The Contestable John Brown: Abolitionism and the Civil War in U.S. Public Memory

Open Access
Kretsinger-Harries, Anne Catherine
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
September 19, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Dr J Michael Hogan, Thesis Advisor
  • James Hogan, Thesis Advisor
  • Rhetoric
  • Abolitionism
  • John Brown
  • Public Memory
Abolitionist John Brown is a divisive figure in United States history. He features prominently in our national historical narrative, but his radical politics, religious fanaticism, and violent methods have led to polarized memories of his contributions to the abolitionist cause and his role in the coming of the U.S. Civil War. Some consider Brown a hero or a martyr of abolitionism, while others view him as a violent extremist, even a madman. Over time, Americans from across the political spectrum have mobilized Brown’s memory to advance particular political and social causes, sometimes on opposing sides of the same issue. This thesis examines three instances of public controversy over the memory of John Brown. In each of these case studies, Brown’s public memory has been rhetorically constructed and vigorously contested. First, I explore a controversy over regionalist painter John Steuart Curry’s depiction of Brown in the Kansas Statehouse mural, The Tragic Prelude. Some Kansans praised the mural for highlighting their state’s radical past, while others were offended that Curry would link Kansas history with the life of a murderous madman. I argue that The Tragic Prelude acted as a site for these Kansans to contest their state’s identity and its place in the larger narrative of Civil War history. Second, I will examine Brown’s first appearance on the silver screen in the 1940 Hollywood film, Santa Fe Trail. I argue that this film re-envisioned the coming of the Civil War, casting Brown as a stereotypical Western villain. In the process, Santa Fe Trail oversimplified the complex coming-of-the-Civil War narrative, blaming the war almost entirely on Brown, and implying that it might have been avoided were it not for Brown’s religious delusions and fanatical behaviors. Finally, I analyze a 1959 controversy over if and how the centennial of Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid should be commemorated. Although Brown’s raid was eventually remembered on its hundredth anniversary, the planners of the event took care to avoid celebrating the raid, especially in ways that might be taken as an endorsement of Brown’s radicalism or of his violence. I argue that in the social and political context of the time, this rejection of Brown—and of the liberal, abolitionist principles for which he stood—functioned simultaneously as an expression of Cold War distaste for “radicalism” and as a repudiation of one of the historical memories underlying the civil rights movement. Ultimately, these three case studies show how, when Brown’s memory is invoked and contested, it typically has more to do with the politics of the moment than with discovering the “truth” of the past. John Brown serves as an ideal vehicle for articulating public memories because he embodies such important moral quandaries. Thus, a study of his public memories lends insights into how Americans confront issues such as the morality of slavery, the justifications for violence, and the “lessons” of the Civil War.