The Case of John L. Brown

Posted by Caleb McDaniel on March 9, 2011

This page was originally posted on my old blog as The Case of John L. Brown.

Last Friday, I was very fortunate to be a presenter at the annual conference of the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston. This year’s topic, “Civil War–Global Conflict,” attracted a great slate of fascinating papers.

Best of all, the conference organizers asked for presenters to pre-circulate drafts of any length, so the sessions were devoted mostly to discussion. I’m posting the paper that I circulated for the conference in Rice’s digital repository (here’s how and why), and I would welcome any feedback about the paper if you have a chance to read it. Click below for a full abstract.

My paper is about the infamous Southern trial in which John Brown was sentenced to death by hanging for aiding slave flight. But I’m not talking about that John Brown. I’m talking about the much less famous John L. Brown.

John L. Brown was tried and sentenced to hang in South Carolina, not in Virginia. And his alleged crime (and I say alleged because I am not sure whether I believe Brown was guilty) was helping an enslaved woman named Hetty to escape in the fall of 1843. Brown appealed his initial conviction, but to no avail. (You can read all about the appeals trial right here, in the Reports of Cases at Law, Argued and Determined in the Court of Appeals of South Carolina [1844]). On the basis of a state law that made it a capital offense to entice slaves to run away, John L. Brown was sentenced to die on April 26, 1844.

Before that could happen, however, Brown’s sentence attracted widespread attention in the Northern press, especially from abolitionists. Soon, the news about John L. Brown crossed the Atlantic too. Many British newspaper editors picked up the story, and American and British abolitionists corresponded about it. Outraged British abolitionists used the case to rally large public meetings in Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Glasgow calling for Brown’s pardon. The sentence was even denounced on the floor of Parliament. As a result of these protests, James Henry Hammond, then governor of South Carolina, soon found himself inundated with letters and petitions about Brown. One petition drawn up by a group of British churches boasted 1,300 signatures.

In my paper I do two things. First, I try to explain the significance of this case of transatlantic abolitionist protest and the reasons why Brown’s trial became a center of controversy. And second, I use the Brown trial as a case study for raising some larger questions about information networks. I use the case to reconsider the ways historians conceptualize the mechanisms and results of transatlantic abolitionism in general.

First, I try to reconstruct the reasons why Brown’s case in particular became a flashpoint. British and American abolitionists reported news of Southern outrages all the time, but not all of these outrages provoked full-blown protests and retorts the way Brown’s trial did. The paper suggests that the timing of the Brown trial was the primary reason why the case was important both to abolitionists and to South Carolinians. By paying close attention to the timing of the trial and its fallout, I believe a case can also be made for its under-appreciated significance. One of the interesting things about Brown’s trial is that prominent Southerners, including Governor Hammond himself and the sentencing judge John Bolton O’Neall, spoke back directly to British abolitionists in defense of the state’s actions. Indeed, the Brown trial was the immediate trigger that prompted Hammond to write what became a “proslavery classic,”in the words of his biographer Drew Gilpin Faust. For the previous decade, most Southern political leaders had argued that the best way to deal with abolitionists was to silence and ignore them. So the reaction of Hammond and O’Neall to the protests over Brown’s trial represented something of a departure.

My second objective in the paper is to raise some larger questions about how transatlantic abolitionism and, by extension, nineteenth-century transnational activism worked. Not surprisingly, abolitionists often depicted their transatlantic protest campaigns as part of a linear, fairly straightforward causal chain: Southerners committed some atrocity; Northern abolitionists publicized it and brought it to the attention of overseas allies; those overseas allies held meetings, drafted petitions, and generally applied pressure on American Southerners; finally, that pressure would force Southerners to relent. Abolitionists saw the John L. Brown case as a paradigmatic example of this process in action, especially since Hammond commuted Brown’s sentence from death to public whipping and ultimately pardoned him altogether.

For a variety of reasons, the abolitionists’ own descriptions of their transnational pressure politics have been appealing to scholars as well, including scholars of contemporary transnational activism like Kathryn Sikkink, Margaret Keck, and Sidney Tarrow. In their book, Activists Beyond Borders, Keck and Sikkink even cite abolitionists as historical precursors for contemporary human rights activists who “promote change” by “reporting facts” to the international community. But as I show with a careful reconstruction of the John L. Brown case, there are several difficulties with this description of abolitionist activism as a straightforward process of applying pressure by reporting facts. First, newspaper reports about the trial were discrepant, sometimes conflicting, often incomplete, and occasionally based on erroneous information or misread by the intended audiences. Moreover, the time lag between events in South Carolina and reportage about them overseas meant that British abolitionists were often acting on information that was already out of date by the time it reached them. Indeed, while abolitionists proclaimed victory for their tactics when Hammond pardoned Brown, it is likely that Hammond commuted Brown’s sentence before reports of British protest ever reached him. Because of these realities, many “non-facts” soon began circulating in transatlantic print and abolitionist networks about the Brown case, ranging from erroneous reports about whether Brown was a free man or a slave to conjectures about the complexion of Hetty.

Instead of fitting our stories of transatlantic abolitionism into a model of “promoting change” by “reporting facts” and thereby applying pressure on target actors, it is important to recapture the highly uneven and often bewildering flow of information back and forth across the Atlantic. Depicting transatlantic abolitionism in this way at least helps us make more sense, I think, of what happened in the Brown case. First, the appearance of errors in abolitionist reportage is part of what provoked Hammond and O’Neall to reply; it was not so much the pressure applied on them by the reportage of facts that moved them to speak out in their defense, thereby escalating the debate over slavery. Instead, they seized the opportunity afforded them by the misinformation introduced into the coverage of the case by time and circumstance. They also made use of the fact that reports about the trial were so hard to verify to introduce rumors about Brown’s true motives that hampered abolitionists’ ability to rally public opinion about the case.

In the final sections of the paper, I turn to recent scholarship highlighting the role of “rumor” in the grassroots politics of slaves and argue that this scholarship can provide methodological resources to historians of transatlantic activism as well. Many recent historians have drawn attention to the importance of slaves’ “grapevine telegraph,” or the information networks that they used to learn about opportunities for escape and resistance. (Steven Hahn and Susan Eva O’Donovan have recently provided brief introductions to this literature in the New York Times.) Much of this literature is focused on showing what was telegraph-like about the grapevine. Conversely, but in a complementary way, my paper on transatlantic abolitionism and John L. Brown attempts to show what was grapevine-like about telegraphs.

Again, you can download the full paper I presented at CLAW here. I’m planning to do additional research, revise this rough draft, and prepare this article for print publication in one form or another. So I welcome critical feedback about the piece, either here or by email. If you would like to use the paper or cite it, please let me know.