Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2020

John Brown’s Puritanical roots

Filed under: Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

When I discovered that Showtime had scheduled a series devoted to John Brown, my first reaction was positive. With so much of public opinion moving against white supremacy, it was about time that the abolitionist got a favorable fictional treatment, especially since he had been treated as a destructive fanatic by Hollywood. The 1940 “Santa Fe Trail” was typical. In my 2012 review, I noted:

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

After watching a trailer for the Showtime series titled “The Good Lord Bird”, I felt cheated once again. Unlike the 1940 film in which Brown is depicted as a fanatical terrorist, this time he is much more of a tragicomic buffoon. Watch the trailer and you’ll see Ethan Hawke chewing the scenery.

To my dismay, I saw that Jacobin’s film critic Eileen Jones described it as “good as you hoped”. Despite being a Berkeley professor (or maybe because of), I find her judgements questionable at best. In this case, it was wretched. This is how she saw it:

The series seems to have been designed for me personally, so of course I love it — from the spaghetti Western–style animated opening credit sequence to the gospel music-filled score to every last spittle fleck flying out of John Brown’s mouth as he calls upon the might of the Lord to help him smite the slavers. But I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of you.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it leaves me sick to my stomach.

Totally enraged by the left consensus on this trash, I resolved to read the novel it was based on and a newish biography by David S. Reynolds titled “John Brown: Abolitionist”. The novel was written by an African-American named James McBride that won a National Book Award in 2013. I’ll have much more to say about it later on but suffice it to say that it depicts Frederick Douglass as a drunken pedophile.

I am now reading Reynolds’s biography and can recommend it highly. He describes it as a “cultural biography”, which is a term he coined to describe a methodology in which the subject is placed in a historical context. To get an idea of the richness of his understanding of John Brown and his cultural context, let me cite the first few pages of chapter two, which deals with Brown’s roots in Puritanism.


A Southern political cartoon of 1863 spoke volumes about the paranoia John Brown had aroused in the Confederacy. The cartoon, titled “Worship of the North,” pictures an altar with the word PURITANISM blazoned across its base and FREE-LOVE, SPIRIT RAPPING, ATHEISM, and NEGRO WORSHIP on the bricks above it. On the altar sits an ugly Lincoln, beside whom lies the dying American Union. Flanking the altar are antislavery leaders of the Republican Party, including Charles Sumner and William Henry Seward. An African in tribal dress looms at the side of the group holding an odd-looking spear. Hovering over all are Satan and a statue of John Brown, both also holding spears.

The cartoon illustrates the often-neglected fact that the Civil War was far more than a struggle between the North and the South over social issues such as slavery, economics, and states rights. These social issues were intensified by profound cultural differences, real and perceived. John Brown was at the epicenter of this conflict.

The South’s view of him as a demonic Northerner is made clear in the cartoon, where his statue stands like an idol above the altar on the same level as Satan. From the South’s perspective, the “Worship of the North” was devil worship, and John Brown was Satan’s main accomplice.

The spears held by the statue, Satan, and the African represent the pikes John Brown had distributed at Harpers Ferry among the blacks he temporarily freed from slavery. He had designed the pikes, made of bowie knives attached to poles, to be used as weapons by the blacks against white pursuers. For Southerners, the John Brown pike epitomized the twin horrors of Northern aggression and slave revolts.

The other images in the cartoon were also linked with the satanic Brown. Lincoln and his antislavery cronies, from this Southern perspective, were Brown’s worshipers. The moribund American Union was his victim. The armed African was the product of his raid, as was the North’s sympathy for blacks, parodied in the racist phrase NEGRO WORSHIP.

The remaining words on the altar indicated the depth of the South’s hostility. SPIRIT RAPPING and FREE-LOVE were two of the countless “isms” the South associated with Northern society. Movements such as spiritualism, free love, Fourierism, Transcendentalism, and women’s rights had, in fact, sprouted prolifically in the antebellum North, a society caught in the throes of reform and creative ferment. These Northern movements prompted both disgust and smugness in the South. For Southerners, Northern society was wild and anarchic, given to ever-shifting fads that were essentially godless (hence the ATHEISM on the cartoon altar). Abolitionism was an especially wicked example of Northern fanaticism. The South, which considered itself a stable society supported by the “civilizing” institution of slavery, regarded the North as a chaos of homegrown theories rooted in that Ur-source of subversiveness: New England Puritanism.

The PURITANISM at the base of the cartoon was as telling as was the Brown statue at the top. From the South’s perspective, seventeenth-century Puritanism had contributed to the Northern cultural evils that found their culmination in Brown.

Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A widely held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America’s millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream cultural values, fostering consensus and conformity.

For many in the Civil War era, however, Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, “Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes in like a devouring sea!” Charles Chauncey Burr, another defender of the South, bewailed “this terrible Puritan war.” Burr painted the history of the North as a dark drama of aggressive Puritanism:

The nature of Puritanism is to tolerate nothing that it dislikes, and to fight every thing that dislikes it. . . . Nothing escapes it. About a third of a century ago it drove at slavery—swore that it would either break up slavery, or break up the Union. . . . It organized, sent forth agents and lecturers, printed tracts and newspapers, to fill the Northern mind full of its own fanaticism, and to teach the slaves how to poison or murder their masters. . . . On, on, this implacable Puritanism drove, destroying social unity, and sowing the seeds of anarchy, despotism and war, until its harvest of death was ready to be gathered.

This demonization of Puritanism made its way into Southern war songs, such as “The Southern Cross,” which painted the South as peaceful and free until ruined by the “Puritan” North:

How peaceful and blest was America’s soil,
‘Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon,
Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil,
To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.

What linked Puritanism with Northern reform was its powerful heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the “individual sovereignty” championed by anarchists and free-love activists—a pervasive individualism parodied in “Worship of the North” by the word EGO that beams from two suns in the top corners of the cartoon.

Northerners, like Southerners, associated these movements with radical Puritanism, but often from a positive perspective. In his 1844 lecture “New England Reformers,” Emerson declared that the “fertile forms of antinomianism among the elder puritans seemed to have their match in the plenty of the new harvest of reform.” Emerson admired the self-reliant spirit behind the reforms. “In each of these movements,” he said, “emerged a good result, an assertion of the sufficiency of the private man.” A Northern journalist went so far as to say: “Puritanism and nothing else can save this nation. . . . The Puritan element, which demands religious freedom, as the birthright of Heaven, in matters spiritual, is the nourisher of that civil liberty which releases the body from secular despotism in matters temporal.”

Northern soldiers were proud to accept the sobriquet “Puritan.” A Union marching song, “My Northern Boy to the War Has Gone!” pictured a Union soldier at Antietam carrying his grandfather’s sword, which linked him to the Puritan past:

His Puritan Grandsire’s sword gleamed bright
Where hosts were in strife engaging;
And many a Rebel eye clos’d in night,
While the contest fierce was raging!

2 Comments »

  1. Two points.

    First, it seems to be an irony of history that the aggressive individualism of Puritanism has now morphed, in the South, into a reactionary individualism that runs from refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic to Trumpism to individual terrorism.

    Second, the song you quoted is, I believe, derived from an old Irish air: The Minstrel Boy (from memory):

    The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone,
    In the ranks of death you will find him.
    His father’s sword he hath girded on,’
    And his high, wild harp behind him.

    Here it is with a slight variation of words:

    Comment by David Berger — November 28, 2020 @ 6:35 pm

  2. Raul Peck, the brilliant Haitian director of LUMUMBA, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, etc., was slated to film Russell Banks’s great novel about Brown, CLOUDSPLITTER, but it fell through. A goddamn shame.

    Du Bois talks at great affectionate length about Brown’s Puritan roots in his magnificent biography.

    For more on Puritanism, see the comments by that righteous carpetbagger, Albion Tourgee, in his novel about Reconstruction, BRICKS WITHOUT STRAW (1880)

    “Accustomed to regard their race as peculiarly dependent upon the Divine aid because of the lowly position they had so long occupied, they had become habituated to associate political and religious interests. The helplessness of servitude left no room for hope except through the trustfulness of faith. The generation which saw slavery swept away, and they who have heard the tale of deliverance from the lips of those who had been slaves, will never cease to trace the hand of God visibly manifested in the events culminating in liberty, or to regard the future of the freed race as under the direct control of the Divine Being. For this reason the political and religious interests and emotions of this people are quite inseparable. Wherever they meet to worship, there they will meet to consult of their plans, hopes, and progress, as at once a distinct race and a part of the American people. Their religion is tinged with political thought, and their political thought shaped by religious conviction.

    “In this respect the colored race in America are the true children of the Covenanters and the Puritans. Their faith is of the same unquestioning type, which no disappointment or delay can daunt, and their view of personal duty and obligation in regard to it is not less intense than that which led men to sing psalms and utter praises on board the storm-bound “Mayflower.” The most English of all English attributes has, by a strange transmutation, become the leading element in the character of the Africo American. The same mixed motive of religious duty toward posterity and devotion to political liberty which peopled the bleak hills of New England and the fertile lands of Canaan with peoples fleeing from bondage and oppression, may yet cover the North with dusky fugitives from the spirit and the situs of slavery.”

    Comment by jimholstun — November 29, 2020 @ 11:57 pm


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