As readers of this blog know this year is the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. A huge number of events are planned to commemorate the occasion. I’ve read at least a half dozen books on Brown and am reading another right now (John Brown: Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds). None of that reading has sated my appetite for 1800’s abolitionism or put a break on the Brown pull on my imagination. Brown will always be talked about; misunderstood, understood but he can’t be ignored. Not even now.
In the above video lecture by historian David Blight Brown is placed in the context of Dred Scott and the growing and diverse movement opposing slavery or slavery’s extension in the 1850’s. Blight is an excellent resource on that period of revolution that transformed the United States in the 19th century. Below is the actor Josh Brolin reading Brown’s statement to the court before he would be sentenced to hang for treason in December of 1859.
John Brown was hung as a traitor by the United States government on December 2nd of that year. He and his surviving comrades were captured by a then Colonel Robert Lee. A few short years later soldiers of that government would be marching to war with Lee, the traitor, singing John Brown’s Body. Armed bodies of men would be pouring south, a slave uprising joined them. A dramatic shift. A revolutionary change. Brown’s plan worked, it just took a million more soldiers than he started with. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can do justice to the Julia Ward Howe civil war classic John Brown’s Body like Paul Robeson. But for my money David Rovics has written the best folk song on Brown, so good I’ll give it a repeat performance. And he wrote it 150 years after the Old Man was executed. Proof of Brown’s endurance I should say.
There are no excellent Civil War movies, a very few good ones and an overwhelming amount of trash. Did you know that none other than Johnny Cash played Brown in the awful television miniseries North and South? An inspired choice to play Osawatomie Brown, no doubt, but the movie also stars Morgan Fairchild, Patrick Swayze and Kirstie Allie along with a host of lesser known afternoon soap stars. Robert Guillaume as Frederick Douglass? Yikes. Avoid unless for laughs, but at 9 hours the laughs tend to trail off into tears after only a short while. Perhaps my worst Netflix decision ever. Whole days of my life lost, groaning in pain, and I didn’t even get to the Book II or III miniseries that followed. I’ll stop there as I’ve already given the Room 101ers too much information to use in potential future tortures.