ancestor on a wall, but it wasn’t until I was an adolescent that I took any interest in him, and that might have only been because a rock band called Kansas released an album with the John Steuart Curry mural of John Brown on the cover. I didn’t do any serious reading about him until I was well into adulthood, and I can’t say I’ve read all that seriously or deeply. There are plenty of people who are much more versed in the history and literature than I am. I don’t think that my DNA confers any special insight, but I’ve been thinking about him, on and off, for most of my life.
As a kid, I would sometimes mention my connection to John Brown – trying it on to impress people or show off – but most people never heard of him, and if they had heard of him, the first thing out of their mouths was usually, “Wasn’t he crazy?” Even among adults who understood his significance, I often got the vibe that he made them uncomfortable.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easy for middle class white kids like me to believe that the Civil Rights movement had succeeded. I was proud to be related to somebody instrumental in “ending slavery,” but I also internalized the prevailing cultural view of John Brown as a lunatic or terrorist. Maybe because of my exposure to the Curry mural, the kindly man from the photo in my father’s study was gradually displaced by the image of a wild-eyed madman wielding a broadsword, and I was actually sort of afraid of him. I worried that my father — who was a Quaker, a conscientious objector in the Korean War, and stalwart supporter of civil rights and liberties (and who bears a family resemblance) — might go crazy like John Brown and ask me to sacrifice my life for one of his causes. That sounds dumb, but this was a question that occupied a lot of my childhood thinking about him: How could any man sacrifice his own children to a cause, however great the cause? That’s hard for a kid to wrap her head around.
As an adult, I think that question was misguided, starting with the premise that John Brown sacrificed the lives of his children. Frederick was a casualty of the Kansas war. Watson and Oliver knew exactly what they were signing up for at Harpers Ferry, as did the other raiders, and countless other young men who later fought in the Civil War. And then, the whole idea of family and what we owe to our children was radically different in the first part of the nineteenth century from what it was in the 1970s.
As I grew older and started learning about history in public schools, I wondered why he was relegated to a few sentences in whole chapters about the Civil War. It seemed way out of proportion and I wondered if my family had exaggerated his significance. I also struggled to reconcile the story of Pottawatomie with the principles of pacifism and nonviolent resistance that my Quaker parents schooled me in. How was I supposed to embrace these ideals and also be proud of my relation to a man who presided over the gruesome execution of innocent men?
But again, my whole premise was wrong. I don’t advocate violence, but I don’t believe that John Brown advocated violence either. I do realize that he stockpiled weapons, planned for armed insurrection, and captained an army. But he wasn’t a violent man by temperament or by nature. He didn’t revel in bloodshed and violence. Rather, he saw the horrible violence being perpetrated against slaves, recognized that they lacked the political and economic power to change their circumstances, and saw it as his moral responsibility to act where they could not, through violence if necessary — not because he was an unhinged madman thirsty for blood, but because decades of diplomacy and playing by the rules hadn’t gained the abolitionist cause any real ground, and violence was the currency of the times. If the Missouri Compromise didn’t drive home that reality, the brutal assault of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate might have.
The family tradition has it that Frederick (Brown’s son) was murdered in Kansas, but I don’t think that’s correct. I also don’t think it’s correct to say that five men were murdered on Pottawatomie Creek. All of those deaths occurred in the context of war. That it was an unofficial, undeclared war makes it no less a war. All the free state settlers in Kansas were up against an entrenched system of state-sponsored terrorism, but historians would rather wag their fingers at John Brown and talk about Pottawatomie as a massacre or terrorism. The narrative is pretty well fixed in our culture, but it almost always leaves out the militarized context and the immediate, existential danger that Brown and his family were in. Not to mention the centuries of violence against nonwhites that provide the real backstory. Those five men on the Creek are important. Every life is important. Maybe they really were innocent settlers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not saying they deserved to die, but I think that the retrospective condemnations of Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie are lacking full context and disproportionate to the crime. Those men were casualties of a war that began well before John Brown arrived in Kansas.
Can you describe what other family members felt about him?
I can’t speak for anyone else in my family or for any other descendants. I’m personally fascinated by the lives of John Brown’s children and what became of them after Harpers Ferry. Almost all of them ended up out west – mostly California and Oregon. For all its purported liberalism and rugged individualism, the nineteenth century American west was built on a platform of white nationalism. The Brown family was supportive of the Chinese and Japanese immigrants they encountered. They never disavowed their father or his beliefs, but they also didn’t speak out publicly about black exclusion laws or the genocide of indigenous people. One of the reasons they came west, starting in the 1860s, was to hide. They literally had bounties on their heads. They were all pretty traumatized, dirt poor, and trying to eke out subsistence livings. So I think there’s a natural reticence, a reluctance to speak up, for reasons of personal safety. On the other hand, there’s a long tradition of John Brown’s children and grandchildren defending him in the press, trying to correct misinformation and shape the narrative, mostly to no effect. I think they were surprised and to some extent embittered by their disempowerment and ways in which their own roles were marginalized or forgotten in the evolving cultural narrative.
In my branch of the family, I don’t know of anyone who has shied away from the association. It’s an interesting factoid, but John Brown is still pretty much a footnote in mainstream history. I’m proud of who he was and what he did, but I can’t claim any credit for it personally. I just go about my ordinary life, but every once in a while I get my feathers ruffled and write letters to editors.
In your letter to The New Yorker, you suggest that John Brown’s real life and deeds have relevance for today. Can you tell us how you see that?
When it comes to what’s happening today on the streets of Portland or Louisville or New York, the inversions of truth that we see from the far-right media are dizzying. The accepted story of Pottawatomie is also very Trumpian and/or Orwellian. It’s nothing new. It has happened again and again throughout history. The tools of propaganda are employed to show that the victims of violence are perpetrators of violence. If we’re convinced that five white men were brutally murdered on Pottawatomie Creek in 1856, then we can divert attention from the political betrayal of the Missouri Compromise. Similarly, if we can be convinced that BLM protestors are anarchists and looters, then we don’t have to examine our individual complicity in perpetuating systemic racism.
There will always be people who take John Brown’s example to argue that violence should be met with violence. I don’t agree with that stance, and I don’t have patience with individuals and groups who advocate for violence in his name. That’s a reductive and shallow interpretation of his legacy. All societies arrive at moments in their histories when widespread violence appears inevitable. I don’t believe we’re presently at that tipping point, but I’m no visionary. We’re a much different society today than we were in the 1850s, despite the uncanny parallels. I want to think we’ve learned some things, and we’re not doomed to repeat the past, but I’m also horrified to note that we seem to be doing just that. Ask me after November 3, and again after January 20.
You also note the numerous distortions of John Brown’s life that suggest he was simply a madman. What’s your reaction to those distortions?
There’s a certain set of facts that gets routinely trotted out about John Brown—facts that are neutral on their face but are presented in a way to suggest that he was aberrant or unusual. It goes like this: John Brown had twenty children by two wives. He was an Old Testament style Calvinist who punished his children severely. He was a failed businessman who went bankrupt and struggled to provide for his family. He thought that God had personally called him to wage a war against slavery.
This has the cumulative effect of making him seem feckless, desperate, and delusional. But if it weren’t for the war against slavery, this would be a pretty typical biography for a man of his time, place, and social class. Families on the frontier had absurd numbers of children because there was no birth control and because so many of them died. Nine of John Brown’s children died in infancy and childhood, which wasn’t unusual. As for his business failures, he was actually quite successful and respected in his ventures as a tanner, stockbreeder, and wool merchant. His problem was that he speculated in land and then lost everything in the financial panic of 1837 when his creditors called in the notes. There were no bankruptcy protections, and John Brown was far from the only ruined man trying to claw his way back to solvency in the 1840s and 1850s.
As for being called by God to put an end to slavery, that’s a figure of speech. God spoke to him through the Bible. He didn’t suffer schizophrenic hallucinations. God didn’t whisper in his ear. That’s ridiculous. He was a deeply religious man, whose father – Owen Brown Sr., also an ardent abolitionist, who also had 20 children by two wives — had been evangelized during the Second Great Awakening. John Brown was filled with the Holy Spirit, but also with the Spirit of ‘76. His grandfather died while fighting in the Revolutionary War. So here was a man who knew his Bible, and knew his Constitution, and tried to live out the meaning of those creeds. As much as God mattered, it was his intense self-determination and resolve that was truly remarkable.
In almost every respect, John Brown was a typical man of the nineteenth century frontier. He was different, aberrant, and unusual – but not in the way he’s accused of. It wasn’t the size of his family, his religious fervor, his bankruptcy, his outspoken abolitionism, or his use of violence. What made him different was that he saw the abolition of slavery as a moral imperative. He wanted social equality for everyone – black, white, native – which was a radical view even among his abolitionist peers. Slavery was blatantly incompatible with the principles of liberty for which his forefathers fought and died. I happen to think he was right, and immensely sane on this point. He was, in my biased estimation, one of the most clear-sighted and courageous patriots our nation has ever produced.
As much as he was reviled by Southerners for his egalitarian views, they didn’t make him popular in the North either. Despite the opportunistic eulogizing after Harpers Ferry, there was also a fair amount of class snobbery and contempt directed at him and his family from abolitionist circles. I think that the moneyed abolitionists saw him as a useful idiot – an expendable foot soldier – and John Brown was willing to play along. He deliberately cultivated a fearsome and rustic persona when fundraising, so he’s at least partly responsible for some of the exaggerations and misrepresentations of his character. There was also a brief effort after Harpers Ferry to mount an insanity defense, which he roundly rejected. But nothing in the historical record suggests that John Brown was crazy. If we believe he was crazy, then we don’t have to take seriously his damning moral critique. That’s the situation, in a nutshell.
Can you tell us what your favorite books are about John Brown?
My list of non-favorites is a lot longer. There’s a known set of facts about him, and beyond that there is spin. Books about John Brown reveal more about the preoccupations of the person writing the book and the time period in which they wrote. The best way to get to know John Brown is to spend time with his letters, which are available in any number of editions and collections.
If you only have the bandwidth for one book about John Brown, I always recommend David Reynolds’ 2005 biography, John Brown, Abolitionist. It’s comprehensive, fact-based, and accessibly written. For fiction, try Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. It conflates characters, stretches and collapses time, and concocts a lot of scenes that never happened – but it’s a fairly plausible depiction of John Brown’s character, which I don’t think is true of The Good Lord Bird. I have nothing against that novel, by the way. It works on its own terms, as parody. It gave me a few chuckles when it was published in 2013, but now that we’re all living out the plot of a far-fetched dystopian novel, I’m less enamored of it. Now I’m deeply skeptical of the American will to distinguish history from fiction, character from caricature, or realism from parody. I expect the film will be viewed as history by many, and thanks to its cartoonish, “nuttier than a squirrel turd” portrayal, will serve to entrench the myth of John Brown’s insanity even more deeply in popular culture, which – again — gives us white people subtle permission to dismiss his very serious and very relevant warning. I hope I’m wrong.
Any advice for our readers?
*Featured image is from Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917 – 2000; To the people he found worthy of trust, he communicated his plans., no. 22 from The Legend of John Brown, 1977.