Monday, March 5, 2012

Should John Brown Have a Monument?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

When John Brown was hanged in December 1859 - church bells across New England tolled for abolition's martyr. During the Civil War, Union soldiers marched off to battle with his name upon their lips. "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave...." But he committed treason - he planned an insurrection intent on the murder of American citizens.

I posed the question on Facebook and Twitter as to whether or not John Brown should have a monument and got a number of thoughtful responses. I should point out, as did fellow Civil War historian and blogger Scott MacKenzie, that there are a number of monuments and markers already out there. Early twentieth century monuments in Osawatomie, Kansas and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia offer limited (although differing) analyses of Brown's role in the coming conflagration. If you are among those who subscribe to the idea that our understanding of the past is really a reflection of the present and a reflection of place, perhaps this makes sense.

How then, would our twenty-first century sensibilities inform a new monument to Brown, if one were so conceived? We (most of us, anyway) think emancipation was a good thing. We also live in a world threatened by terrorism. What then do we say about Brown? And where do we say it? Most who commented on my several posts yesterday agree that a comprehensive memorial denoting the fight to end slavery - including Brown - would be best. Memorializing the man would be tough for some people, while they could still celebrate his sentiments overall. And Harper's Ferry would be the most appropriate spot. We would of course have to  highlight what he thought would become of a nation plagued by the institution - and be crystal clear concerning exactly what he was prepared to do to end it.

Can we do so without judgment? Can we provide the information and let the informed public decide? Controversy would undoubtedly ensue - but when something like this gets people fired up, then it was probably done right. We may all just have to wait and see what happens. As it stands, I know of no plans....

I will ask you this. Would you support a new monument to Brown? If so, what would you want it to look like? What would be involved?




  1. If Brown's raid were an attempt to free 20,000 whites being held in legal bondage by Latinos inNew Mexico he would unambiguously be hailed as a hero today. We rarely disqualify the authors of violence from monumentation simply based on their choice of means unless their subjects of their concern are non-white.

  2. Christopher Hitchens in a book review on the virtues of John Brown (you've probably read this)

    Professor Simpson once asked in a post or in his comments rather or not John Brown should be pardoned? My answer at the time was no, because you shouldn't pardon murder or what today would be criminalized as terrorism. I still stand by this position.

    However, I do think he's a worthy subject for iconography. He was way out in front on the right side of history.

  3. whether or not... oops

  4. Too many people don't know or care about our history. As I read this with my dad, we think the challenge might be having an informed public make a decision. I don't think everyone needs to be passionate about history like me, but you should know there was a WWI before we had WWII, and basic information about the Civil War. It is sad to me that some 6th graders can't answer the question, who fought in America's Civil War?

    I don't know the answer to your question, but dad and I talked about it for a hour in the car and I will learn more about it. Dad said that is what is really more important is that people get interested and become informed and we debate and discuss peacefully and learn from it. I think what he did was important and to a point heroic, but maybe not the right way to do it.


    Of course the above comes from a 12-year old who has the song, "John Brown's Body" loaded on his iPod. Before you post things like this again, give me a month to get ready to answer his questions and have the discussion with him. It's hard when you're not as smart as your son. :-) Andrew's dad. PS - I appreciate your engaging him in learning.

  5. Hi Andrew - thank you for your thoughtful comments. I also find it troubling that kids (and adults) do not have an understanding of their most basic history. Shortly after the Civil War, comrades of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, put together what they called "Patriotic Instruction." Their goal was to teach children what the Civil War was all about - they had essay contests and everything. You can see some of the essays at the Veterans Museum in Madison Wisconsin if you are ever there. I'll post some on the blog later - you have inspired me!'s been a long time since these guys were around but I find it interesting that nothing like this exists outside of schools anymore. I suppose the importance has faded with the general public.
    I am happy that you are enjoying Cosmic America - and that I am giving you some things to think about.

    Andrew's dad...iPods were far in the future when I was 12, but I can assure you that I was very much like Andrew in other ways - I spent countless hours discussing the war with my folks, my grandparents, and anybody who would listen, really. It looks like you have a young historian on your hands :)

  6. Nathan Bedford Forrest has a monument and park in Memphis. John Brown should have one as well.