The Good Lord Bird: John Brown’s militant abolitionism

Bill Crane looks at the life of militant US abolitionist John Brown and his portrayal in a recent TV adaptation of James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird.

Image: William Gray/Showtime

Who was John Brown?

John Brown was a Christian, and by the standards of our time a bigoted one. He was a descendant of the original settlers of New England, the separatist Puritans—later in life, he would take on the mantle, for some who met him, of Oliver Cromwell—raised in their orthodox Calvinist faith, with a special liking for the Old Testament.

As a devout Calvinist, John Brown believed in the doctrine of the elect, that some humans are chosen by God from the Creation for salvation, while the rest are damned. Faith gave this doctrine its Church, its most famous later analyst, Max Weber correctly perceived that the doctrine of predestination found its expression among believers in the frenetic search for signs that God had chosen them, in its most vulgar terms, earthly success, capital accumulation.

John Brown was no exception to this rule. Like Weber’s archetypal Calvinist, he sought high and low for signs that he had been chosen. Yet these beliefs were frustrated at practically every turn. He took seriously the revelations of the Pentateuch—particularly Noah’s commandment of Genesis 8:17, ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.’ By three different wives he had 21 children. But eight of them died in childbirth or shortly thereafter (later, three more would die alongside him in battle).

By inclination and belief, he was also drawn to those more vulgar expressions of Calvinism. At times he was a farmer, a shepherd, a tanner, an entrepreneur in each of these as well as import and export, roaming between New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kansas. Each of his business ventures were met with absolute failure, and he was at several points in front of a debtor’s court.

His search for salvation ended in the abolitionist cause, and it is through this he is known to history. A quintessential Northern settler of the post-Revolutionary War period, he had long believed, like his father before him, that slavery was a direct threat to his own petty-bourgeois livelihood. An immigrant to the newly opened territory of Ohio, John Brown fought in the Congregationalist Church for the condemnation of slavery and was expelled from the parish as a result. He never attended a single church regularly again.

Nevertheless, when John Brown entered the midwestern abolitionist movement, he was more known for his religious sectarianism than for much in the way of activist accomplishment—he was more serious about the business of saving souls than the cause of freedom, a fault he would admit to in later years. As an initiate, he also wrote a series of letters in a local paper entitled ‘To Sambo,’ which called on the proverbial childish Black to absorb Christian values and set out, as Brown had himself, on a Christian quest for self-redemption.

So much was typical for a predominantly white US abolitionist movement, capitalist and settler-imperialist, following in the footsteps of its greater British predecessor. But the response to the column he wrote from Black ex-slaves and free folk turned his head. Though he abandoned his paternalism only over some time, Brown admitted in his heart that the ex-slave could and should be the actor of their own liberation.

In his work as a surveyor, he began to explore the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, adjacent to slave territory in Virginia, with an eye towards settling there a utopian colony of ex-slaves living by the religious principles he embraced—on a smaller scale, something similar was attempted by ex-slaves he assisted on the Underground Railroad around his own family farm in North Elba, New York. Through his tireless advocacy for the slave’s cause, he met Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, with whom he corresponded regularly.

In his writings (mostly letters to family and fellow activists) of the period 1848-1851, along with his growing conviction in the goal of immediate emancipation for the US slave, we read his repeated, emphatic citation of a verse from Paul: ‘And almost all things are by the law purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Hebrews 9:22), coupled with a commandment from the Pentateuch: ‘So ye shall not pollute the land in which ye are: for blood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him who shed it’ (Numbers 35:33).

In 1856, convinced of the claim Free-Soilers (opponents of the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States), John Brown moved his family along with those of two of his sons to Kansas. It is at this point his story meets up with the adaptation by Showtime of James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel, The Good Lord Bird.

The real John Brown

‘All of This is True. Most of It Happened.’

The above subtitle graces the intro sequence of The Good Lord Bird. For this reason, it is important precisely to establish the identity of John Brown, as we have in the above section, for the stunning writing and portrayal by Ethan Hawke can, if we let them, crowd out and silence the historical figure. John Brown commanded successful raids against slaver settlers from Missouri in Potawatomie and Osawatomie (both of whose names he would preface his own with in subsequent publicity tours). As such he was appointed Captain in the free-state militia, a title he also carried with him.

Political developments in the rest of the nation heralded greater things for John Brown. The republic, barely 70 years old, was cracking up along the free/slave axis, and he had planted in the first with both feet. He began to revisit his earlier plan of a passage for escaped slaves through western Virginia, consolidated by a prosperous Black community in Pennsylvania and New York, to the freer air of New England and Canada.

Such a scheme was written implicitly in the charter of the Underground Railroad. Brown, increasingly convinced of the righteousness of immediate self-emancipation, focused on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the site of the largest federal arsenal, and from this angle began to construct a plan that would join his earlier ‘Subterranean Pass-Way’ with expected revolts in the heartlands of the South—the Carolinas, Mississippi—which would bleed the Slave Power dry. At the seizure of Harper’s Ferry and the swift spread of news that Captain John Brown was arming slaves, the slaves would come to be armed—as Brown had read in histories of Spartacus’ rising against Rome and the Haitian Revolution. They would retreat into the Alleghenies to spark further revolts. (Shaken in a kaleidoscope, the above is what took place in the United States from 1861-1865. A novel by sci-fi author Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain, explores the history of what might have been had the kaleidoscope been shaken slightly. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.)

We meet John Brown in the world of The Good Lord Bird through Henry Shackleford, an ex-slave who Brown and his sons liberate at the Potawatomie raid. Brown and his boys mistake Shackleford for a girl named Onion. Why indeed the fictional Shackleford, who serves as the narrator of McBride’s novel should have been chosen as the lens through which we see some of the most dramatic events of US history is left without justification—any one of the several free Black men who served alongside Brown, for example John Copeland, could have provided a better lens, in any case truer to how things happened.

That Onion is mistaken for a girl provides much of the series’ ribald humour. It largely falls flat. It is questionable in the first place, these days, to make a man dressed as a woman the punchline of jokes that turn the plot of a book, movie or miniseries. If this were all to the device it would be offensive enough: however, Black characters throughout The Good Lord Bird are easily able to tell Onion is a boy; Brown and his sons, and indeed his daughter cannot.

The occasional remark made by Onion to Brown and the other main characters make it clear that this is a deliberate choice on the writers’ part: Onion has been mistaken as a girl in order to demonstrate the Browns ‘think all Black people look alike’ in particular, in general to show the foolhardiness of their mission. Several remarks by Onion to Brown as they trawl the abolitionist fundraising circuit in between the events of Osawatomie and Harper’s Ferry, that her [his] master who took him to Kansas was ‘kind’ and that ‘she [he] never saw violence’ before encountering the Browns make this interpretation the likelier of the ones available. In another aside, Onion complains of Brown that ‘everybody got to make a speech about the Negro except the Negro.’

We might usefully contrast this attempt to use the contemporary language of ’identity’ politics against Brown and his men with what Brown’s Black comrades thought of him. In The Good Lord Bird, we first encounter Frederick Douglass as a habitual sot who drunkenly tries to seduce the 14 year-old Onion. So, what did this Negro think of John Brown? In an address to the graduates of Storer College, an historically Black college founded near the site of the raid over a decade later Douglass said:

‘I have talked with many men on the subject of slavery, but I remember no one who seemed so deeply excited upon that subject as Captain John Brown. He would pace the room with agitation at the mention of the word. He saw its evil through no mist, haze or clouds, but in a broad light of infinite brightness, which left no line of its ten thousand horrors out of sight. His zeal in the cause of my race was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the silent shores of eternity. I could speak for the slave, John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.’

Although this address by Douglass is partially quoted in an aside at the final episode of The Good Lord Bird, for some reason I cannot fathom the writers have replaced ‘his zeal in the cause of my race’ with ‘his zeal in the cause of freedom.’ Fortunately, they are for the most part accurate on what follows:

‘Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harper’s Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harper’s Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause.’

The other time we encounter Frederick Douglass during The Good Lord Bird, he earnestly attempts to dissuade Brown from the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Frustrated, he lashes out that Brown is a ‘fanatic’ compared to himself, a ‘realist.’ History actually tells us that Douglass regretted only that he was not personally brave enough to join in the raid himself.

Image: William Gray/Showtime

‘Nuttier than a Squirrel Turd’

There is much more I could be saying about The Good Lord Bird were I a culture critic and not an historian. The performance by Ethan Hawke needs no commendation from me. I will even grant that until the story departs from Kansas, it is both accurately and dramatically told. But there are too many parts of ‘most of it happened’ that could never conceivably have happened. A Missourian pro-slave settler like Chase (Steve Zahn, episodes 1 and 2) could never have had the idea to propose marriage to a Black sex worker. Nor would his community have likely entertained a debate between a white preacher and a Black woman insurgent on the merits of slavery in their saloon/brothel—although the atmosphere of amoral debauchery is doubtless true to life and would have been appreciated by Brown.

These are cases in which being truer to history could have actually made for better TV. Brown was gravely wounded at Harper’s Ferry, where two of his sons and almost a dozen of his companions were killed. He was nursed back to health and put on trial for his life, a month during which he determined to serve as a martyr for the slave’s cause through Disunion of the US As he wrote to his executioner: ‘I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.’ Inexplicably, writers of The Good Lord Bird did not see fit to devote so much as a second to this setting.

Most of white educated opinion in the US in the aftermath of Harper’s Ferry singularly failed to understand Brown or his mission. Especially in the South, the opinion that he was only a fanatic or labouring under some form of insanity was common. Abraham Lincoln and the moderate wing of the new Republican party, keen on avoiding being stained with Brown’s radicalism, were also eager to dismiss him as being out of his right mind. Even Brown’s own lawyers, during the trial, attempted to gain a reprieve from the death penalty through an insanity defence, which the Old Man swatted down from his sickbed laid in the courtroom. But the official judgement of the court of public opinion is harder to negate, and the idea that Brown was insane or fanatical has passed into the US’ history books.

Onion repeats in the first and last episodes of The Good Lord Bird essentially this judgement: ‘The Old Man was nuttier than a squirrel turd.’ It is easy to agree, and in accordance with the secular spirit of today’s age, to say that a man who believed himself an instrument in God’s hands for the destruction of slavery, indeed one who believed he talked personally with his Creator regularly on the topic, likely had one or more screws loose.

From the condescension that over 150 years has given us, it is even easier to dispense this verdict than it must have been for the ordinary white newspaperman of the antebellum U.S. But despite our own beliefs, we must take seriously the religiosity of Brown and people like him, if you need use the word, his fanaticism, when we deal in historical matters. After all, the nineteenth century was filled with prophets, seers, men and women who believed they spoke with God regularly and that Providence guided their actions. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was one among the many commanders of the Confederate Army that marched to war to defend slavery who believed he spoke with his Creator and saw himself as a tool in God’s hands.

The first insight leads to another. EP Thompson posited that the alternative to ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ would be the recognition that ‘we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves’ and that therefore ‘our only criterion of judgement should be whether or not man’s actions are justified’ in the light of that subsequent evolution.

‘I Now Think Vainly…’

Perhaps several dozen church bells tolled in the United States to commemorate Brown’s hanging. As he foresaw in the words the screenwriters have given him, he would do far more in the five minutes it took to die by hanging from the neck than he had done for the cause that animated him than in the previous fifty-nine years of his life on earth. Several years would go by and U.S. troops would march to battle singing, ‘John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave…’

The largest immediate commemoration for him took place in another country entirely. Historian Laurent DuBois tells us how, in December 1859, Haitian President Fabre Geffard was one of many attending an ‘elaborate official funeral’ for John Brown in Port-au-Prince. The Old Man, a staunch Calvinist, might or might not have found some humour in the fact that it was a Catholic bishop who preached a ‘rousing eulogy’ dedicating him as ‘a martyr for the cause of Blacks.’

Although John Brown never visited Haiti, Haiti had visited him. At the lectures he funded his escapades with, he enjoyed recounting the details of the slave insurrection to his audiences. It was the example of Haiti that convinced Brown that at the proper signal, such as a raid of the federal arsenal, enslaved people would rise as one. Similarly, the story of the army led by Boukman and Jean-François, which attacked and burned Le Cap before retreating into the mountains, provided him with a strategy to follow the raid in case of success. In the month before his execution, one of the books he reread for consolation, along with the Bible, was a biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Brown’s imaginative voyage to Haiti helps us to recall him as he was. Not just as a dedicated opponent of slavery: there were many of these about, many of them radical, like Brown, some of them willing like him to countenance violence, but who dreamed of deporting freed Blacks to Africa. He was one of the vanishingly small minority of white abolitionists who believed, before overwhelming evidence would make it plain, that the enslaved person could be the subject as well as the object of their own freedom.

Put this way, the real figure of John Brown emerges from behind both the historical curios portrayed by Ethan Hawke and the guilty conscience of white America to embody some of the elements of our best selves. ‘In some of the lost causes of the people,’ or the reversed ones, in the Industrial Revolution and the era of industrial US slavery alike, ‘we may discover insights into social evils we have yet to cure.’ His truth is marching on.


Bill Crane is a revolutionary socialist, academic historian in training, and member of the Graduate Employees Organization-American Federation of Teachers—Local 6300 in Urbana, Illinois.

The Good Lord Bird premiered on 4 October 2020 on Showtime.

1 COMMENT

  1. According to W E B DuBois’ biography. Brown went to Kansas to fight against slavery. He had already begun to plan for the slave uprising in the Alleghenies, but interrupted his planning to go Kansas with guns.

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