The Tragedy of John Brown in Pop Culture

Featured Illustration: Laura Lannes

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When I heard that Showtime was creating a show centered around John Brown, I cannot lie, I was very excited. John Brown is one of the most fascinating historical figures in American history, not just for what he did, but because of how Americans across generations have seen him, praised him, and vilified him. Amid my excitement to see a show depicting John Brown, my second thought was: which John Brown of history will Showtime choose to show us?

Very early on in the show, it because clear that Showtime would choose to depict John Brown as a “madman” and a religious fanatic. The John Brown in the Showtime series The Good Lord Bird is a Christian abolitionist who despises the N word. Someone who quotes the Bible from memory, but who also aims to start a Civil War through violence to end slavery. Other characters in the show claim he is not in his right mind as he spits when he talks, and is so bad at planning, the only way anything can go right is a miracle from God. Everything about John Brown in The Good Lord Bird seems chaotic, but that is also why this show is so damn entertaining.

There are many issues with this version of John Brown, but this is not the show’s fault. We live in a culture where most of our historical understanding comes from pop culture. Nobody really reads history books, but we all have historical beliefs on how events of the past have played out. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, many historical events should be further explained and examined for the simple fact that history matters, all of it, and John Brown is no exception.

The notion of John Brown as a crazed lunatic was pretty much instant. When Secretary of War John Floyd wrote to President Buchannan in 1859 of the Raid on Harpers Ferry, he referred to him as a reckless fanatic who attacked the very history and legacy of the United States. That history and legacy that Secretary Floyd was referring to was the history and legacy of slavery. What one must ask themselves when looking at John Brown historically is, how “mad” was he? The image of an ill-planned and “crazed” John Brown does not hold up to history because the facts state otherwise. John Brown was very well-planned and very determined to see his goals through to the end.

It is important to set a timeline of events leading up to the Raid on Harper’s Ferry because as I always say, history does not live in a vacuum, and events are never isolated. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that Black people essentially had no rights. In 1858, a group of 46 people, including 12 white people, gathered in Ontario for an abolitionist convention. One of the main goals for this group was to adopt John Brown’s “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States of America”. This was also the meeting where the Raid on Harpers Ferry was first discussed in public.

Brown’s initial plan was to raid the armory at Harper’s Ferry, freeing the local slaves to join the fight. Free Black people from Canada would also come down to join the fight. Brown and his army would march into the mountains, but men would be sent to Tennessee and North Carolina for reinforcements and more guns. All of this to overthrow not just slavery, but the United States government. John Brown did not just see slavery as unjust, but the government as well.

Brown never received the backing he wanted — Frederick Douglass himself told Brown it was a bad idea, but he went through with it anyway. It was simple for those of Brown’s time to label him a “madman”. Brown was a white man willing to die for the end of slavery, and he was against every social norm of his time in regards to slavery.

History would come to call John Brown a “madman” for another reason — that is what his lawyer said as his defense. We also must remember that “madness” did not mean what it means today. In the 1800s, “madness” did not mean one was crazy, but it was defined as a weakness of character, someone who cannot handle the stressors of life and of failure. The John Brown of The Good Lord Bird, a yelling and spit-talking John Brown, is not at all what history tells us. What Showtime did do was make John Brown entertaining to watch in a miniseries that millions were invested in creating. But, this show is far from historically accurate.

In the end, I do wish I could simply watch a historical show without having to write about it, but here I am. In my opinion, history has given John Brown too much credit for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. According to the convention in Canada, Harper’s Ferry was part of a much larger plan. While his plan of overthrowing the government and ending slavery did not come to fruition, a few short years after his execution, The Civil War would commence and The Confederate States would try to overthrow The United States government to keep and expand slavery. John Brown failed in his attempt, but he did keep his word: he was willing to die for the end of slavery.