Saturday, August 25, 2018

John Brown at Harpers Ferry: Psychology and History

John Brown

The culminating event of the 1850s was John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. To white Virginians, Brown’s raid was emblematic of an evil outside influence trying to disrupt the harmony enjoyed by Virginia’s white and African American communities.

“ Not a Slave Insurrection!”, proclaimed an editorial in the Alexandria Gazette,

“ The recent outbreak at Harper’s Ferry was, in no sense, an insurrection. The slaves had no part nor lot in the matter, except in so far as some of them were forced to take part ….There were five free negroes engaged in the affair, but not a single slave! And even the free negroes thus engaged were not Virginia free negroes”

Two days later, the editor of the Alexandria Gazette elaborated on his claim that the Brown raid was not an insurrection. The editor asked, “What single feature or circumstance characterized it as an ‘insurrection’?” After pointing out that “abolition invaders” found not “one single abettor or sympathizer in the State”, the editor pointed out that to call John Brown’s raid an insurrection disguised the enormous truth, “that Virginia has been invaded…actually, deliberately, and systematically invaded…by an organized band of miscreants, white and black, from Free States, under the lead of a Kansas desperado, at the instigation and appointment of influential and wealthy Northern Abolitionists!”

The sense of being surrounded by enemies, without and within, had become so intense that even white Virginians could be held under suspicion.   In October 1859 T.H. Stillwell of Alexandria while in some in conversation with some gentlemen on the subject of the Harper’s Ferry incident , “…expressed sentiments denunciatory of Southern institutions and people, and of a seditious nature, for which a peace warrant was issued for his arrest at the instance of the Commonwealth’s Attorney”.  Stillwell was required to post a bond of $500 to keep the peace.

In 1959, Stanley M. Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life compared slavery in the United States to the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps.  Elkins delved into the psychology of slavery and soon found himself challenged by most other historians who found his conclusions too simplistic.   Elkins did however raise an important issue, the importance of taking individual and group psychology into account when analyzing historical events. Actions are informed by values.  These values are manifestations of personal psychology.  It is, therefore, important to appreciate the forces at work on both individual and group psychology to understand what motivates action in a society.  A need for a sense of economic well-being and moral legitimacy, coupled with fears of internal violence and external incursions had tremendous psychological impacts on antebellum Virginia which manifested themselves in concrete responses by Virginians towards both slaves and Northerners.

Abolitionist by aiding slave escapes were carrying on what amounted to psychological warfare against slaveholders.  Abolitionists believed that by assisting escapes they would render “property in slaves…so insecure that it would hasten emancipation.” Writings of the time indicate that slaveholders were very vulnerable to this type of psychological warfare, especially regarding the issue of runaway slaves.  Ultimately the psychological tensions produced by the internal contradictions of slavery as it faced both economic modernization and hostile outside forces found catharsis in secession and war, a war which cost 600,000 lives (six million lives today if the number of dead is calculated as a percentage of population). 

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

In 1860, disgruntled secessionists in the deep North rebel against the central government and plunge America into Civil War. Will the Kingdom survive? The land will run red with blood before peace comes again.

Gifts for Dogs and Dog Lovers

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