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All historians acknowledge John Brown’s towering stature. Yet few modern Americans recognize May 24-25 as the night of his 1856 execution of five pro-slavers at Pottawatomie Creek in “bloody Kansas.” It was Pottawatomie which brought him to world attention. Truly, it was Act I, scene 1 of the oncoming Civil War.
Under the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill, Kansas was to be a slave or free state when the white residents wrote their state constitution. Accordingly, abolitionists and pro-slavers flocked there. During the 1855 territorial legislature election, armed Missouri “border ruffians” illegally voted. The sham majority expelled the abolitionist delegates and set up a pro-slaver regime in Lecompton. Anti-slavery forces organized a rival government in Lawrence. The ruffians then stormed Lawrence, burning its newspapers. Brown and other Creek abolitionists rushed to Lawrence, to be told to halt by their timid leaders, who feared that defending the town would unleash further attacks.
We know what happened next thru the Autobiography of August Bondi. A Jew, at 14 he had been the youngest military participant in the failed 1848 revolt in Austria. He came to Kansas to oppose slavery, and was with Brown on the 23rd.
John Grant raced into their camp. Dutch Bill Sherman, a German immigrant, an infamous local pro-slaver, came to Grant’s cabin while he was plowing, to assault his sister. She screamed, he rescued her. “Dutch Bill left, cursing and vowing utter extermination of all free state men.” Brown knew that Dutch Bill’s gang, excited by Lawrence, meant it.
Brown “made a short speech, telling us that for the protection of our friends and families a blow must be struck on the Pottawatomie Creek to strike terror into pro-slavery miscreants who intended pillage and murder.” Four sons, a son-in-law, Henry Thompson, wagoner James Townsley, and Theodore Wiener, Bondi’s general store partner, followed Brown into history. Brown told August to meet them later. He was “not so well known … so you will attend to bringing news to us.”
Bondi describes Wiener, a German Jew from Prussian Poland. Pro-slavery, he came to Kansas solely to make money, trading with both sides. But the previous winter, Dutch Bill, 6’3,” 250 lbs, thinking Wiener shared August’s politics, came into their store and attacked him. Wiener, 5’10,” 250 lbs, looked an easy victim. However Brown’s son, Salmon, described him as “big, savage, bloodthirsty.” He “could not be kept out of any accessible fight.” Wiener knocked the German down, pulled his revolver out of his holster, fired it and threw the gun after him. But now he had to go to the abolitionists for protection.
Bondi had been sick in St. Louis. On return, he was stunned: “For nothing however did I admire John Brown as much for as for the conversion of my friend Theodore Wiener from a rank Pro-slaveryman to an uncompromising Abolitionist…. Judge of my surprise when Wiener conversed with me as a radical Free Stateman.”
Bondi was a majority Free-Stater. “We… did not sanction an increase in the colored population north.” For them, radical meant Brown’s then unique racial egalitarianism. Later, Boston Christian abolitionists saw Brown as Oliver Cromwell. Wiener never heard of the Puritan warrior. But he knew an armed Hebrew prophet. Brown had the rightful message, Wiener understood it.
Brown divided his men into two units. They took 5 ringleaders out from their families. Military silence required them to be put to the sword. Out of mercy, he shot one, still quivering. But Salmon Brown attests that “Henry Thompson and Wiener killed [Allen] Wilkinson and Sherman.”
Smiting foes with executioners’ swords indeed terrified Biblical-minded soft abolitionists and ruffians alike. His reputation racing before him, slavers feared him. He was a skilled skirmisher. The June 2nd battle at Black Jack showed that the ruffians could be defeated in the field. Success converted abolitionist opinion re the night executions. One later wrote that he “did not know of a settler in 1856 but what regarded it amongst the most fortunate events in the history of Kansas.” Days later the slayings were reenacted on Broadway.
Later writers are of mixed minds on every aspect of Brown’s career. Many agree with Brown’s contemporary. But the March 16, 1998 Wall Street Journal saw “reckless and barbaric actions at Pottawatomie.” Ken Chowder, in the February 2000 American Heritage, had a more complex take: “Maybe Pottawatomie was insane, and maybe it was not.”
Serious moderns see the slavery conflict as the inexorable struggle between two incompatible economic systems. But the historical protagonists rarely thought in our sociological manner. Most radical abolitionists and slavers thought they were carrying out the will of the Almighty. By our scientific standards, either their premises or their actions, or both, were fanatic.
In 1860, Lincoln, the ultimate moderate, repudiated Harpers Ferry: “That affair … corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his execution.”
Brown frequently cited Numbers 35:33, “the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.” When Kansas abolitionists realized they had to fight or lose, Brown, the enthusiast, was necessarily seen as a realist and a hero. When Lincoln finally realized that compromise with slavery was impossible, the practical politician proclaimed the same doctrine. If “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as it was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Given the limitations of that age, the ends justified the extremes. In its time, Pottawatomie was realism and at Harpers Ferry fanaticism rose to heroic martyrdom. History is correct in seeing Brown as great. Yet, when the hour of truth arrived, two of his sons refused to kill their captives. If Wiener hadn’t been there, the raid would have failed. When he “unleashed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,” he dealt the 1st blow in the “terrible sublime” tragedy we call the American civil war.
An unforeseeable event, the crazed attack by Dutch Bill, turned a greedy pro-slaver into someone ripe for conversion by Brown. So to, in our day, events will turn Americans now on the right into the boldest champions of social justice.
LENNI BRENNER, editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com