Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

Insurrections Old and New: Teaching Perspective on the Events of January 6, 2021

On January 6, 2021 a mob stormed the American Capital in Washington, D.C. to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Rioters pushed their way inside the Capital, vandalized the building and threatened to harm government officials, including the Vice President. In total, five people died.

In the following days the public struggled to make sense of what had happened and why. Social Media evidence showed that Donald J. Trump, himself, had urged his followers to protest. Those supporters who had not been at the riot argued that the insurrectionists were not representative of Republican supporters or their values. Some spread a rumor that the left wing anti-fascist group Antifa had instigated the violence to discredit Trump. Critics of the President struggled to understand why the rioters were not immediately condemned by all Americans. Social activists argued the faction responsible for storming the Capitol had been treated differently by police because they were white; African American protesters had been jailed and beaten for less. To complicate things further many of the self-proclaimed insurrectionists were known white supremacists.[1]

I too was conflicted over the events of January 6. My emotions went from fear to anger.  I wondered how, as a historian and educator, I could approach this topic with my students without offending, agitating, or encouraging the presentism that I warn them to avoid?  In this moment the past and present appeared to have blurred.  And following an already historic year, how would I validate students’ feelings without turning class into a therapy session? How would I explain to these young adults that they were now observers of a major historical event, similar to those they read about in textbooks?  Would they realize that their emails, social media accounts, and personal journals might later be used by historians as primary sources?

Figure 1: Black & Batchelder, Black, James Wallace, and Martin M Lawrence, photographer. John Brown. , ca. 1859. December 12. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633569/.

Social media reiterated my concerns as my own family members bickered with one another over who was to blame for the recent insurrection.  The conversation seemed familiar, but from a different time.  And then I realized that was because I had read commentary like this before.  When I was researching my master’s thesis on the Civil War home front, I had included a section about the northern and southern reactions to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  How will I explain a deeply polarized and racially divided country to my students? I will look to historical sources and one of the most controversial events in American History, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.[2]

John Brown was a staunchly religious man who believed God had tasked him with ending slavery. On Oct. 16, 1859 he led a group of men to the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where they planned to seize enough weaponry to arm southern slaves and emancipate them, forcefully if necessary. Unfortunately for Brown, the raid was a failure, and he was tried for murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. John Brown was found guilty on all counts and hanged.

Brown has become one of the most contentious figures of the Civil War Era. Was he a madman or a prophet? The recent miniseries on Showtime, The Good Lord Bird (based on James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name), makes arguments for both, although the show’s creators acknowledge that this depiction of Brown is fictionalized.  Brown, himself, argued that he had not intended to revolt against the United States Government. He simply wanted to free the enslaved. He was also one of the few people of this era to believe in racial equality. In his final speech before being executed, Brown asserted that he “never did intend murder, or treason, of the destruction of property, or to excite or incite Slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.”[3] Yet Brown was not against the idea that it would take violence to end slavery.  On his way to the gallows, he slipped his jailor a note that read “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood.”[4] His prediction would become true less than 2 years later when the Civil War began.

Brown’s prediction made him a legend. During the Civil War the song “John Brown’s Body” became a marching tune for the Union Army.[5]  In his 2005 cultural biography of Brown, David S. Reynolds notes that he was admired by twentieth-century black activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X.[6] Yet for those living in the United States in 1859, it was not that simple. Abolitionists viewed Brown as a martyr. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child condemned Brown’s actions, but nonetheless expressed her sympathy toward his cause.[7]  Less than a month after Brown’s execution, residents of Concord, Massachusetts held a meeting entitled “Martyrdom of John Brown.”[8] Even decades after his death, Brown was still revered by former abolitionists as a hero. In 1881 Frederick Douglass, who had distanced himself from Brown when he learned of the plans to attack the Federal Arsenal, described Brown’s arrest as the “victory of his life.”[9] These viewpoints were not, however, universal.[10]

Figure 2: Harper’s Ferry insurrection – the battle ground – Captain Alberts’ party attacking the insurgents – view of the railroad bridge, the engine-house, and the village / from a sketch by our special artist. Harpers Ferry West Virginia, 1859. Nov. 5. Photograph. http://www/loc/gov/item/95522021/.

Many people viewed Brown as dangerous and celebrated his arrest. A Kansas woman, whose husband and two sons were killed at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre – during which John Brown and a band of followers murdered pro-slavery men– wrote to Brown that her remaining son hoped to attend the execution and might “adjust the rope around your neck.”[11] For others, Brown was one part of a larger northern threat to slavery. A man named Robert Scott wrote that Harper’s Ferry was a betrayal of southerners at the hands of northerners. The Winchester Republican published in Winchester, Virginia called Brown’s Raid “the wickedest outrage against the sovereignty of Virginia.”[12] Similarly, an article published in the Democratic newspaper the Chicago Press Tribune argued that Brown’s raid demonstrated the threat of allowing Republicans to express their “fanatical” views.”[13] The Republican Party did not, however, claim Brown. In his 1860 Cooper Union Speech Abraham Lincoln condemned the spread of slavery to western territories but denied any connection between John Brown and Republicans. Lincoln challenged the audience to prove that politicians had supported the insurrection.  Today the public as well as certain U.S. Senators also fear that politicians were behind the January 6 riot.[14]

It is impossible to make a direct comparison between John Brown’s 1859 raid and the 2021 MAGA Riots.  First, the rationale behind each insurrection were completely different. Secondly, the modern Republican Party is not the same faction as the party of Lincoln. Yet a comparison reveals that in both eras the country was polarized over politics and race. For students struggling to grapple with these events and their meaning, a political analysis of the responses to Harper’s Ferry may provide context to the ways in which the media and the public respond to violence.  A comparison the two events also reveals important facts about the trajectory of race relations in this country. By focusing on the significance of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry as an expression of antebellum politics, students may be able contextualize current political debates.

[1] Hilary N. Green, “Civil War Scholars Respond to January 6, 2021 Events and Aftermath,” Muster, January 12, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2021/01/civil-war-era-scholars-respond-to-january-6-2021-events-and-aftermath/.

[2] Laura J. Ping, “Life in an Occupied City: Women in Winchester, Virginia During the Civil War, MA Thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, 21-23; The majority of primary sources consulted are from the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/.

[3] John Brown, “John Brown’s Final Speech,” 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/john-brown%E2%80%99s-final-speech-1859.

[4] John Brown, “Last Written Words of John Brown,” December 1859, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021, http://www.americanhistory.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/SearchDetails/GLC04463.08.01.

[5] Historian Chandra Manning notes that the John Brown originally mentioned in the song was not the abolitionist, but a man by the same name.  Soldiers confused the two, however, and throughout the war “John Brown’s Body” was a homage to the abolitionist. See Chandra Manning, “‘John Brown’s Body’: Analyzing the Song,”: Teachinghistory.org., Accessed January 26, 2021, https://teachinghistory.org/best-practices/examples-of-historical-thinking/25095.

[6] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 12.

[7] Lydia Maria Child, Henry A. Wise, Maria Jefferson Carr Randolph Mason, American Anti-Slavery Society, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia . (Boston: Published by The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1860, PDF, Accessed, January 26, 2021, http://www.loc.gov/item/07016677/.

[8] “A Program for a Commemorative Town Hall Meeting Held in Concord, Massachusetts following John Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859,” Digital Public Library of America, Accessed January 26, 2021, https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/john-brown-s-raid-on-harper-s-ferry/sources/1724.

[9] David Blight, “Admiration and Ambivalence: Frederick Douglass and John Brown,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021, http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/failure-compromise/essays/admiration-and-ambivalence-frederick-douglass-and-john-brow.

[10] For a more detailed discussion of the diverse memory of John Brown see R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality and Change (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[11] “Mahala Doyle to John Brown regarding his death penalty,” November 20, 1859, Gilder Lehrman Collection of American History, Accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/collection/glc07590.

[12] Winchester Republican, Oct. 21, 1859, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives Room, Winchester-Frederick Historical Society, Winchester, VA.

[13] “The Cloud in the Distance No Bigger than a Man’s Hand – The First Battle of the ‘Irrepressible Conflict,’” Chicago Press and Tribune, October 20, 1859. American Experience, Accessed January 26, 2021, http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lincolns/filmmore/ps_brown.html.

[14] Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, et. al. to Senate Committee on Ethics, “Investigating Request for Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, January 21, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/1.21.21%20Ethics%20Complaint%20Against%20Cruz%20and%20Hawley%20Final.pdf; Dan Barry and Sheera Frenkel, “’Be There. Will Be Wild!’: Trump All But Circled the Date,” The New York Times, January 6, 2021, Accessed February 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/capitol-mob-trump-supporters.html.

Laura Ping

Laura J. Ping is an adjunct assistant professor with the Pace University-Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History MA Program in American History and at Queens College, City University of New York. Ping is the author of “‘He May Sneer at the Course We are Pursuing to Gain Justice': Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, The Sibyl and Corresponding about Women's Suffrage,” (New York History Journal 2017) as well as the coauthor of the forthcoming book Catharine Beecher: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Nineteenth Century. Ping is also completing a monograph on the cultural and political impact of the dress reform movement on the nineteenth-century woman’s movement in the United States.

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