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Connections with the Past:
Reflections on John Brown

Open Letter to Jean Libby on the essay
 "Not the Alamo--Seven Points About the Harpers Ferry Raid That You Should Know"

Louise A. DeCaro, Jr.

The Afrolumens Project has elsewhere published the essay by Louise A. DeCaro, Jr. on John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.  DeCaro, a highly respected and recognized John Brown scholar, presents the often controversial event as a first blow in a war of liberation, and places it up against a celebrated historical icon of American character: The Alamo.  DeCaro's comparison begs the question of why one event is widely celebrated over another.

Jean Libby, another John Brown historian, posted a response wherein she took issue with a few points raised by DeCaro.  This is Dr. DeCaro's defense of his points, and reply to the items mentioned by Libby.

For the original essay by Louise A. DeCaro, Jr., click here.  For Jean Libby's response, click here.  For more articles and correspondence on John Brown, see the letters from Jean Libby.

Dear Jean:

Thank you for your thoughtful criticism of my "Seven Points" concerning the 147th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid.

With respect to the Alamo, I realize that I stepped into a quagmire of historical debate and that I am not a scholar of that theme or region. However let me continue to speak from a level of simplicity, which is where I tend to live most of the time (smile).

1.  I never suggested that Santa Anna and the Mexican government as it was in 1836 was morally upstanding or otherwise representative of "the good guys."  Nor was I defending the regime then in control of Mexico per se. My argument, however, is based upon the issue of American hypocrisy, and in that sense I would argue that my point remains substantially true.

The American male leadership that perished at the Alamo represented pro-slavery interests and envisioned expanding new frontiers for slavery. They had other goals and interests to be sure. They also had their "redeeming qualities" too. However, with all due respect, none of the facts concerning Mexico's regime under Santa Anna negate the essential American hypocrisy that I intended to highlight. The Alamo--for the slave power in the U.S.--represented the hopeful advancement of slave territory. This is why I celebrate the suppression of the "Alamo movement" (if you will) and disdain what it represents in the popular mindset of our nation. John Brown opposed the war with Mexico from the American side, precisely because he recognized the ambition of the pro-slavery side moving within American foreign policy. I am sorry Jean, but while I would assent that the Alamo must be portrayed responsibly with historical accuracy in detail, your apparent denial that the Alamo does not represent white supremacy seems to evade the point.

The fact of white supremacy in the expansion of North American interests throughout history does not deny other aspects, including good ones. From your vantage point, I suppose we could argue that the Alamo patriots were fighting to bring democracy to a society held captive by a totalitarian general. But does this change the fact that these same Alamo patriots would happily have subjected Africans to chattel slavery had they gotten their way?  Did not their immediate heirs do so?  In principle we're talking about the larger story of our nation, of course, and if it was wrong for our nation to found a republic based on slave labor, then it was wrong for the proto-Texans to think to do the same. So I would respectfully stand my ground on this point. The fall of the Alamo, like the defeat of the Confederacy, was a good thing, even if the victors themselves were less than noble. The failure of John Brown at Harper's Ferry was a tragedy, especially because he came so close to launching the most authentic and morally justifiable freedom movement in our nation's history--even more justifiable than the American Revolution (which I personally question from a moral standpoint, although the Old Man would disagree with me).

2.  As to the Harper's Ferry raiders, I thank you for scoring me on my careless phrasing and historical inaccuracy. I indeed forgot (heaven forbid) that Shields Green had also left family behind when he escaped. However the point I was trying to make, however poorly, was that apart from Newby (and Green), these noble young men who comprised Brown's little army were there on principle and stood to gain nothing personally, from their struggle--in contrast to the white American males who died at the Alamo. NOR did I suggest, or mean to suggest, that Newby (and Green) were not abolitionists by principle. I assumed they were. Again, my point was poorly made, which was simply that most of these marvelous young men had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and that they are to be admired as the greatest Americans rather than dismissed and condemned while Jim Bowie and his kind are glorified in American memory.

Jean, I think our difference is one of letter not spirit. We are working together on John Brown documentation and in opposing the fundamental lack of fairness and truthfulness among conventional scholarship with respect to John Brown. We are claiming the 21st century for John Brown and our numbers are growing across lines of political and ideological perspective. I salute you not only for your scholarly achievements and expertise as the foremost Brown documentary scholar (perhaps second only to the late Boyd Stutler), but also your generosity of spirit. You have become so much a part of the John Brown study that I cannot even imagine it without you . . . . I remain

Your friend in truth,

Lou DeCaro Jr.

1. Received in email correspondence, Louise A. DeCaro, Jr. to the Afrolumens Project, 23 October 2006.

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This page was updated October 25, 2006.