A few days ago I commented on a passage from the 1938 book Man Against Himself by psychoanalyst Karl Menninger (1893-1990) dealing with criminal behavior by police.
In another section of that book dealing with ascetics and martyrs, he offered this notably unsympathetic and not especially accurate description of anti-slavery fighter John Brown. His description is an example of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, coming in this case from a white man who expresses quite liberal views on other issues in the book:
One of the heroes of my state, John Brown, led a famous fight against slavery; for twenty years he went about in poverty, exhorting, pleading, fighting, burning, and killing before he himself was finally hanged, convicted of treason and murder. His was the true martyr spirit; several times before the day of his sentence he said, "I am worth now infinitely more to hang than for any other purpose." It was as if his bent from the first had been to die for the cause to which he had devoted his fierce, hawk-like spirit. His lawyer wrote of him, " . . . He answers that he would not walk out if the jail door were left wide open . .. . Yes, I believe it best to give up hope of rescuing our old friend. For he wants to hang! Heaven save his soul, the old man wants to hang!" [my emphasis]Old John Brown, performed by the Magpies:
There are numerous good biographies of Brown. I'll mention here David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005) and the collection His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995), Paul Finkelman, ed.
I also posted a number of times about John Brown and the events in which he played a key part in my Confederate "Heritage" Month series of 2006, which can be found in the earlier version of this blog starting here, Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 8: The troubles in Kansas (1) 04/08/2006.
Menninger cites his information to Leonard Ehrlich's God's Angry Man (1932). Menninger's brief summary illustrates some of the hazards of psychohistory as well as the influence of the neo-Confederate, Lost Cause version of American history. The facts of Brown's life hardly support the notion that "his bent from the first had been to die for the cause." Brown grew up in an antislavery and religious household. Yet he was well into his thirties before he became particularly engaged in the cause as an adult. Even at Harpers Ferry, Brown's plan had been to take his band of fighters into the Appalachian mountains and organize the escape of slaves as a way to destabilize the slavery system and terrorize the slaveowners. Once he was caught and saw there was no hope of escape, he staged his martyr role very well. But there's little obvious reason to believe that was his conscious intent.
While Brown wandered about the country, pursuing his vision with intrepid and fanatical zeal, his patient wife struggled with cold, hunger, and wretched poverty on a bleak Adirondack farm. There were thirteen children in the family, nine of whom died. They lived in a leaky, unplastered house and came close to starvation in the long hard winters without money or food. When the sons were old enough to be of use to their father he sent for them and bid them sacrifice themselves in his holy war. Their mother's mild protest at giving up the son who had manfully tried to take his father's place as head of the house, assuming responsibilities too heavy for his young shoulders, was ruthlessly thrust aside before the demands of what Brown considered the right.This picture of Brown as an artitrary fanatic, more-or-less abusive of his passive family, scarcely resembles the real man. One would never know that Mary Brown, his wife, fully shared Brown's active hatred of slavery. Nor that one of the ways both she and he were unusual for that time was that they were also supporters of equal rights for women. And there is good evidence they had a more egalitarian relationship than was common for marriages of their time.
The picture of Brown's economic condition is a favorite part of the Lost Cause image of him as a loser. But he was active in the tanning business he had learned from his father as well as in other business ventures. He was not born into wealth like many famous American leaders like Thomas Jefferson. Who also, by the way, fell on hard economic times late in life.
There is no evidence that he compelled his adult children to participate in the struggle against their will. Though obviously, a father's influence can be great.
I was struck by Menninger's obviously disapproving description of his taking part in the antislavery fight and neglecting his wife and family to do so. Alfred Maund in a 1957 essay on Brown ("John Brown's Legacy" in American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities, Harvey Goldberg, ed.) notes that he first took a sympathetic view of Brown when he read these words from his famous courtroom speech that are relevant to this point:
Had I interceded in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved ... had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and ·suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right. Every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. ...Fanatic or not, martyr complex or not, what he said there was true.
I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say-Let it be done.
Could we not give the same description of American soldiers today? Especially of the many reservists mobilized for the Iraq War? They often had to leave their wives and husbands and their personal businesses. Family problems and failed businesses were two common problems returning soldiers encountered. But who would describe them as losers and fanatics because of that? On the contrary, every politician and seemingly every private individual bends over backward to "honor the troops" demonstratively. Were Brown's actions and sacrifices in antebellum days against slavery and for democracy really contemptible and self-evidently fanatical in comparison to American soldiers today whose service we honor even when the real-world causes for which they are fighting aren't always so obviously virtuous?
At one time this son wrote his father that his brothers were busy with their own families and would not fight in such a bloody, hopeless cause any more. They had known what it was to be hunted for their lives in Kansas, to be browbeaten by their stern father, "the most dreaded man in the territory," to go to prison for their father's murders, deeds which sickened them. One son had gone mad. Another had been shot. But still their father held them grimly to his purpose. "Tell my sons despite they are set strong against me I do not release them," he wrote. Nor did he, for two of them died terrible deaths at Harpers Ferry under siege. When a thousand men surrounded the town and the odds were hopelessly against Brown's handful of men, he refused to surrender but sent one of his young men out to treat with the enemy to put a stop to the firing. The man was promptly taken prisoner. Brown then sent out his own son, the lad whom his mother had depended upon and tried to keep with her, to negotiate with the troops. He was shot down, fatally wounded before · his father's eyes, and dragged himself painfully back to the arsenal to die a lingering death. Still the old man refused to surrender and was taken by force. There seemed to be in him no pity for his sons, no softening when they begged him to let them go and live in peace.This last section sheds important light on Menninger's perspective as well as the limitations of psychohistory.
Over and over again in the histories of the martyrs one finds this insensitiveness to the suffering of loved ones. Great explorers and scientists have thrown aside the closest family ties and responsibilities to undertake lonely expeditions and dangerous missions. [my emphasis]
Psychoanalysis looks at the roots of behavior in physically-based instinctual drives and the individual's personal experiences with family and other members of society. Those experiences involve adaptation of impulses to the limitations of the real world. So, as Menninger discusses with a variety of conditions, self-destructive tendencies can be channeled into anti-social and literally self-destructive tendencies and others into more socially constructive kinds of sacrifices.
But describing socially constructive or socially approved self-sacrifice as resulting for some kind of base or irrational motivation is hard to do without casting aspersions on the nature of the activity itself. Talking about deciding to join the US Armed Forces because of sublimated sadism or self-destructive tendencies would probably not be taken generally as praise for the willingness of the soldiers to serve their country.
But talking about the psychological roots of behavior doesn't in themselves invalidate the causes to which people dedicates themselves. The added problem is that psychology tends to have a bias toward the conventional. Conformity is from society's viewpoint generally a successful adaptation to life. Nonconformity of any kind is from society's outlook potentially a bad adaptation, even a threatening one. In some cases, such as serial killers, they very obviously are bad adaptations from a rational point of view.
But judging an individual like John Brown, especially from the vantage point of 2015, can't be adequately done from a perspective that conventional=healthy, unconventional=unhealthy. (I'm oversimplifying for brevity. Karl Menninger was scarcely that simplistic in his approach.)
John Brown in the 1850s believed in the equality of men and women, including black men and women. Today that is such a conventional official ideology in the United States that even advocates of laws permitting discrimination usually feel compelled in public to profess some form of that belief.
But in his own time, those were genuinely radical beliefs whose adherence put one in a small minority in society and a even tinier minority among white men. Even many committed Abolitionists did not believe in the equality of blacks and whites, much less that of women and men. The fact that most white Abolitionists were open to some form of colonization scheme to move freed slaves out of the United States while most black Abolitionist activists flatly opposed it as an obviously bad idea is an illustration of how unconventional Brown was in that regard.
But what he right or wrong in holding those beliefs? By the standards of 2015, he clearly was. And the vast majority of his fellow Americans were less right than he in that perspective. And even ten years after his execution, his ideas of racial equality and especially his hatred of slavery had become far more widely accepted among whites in the North and even the South.
Retroactively evaluating Brown's actions is complex and be no means one on which there is consensus today. I have dealt with that in some detail in earlier posts on him.
But any realistic framework for judging him politically, historically or ethically in his antislavery fight has to take into account that slaveowners understood their system as one that had to expand or die. And representative democracy as established in the Constitution of 1789 was not going to survive the continuing existence of chattel slavery.