Monday, November 9, 2009

The Last Days of John Brown: The Famous Beard

For reasons of political expediency, Republicans in the North initially distanced themselves from John Brown and his raiders. Many joined the chorus of (often pro-slavery) voices proclaiming Brown insane, no doubt in part to protect their own political party, for as John Brown’s biographer David S. Reynolds put it, “the implication was that republicans, and by extension many Northerners, were lawbreakers who threatened national peace.” The truth of course, was that Brown had probably already planned a raid into Virginia to free slaves there before the Republican Party was founded in 1854.

Nonetheless, Northern Democrats attacked Republicans for the supposed connections with the raiders, and their insane leader. “To be sure he was crazy, and has long been so,”a writer for the New York Journal of Commerce noted, “but he is no more crazy than those by whom he has so long been encouraged in his bloody career.”

On November 18th, 1859 The New York Vigilant Committee met in Manhattan and worked to solidify the link between Republicans and John Brown, even publishing a pamphlet: Rise and Progress of the Bloody Outbreak at Harper’s Ferry.

Southerners took the argument several steps farther arguing that anti-slavery men like Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings, Henry Ward Beecher (abolitionist Boston preacher and brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe), Wendell Phillips, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley, and then New York Senator (and former New York Governor) William Seward, were traitors and criminals.

Naturally Fredrick Douglas was singled out – a bounty of $2,500 was put on his head (and that of Seward’s) by southern slavers. A Richmond newspaper offered $50,000 for “the traitor” Senator Seward. Fellow Senator and later President of the (actually traitorous) Southern Confederacy Jefferson Davis, called for Seward to be hanged as a traitor. In truth, men like Seward, Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln spoke against John Brown.

Perhaps the single most long-lasting attack on John Brown’s cause was that brown himself was crazy – by extension, so were his followers. The most damaging component of the “madness of John Brown” argument has been the man’s beard.

It wasn’t until the last year of his life that Brown grew his famous beard – he probably stopped shaving in late fall of 1857. By the spring of the following year, he had a full beard. Contemporary drawings of Brown made when he was arrested show that his beard had been either been trimmed close or shaved off altogether.

John Brown did not generally wear a beard! Just one photo (of more than a dozen known to exist) taken during his travels in new England in the spring of 1858 shows Brown with a beard. A shaving kit owned by Brown is held by The Ohio Historical Center.

Brown grew his beard to disguise himself during his final preparations for the raid on Virginia (he also used the alias Isaac Smith). I believe it’s likely he cut off his beard/disguise shortly before leaving the Kennedy farm for Harper’s Ferry. John Brown was proud of his campaign to free southern slaves – once the raid was begun he needed neither his alias nor his beard as a disguise.

Yet, images of John Brown continue to focus on his beard, often portrayed as wild, and unkempt. Amazingly, even the poster of this year’s commemoration uses the image of bearded John Brown.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 25 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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