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A Missing Voice

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd edited a book called The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. (Stauffer wrote The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, which I found valuable although I disagreed with its argument.) Christopher Benfey reviewed The Tribunal in The New York Review of Books on March 7 of this year. David Reynolds wrote a letter in response to Benfey’s review, which was published in the May 9th issue. (Reynolds, in addition to Beneath the American Renaissance, a marvelous study of the popular sources of great American literature, wrote John Brown, Abolitionist, the only biography of Brown fit to stand alongside W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic.) Benfey replied to Reynolds. Their exchange is at I have read neither The Tribunal nor Benfey’s review. The following was written in response to the exchange between Benfey and Reynolds.


To the editors:

A voice missing from the exchange over John Brown (May 9) is that of Wendell Phillips, who, while not one of Brown’s inner circle, neither fled the country nor checked into a madhouse after Harpers Ferry but stood defiantly in a church in Brooklyn two weeks later and declared that “the lesson of the hour is insurrection.” “Connecticut,” he continued, “has sent out many a schoolmaster to the other thirty states, but never before so grand a teacher as that Litchfield-born schoolmaster at Harpers Ferry, writing as it were upon the Natural Bridge, in the face of nations, his simple copy, ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.’”

A month later, in a speech at Brown’s graveside, Phillips predicted, “History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harpers Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months – a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree.”

Benfey reminds us that the South started the Civil War. Phillips anticipated that, too. In the same speech he said that Brown had “startled the South into madness.”

A year later, after Lincoln’s election, Phillips said that “for the first time in our history the slave has chosen a President. John Brown was behind the curtain.”

The slave system bred rebellion, which brought repression, which forced black people to flee the South, which gave rise to a black community in the north, which was the basis of Abolitionism, which engendered John Brown, who provoked Southern retaliation, which compelled the north to resist, which led to Lincoln’s election… and the war came.

In a scene that has become familiar thanks to the PBS series “The Abolitionists,” Shields Greene, the escaped slave who was present when Brown tried to persuade Frederick Douglass to join him at Harpers Ferry, when Douglass stood up to go said, “I believe I go wid de old man.” As Lerone Bennett, who recounted the incident in his essay “Tea and Sympathy: Liberals and Other White Hopes” (included in The Black Mood), explained, Greene went with Brown not because he believed in Brown’s plan but because he believed in Brown. Some people will never understand that.

The most exquisite touch in Benfey’s reply to Reynolds is his quoting from “John Brown’s Body” to support his “nuanced” view. It is of a piece with his calling upon Sean Wilentz writing in The New Republic. Ah, The New Republic, where without sneering they teach the rest to sneer. Benfey’s references to Syria and Srebrenica demonstrate the truth of C.L.R. James’s adage that historical controversy is always contemporary. Russell Banks, asked why he chose to write a novel about Brown, explained that he was interested in the one figure all white people think was crazy and all black people regard as a hero, adding that if Brown was not crazy, it says a lot about the country. In any case, it was not for his madness that Brown was hung but for taking seriously the injunction to ”remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.”

I believe I go with the old man, and Phillips, and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, and Du Bois, and Malcolm X, and Bennett and Banks, and Reynolds.

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