John Brown (Du Bois)/Chapter 3

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John Brown  (1909)  by W. E. B. Du Bois
Chapter 3



"Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation."

In 1819 a tall, sedate, dignified young man named John Brown was entered among the students of the Rev. Moses Hallock at Plainfield, Mass., where men were prepared for Amherst College. He was beginning his years of wandering—spiritual searching for the way of life, physical wandering in the wilderness where he must earn his living. In after years he wrote to a boy:

"I wish you to have some definite plan. Many seem to have none; others never stick to any that they do form. This was not the case with John. He followed up with great tenacity whatever he set about as long as it answered his general purpose; hence he rarely failed in some degree to effect the things he undertook. This was so much the case that he habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings."[1] In this case he expected to get an education and he came to his task equipped with that rare mixture of homely thrift and idealism which characterized his whole life. His father could do little to help him, for the war was followed by the "hard times" which are the necessary fruit of fighting. As the father wrote: "Money became scarce, property fell and that which I thought well bought would not bring its cost. I had made three or four large purchases, in which I was a heavy loser."

It was therefore as a poor boy ready to work his way that John started out at Plain field. The son of the principal tells how "he brought with him a piece of sole leather about a foot square, which he had himself tanned for seven years, to resole his boots. He had also a piece of sheepskin which he had tanned, and of which he cut some strips about an eighth of an inch wide, for other students to pull upon. Father took one string, and winding it around his finger said with a triumphant turn of the eye and mouth, 'I shall snap it.' The very marked, yet kind immovableness of the young man's face on seeing father's defeat, father's own look, and the position of the people and the things in the old kitchen somehow gave me a fixed recollection of this little incident."[2]

But all his thrift and planning here were doomed to disappointment. He was, one may well believe, no brilliant student, and his only chance of success lay in long and steady application. This he was prepared to make when inflammation of the eyes set in, of so grave a type that all hopes of long study must be given up. Several times before he had attempted regular study, but for the most part these excursions to New England schools had been but tentative flashes on a background of hard work in his father's Hudson tannery: "From fifteen to twenty years of age he spent most of his time working at the tanner's and currier's trade;" and yet, naturally, ever looking here and there in the world to find his place. And that place, he came gradually to decide in his quiet firm way, was to be an important one. He felt he could do things; he grew used to guiding and commanding men. He kept his own lonely home and was both foreman and cook in the tannery. His "close attention to business and success in its management, together with the way he got along with a company of men and boys, made him quite a favorite with the serious and more intelligent portion of older persons. This was so much the case and secured for him so many little notices from those he esteemed, that his vanity was very much fed by it, and he came forward to manhood quite full of self-conceit and self-confidence, notwithstanding his extreme bashfulness. The habit so early formed of being obeyed rendered him in after life too much disposed to speak in an imperious or dictating way."[3] Thus he spoke of himself, but others saw only that peculiar consciousness of strength and quiet self-confidence, which characterized him later on.

Just how far his failure to get a college training was a disappointment to John Brown one is not able to say with certainty. It looks, however, as if his attempts at higher training were rather the obedient following of the conventional path, by a spirit which would never have found in those fields congenial pasture. One suspects that the final decision that college was impossible came to this strong free spirit with a certain sense of relief—a relief marred only by the perplexity of knowing what ought to be the path for his feet, if the traditional way to accomplishment and distinction was closed.

That he meant to be not simply a tanner was disclosed in all his doing and thinking. He undertook to study by himself, mastering common arithmetic and becoming in time an expert surveyor. He "early in life began to discover a great liking to fine cattle, horses, sheep and swine." Meantime, however, the practical economic sense of his day and occupation pointed first of all to marriage, as his father, who had had three wives and sixteen or more children, was at pains to impress upon him. Nor was John Brown himself disinclined. He was he himself quaintly says, "naturally fond of females, and withal extremely diffident." One can easily imagine the deep disappointment of this grave young man in his first unfortunate love affair, when he felt with many another unloved heart, this old world through, "a steady, strong desire to die."

But youth is stronger even than a first love, and the widow who came to keep house for him had a grown daughter, a homely, good-hearted and simple-minded country lass; the natural result was that John Brown was married at the age of twenty to Dianthe Lusk, whom he describes as "a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious and economical of excellent character, earnest piety and practical common sense."[4]

Then ensued a period of life which puzzles the casual onlooker with its seemingly aimless changing character, its wandering restlessness, its planless wavering. He was now a land surveyor, now a tanner and now a lumber dealer; a postmaster, a wool grower, a stock-raiser, a shepherd, and a farmer. He lived at Budson, at Franklin and at Richfield in Ohio; in Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. And yet in all this wavering and wandering, there were certain great currents of growth, purpose and action. First of all he became the father of a family: in the eleven years from 1821 to 1832, seven children were born—six sons and one girl. The patriarchal ideal of family life handed down by his fathers, strengthened by his own saturation in Hebrew poetry, and by his own bent, grew up in his home.

His eldest son and daughter tell many little incidents illustrating his family government: "Our house, on a lane which connects two main roads, was built under father's direction in 1824, and still stands much as he built it with the garden and orchard around it which he laid out. In the rear of the house was then a wood, now gone, on a knoll leading down to the brook which supplied the tan-pits."[5]

"Father used to hold all his children while they were little at night and sing his favorite songs," says the eldest daughter. "The first recollection I have of father was being carried through a piece of woods on Sunday to attend a meeting held at a neighbor's house. After we had been at the house a little while, father and mother stood up and held us, while the minister put water on our faces. After we sat down father wiped my face with a brown silk handkerchief with yellow spots on it in diamond shape. It seemed beautiful to me and I thought how good he was to wipe my face with that pretty handkerchief. He showed a great deal of tenderness in that and other ways. He sometimes seemed very stern and strict with me, yet his tenderness made me forget he was stern. . . .

"When he would come home at night tired out with labor, he would before going to bed, ask some of the family to read chapters (as was his usual course night and morning); and would almost always say: 'Read one of David's Psalms.' . . .

"Whenever he and I were alone, he never failed to give me the best of advice, just such as a true and anxious mother would give a daughter. He always seemed interested in my work, and would come around and look at it when I was sewing or knitting; and when I was learning to spin he always praised me if he saw that I was improving. He used to say: 'Try to do whatever you do in the very best possible manner.'"[6]

"Father had a rule not to threaten one of his children. He commanded and there was obedience," writes his eldest son. "My first apprenticeship to the tanning business consisted of a three years' course at grinding bark with a blind horse. This, after months and years, became slightly monotonous. While the other children were out at play in the sunshine, where the birds were singing, I used to be tempted to let the old horse have a rather long rest, especially when father was absent from home; and I would then join the others at their play. This subjected me to frequent admonitions and to some corrections for eye-service as father termed it. . . . He finally grew tired of these frequent slight admonitions for my laziness and other shortcomings, and concluded to adopt with me a sort of book-account something like this:

"John, Dr.,
"For disobeying mother—8 lashes.
"For unfaithfulness at work—3 lashes.
"For telling a lie—8 lashes.

"This account he showed to me from time to time. On a certain Sunday morning he invited me to accompany him from the house to the tannery, saying that he had concluded it was time for a settlement. We went into the upper or finishing room, and after a long and tearful talk over my faults, he again showed me my account, which exhibited a fearful footing up of debits. I had no credits or offsets and was of course bankrupt. I then paid about one third of the debt, reckoned in strokes from a nicely prepared blue-beach switch, laid on 'masterly.' Then to my utter astonishment, father stripped off his shirt and seating himself on a block gave me the whip and bade me lay it on to his bare back. I dared not refuse to obey, but at first I did not strike hard. 'Harder,' he said, 'harder, harder!' until he received the balance of the account. Small drops of blood showed on his back where the tip end of the tingling beach cut through. Thus ended the account and settlement, which was also my first practical illustration of the doctrine of the atonement."[7]

Even the girls did not escape whipping. "He used to whip me often for telling lies," says a daughter, "but I can't remember his ever punishing me but once when I thought I didn't deserve, and then he looked at me so stern that I didn't dare to tell the truth. He had such a way of saying, 'Tut, tut!' if he saw the first sign of a lie in us, that he often frightened us children.

"When I first began to go to school," she continues, "I found a piece of calico one day behind one of the benches—it was not large, but seemed quite a treasure to me, and I did not show it to any one until I got home. Father heard me then telling about it and said, 'Don't you know what girl lost it?' I told him I did not. 'Well, when you go to school to-morrow take it with you and find out if you can who lost it. It is a trifling thing but always remember that if you should lose anything you valued, no matter how small, you would want the person who found it to give it back to you.'" He "showed a great deal of tenderness to me," continues the daughter, "and one thing I always noticed was my father's peculiar tenderness and devotion to his father. In cold weather he always tucked the bedclothes around grandfather when he went to bed, and would get up in the night to ask him if he slept warm—always seeming so kind and loving to him that his example was beautiful to see."

Especially were his sympathy and devotion evident in sickness: "When his children were ill with scarlet lever, he took care of us himself and if he saw persons coming to the house, would go to the gate and meet them, not wishing them to come in. for fear of spreading the disease.[8] . . . When any of the family were sick he did not often trust watchers to care for the sick one, but sat up himself and was like a tender mother. At one time he sat up every night for two weeks while mother was sick, for fear he would oversleep if he went to bed, and then the fire would go out and she take cold."[9]

The death of one little girl shows how deeply he could be moved: "He spared no pains in doing all that medical skill could do for her together with the tenderest care and nursing. The time that he could be at home was mostly spent in caring for her. He sat up nights to keep an even temperature in the room, and to relieve mother from the constant care which she had through the day. He used to walk with the child and sing to her so much that she soon learned his step. When she heard him coming up the steps to the door, she would reach out her hands and cry for him to take her. When his business at the wool store crowded him so much that he did not have time to take her, he would steal around through the wood-shed into the kitchen to eat his dinner, and not go into the dining-room where she could see or hear him. I used to be charmed myself with his singing to her. He noticed a change in her one morning and told us he thought she would not live through the day, and came home several times to see her. A little before noon he came home and looked at her and said, 'She is almost gone.' She heard him speak, opened her eyes and put up her little wasted hands with such a pleading look for him to take her that he lifted her up from the cradle with the pillows she was lying on, and carried her until she died. He way very calm, closed her eyes, folded her hands and laid her in her cradle. When she was buried father broke down completely and sobbed like a child."[10]

Dianthe Lusk, John Brown's first wife, died in child-birth, August 10, 1832, having borne him seven children, two of whom died very young. On July 11, 1833, now thirty-three years of age, he married Mary Ann Day, a girl of seventeen, only five years older than his oldest child. She bore him thirteen children, seven of whom died young. Thus seven sons and four daughters grew to maturity and his wife, Mary, survived him twenty-five years. It was, all told, a marvelous family—large and well-disciplined, yet simple almost to poverty, and hard working. No sooner were the children grown than the wise father ceased to command and simply asked or advised. He wrote to his eldest son when first he started out in life in characteristic style:

"I think the situation in which you have been placed by Providence at this early period of your life will afford to yourself and others some little test of the sway yon may be expected to exert over minds in after life, and I am glad on the whole to have you brought in some measure to the test in your youth. If you cannot now go into a disorderly country school and gain its confidence and esteem, and reduce it to good order and waken up the energies and the very soul of every rational being in it—yes, of every mean, ill-behaved, ill-governed boy and girl that compose it, and secure the good-will of the parents,—then how are you to stimulate asses to attempt a passage of the Alps? If you run with footmen and they should weary you, how should you contend with horses! If in the land of peace they have wearied you, then how will you do in the swelling of Jordan? Shall I answer the question myself? 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth liberally and upbraideth not.'"[11]

Not that Brown was altogether satisfied with his method of dealing with his children; he said to his wife: "If the large boys do wrong, call them alone into your room and expostulate with them kindly, and see if you cannot reach them by a kind but powerful appeal to their honor. I do not claim that such a theory accords very well with my practice; I frankly confess it does not; but I want your face to shine even if my own should be dark and cloudy."[12]

The impression which he made on his own family was marvelous. A granddaughter writes me of him, saying: " The attitude of John Brown's family and descendants has always been one of exceeding reverence toward him. This speaks for something. Stern, unyielding, Puritanic, requiring his wife and daughters to dress in sober brown, disliking show and requesting that mourning colors be not worn for him—a custom which still obtains with us—laying the rod heavily upon his boys for their boyish pranks, he still was wonderfully tender—would invariably walk up hill rather than burden his horse, loved his family devotedly, and when sickness occurred, always installed himself as nurse."

In his personal habits he was austere: severely clean, sparing in his food so far as to count butter an unnecessary luxury; once a moderate user of cider and wine—then a strong teetotaler; a lover of horses with harassing scruples as to breeding race-horses. All this gave an air of sedateness and maturity to John Brown's earlier manhood which belied his years. Having married at twenty, he was but twenty-one years older than his eldest son; and while his many children and his varied occupations made him seem prematurely aged, he was, in fact, during this period, during the years from twenty to forty, experiencing the great formative development of his spiritual life. This development was most interesting and fruitful.

He was not a man of books: he had Rollins' Ancient History, Josephus and Plutarch and lives of Napoleon and Cromwell. With these went Baxter's Saints' Rest, Henry On Meekness and Pilgrim's Progress. "But above all others the Bible was his favorite volume and he had such perfect knowledge of it that when any person was reading he would correct the least mistake."[13]

Into John Brown's religious life entered two strong elements; the sense of overruling inexorable fate, and the mystery and promise of death. He pored over the Old Testament until the freer religious skepticism of his earlier youth became more formal and straight. The brother of his first wife says, "Brown was an austere fellow," and when the young man called on the sister and mother Sundays, as his only holiday, Brown said to him: "Milton, I wish you would not make your visits here on the Sabbath."

When the panic of 1837 nearly swept Brown from his feet, he saw behind it the image of the old Hebrew God and wrote his wife: "We all must try to trust in Him who is very gracious and full of compassion and of almighty power; for those that do will not be made ashamed. Ezra the prophet prayed and afflicted himself before God, when himself and the Captivity were in a strait and I have no doubt you will join with me under similar circumstances. Don't get discouraged, any of you, but hope in God, and try all to serve Him with a perfect heart."[14]

When Napoleon III seized France and Kossuth came to America, Brown looked with lofty contempt on the "great excitement" which "seems to have taken all by surprise." " I have only to say in regard to those things, I rejoice in them from the full belief that God is carrying out His eternal purpose in them all."[15]

The gloom and horror of life settled early on John Brown. His childhood had had little formal pleasure, his young manhood had been serious and filled with responsibility, and almost before he himself knew the full meaning of life, he was trying to teach it to his children. The iron of bitterness entered his soul with the coming of death, and a deep religious fear and foreboding bore him down as it took away member after member of his family. In 1831 he lost a boy of four and in 1832 his first wife died insane, and her infant son was buried with her. In 1843 four children varying in ages from one to nine years were swept away. Two baby girls went in 1846 and 1859 and an infant boy in 1852. The struggle of a strong man to hold his faith is found in his words, "God has seen fit to visit us with the pestilence and four of our number sleep in the dust; four of us that are still living have been more or less unwell. . . . This has been to us all a bitter cup indeed and we have drunk deeply; but still the Lord reigneth and blessed be His holy name forever." Again three years later he writes his wife from the edge of a new-made grave: "I feel assured that notwithstanding that God has chastised us often and sore, yet He has not entirely withdrawn Himself from us nor forsaken us utterly. The sudden and dreadful manner in which He has seen fit to call our dear little Kitty to take her leave of us, is, I need not tell you how much, in my mind. But before Him I will bow my head in submission and hold my peace. . . . I have sailed over a somewhat stormy sea for nearly half a century, and have experienced enough to teach me thoroughly that I may most reasonably buckle up and be prepared for the tempest. Mary, let us try to maintain a cheerful self-command while we are tossing up and down, and let our motto still be action, action,—as we have but one life to live."[16]

His soul gropes for light in the great darkness: "Sometimes my imagination follows those of my family who have passed behind the scenes; and I would almost rejoice to be permitted to make them a personal visit. I have outlived nearly half of all my numerous family, and I ought to realize that in any event a large proportion of my life is traveled over."[17]

Then there rose grimly, as life went on in its humdrum round of failure and trouble, the thought that in some way his own sin and shortcomings were bringing upon him the vengeful punishment of God. He laments the fact that he has done little to help others and the world: "I feel considerable regret by turns that I have lived so many years and have in reality done so little to increase the amount of human happiness. I often regret that my manner is not more kind and affectionate to those I really love and esteem. But I trust my friends will overlook my harsh rough ways, when I cease to be in their way as an occasion of pain and unhappiness."[18]

The death of a friend fills him with self-reproach: "You say he expected to die, but do not say how he felt in regard to the change as it drew near. I have to confess my unfaithfulness to my friend in regard to his most important interest. . . . When I think how very little influence I have even tried to use with my numerous acquaintances and friends in turning their minds toward God and heaven, I feel justly condemned as a most wicked and slothful servant; and the more so as I have very seldom had any one refuse to listen when I earnestly called him to hear. I sometimes have dreadful reflections about having fled to go down to Tarshish."[19]

Especially did the religious skepticism of his children, so like his own earlier wanderings, worry and dismay the growing man until it loomed before his vision as his great sin, calling for mighty atonement. He pleads with his older children continually:

"My attachments to this world have been very strong and divine Providence has been cutting me loose, one cord after another. Up to the present time notwithstanding I have so much to remind me that all ties must soon be severed, I am still clinging like those who have hardly taken a single lesson. I really hope some of my family may understand that this world is not the home of man, and act in accordance. Why may I not hope this for you? When I look forward as regards the religious prospects of my numerous family—the most of them.—I am forced to say, and feel too, that I have little—very little to cheer. That this should be so is. I perfectly well understand, the legitimate fruit of my own planting; and that only increases my punishment. Some ten or twelve years ago I was cheered with the belief that my elder children had chosen the Lord to be their God and I relied much on their influence and example in atoning for my deficiency and bad example with the younger children. But where are we now? Several have gone where neither a good nor a bad example from me will better their condition or prospects or make them worse. I will not dwell longer on this distressing subject but only say that so far as I have gone it is from no disposition to reflect on any one but myself. I think I can clearly discover where I wandered from the road. How now to get on it with my family is beyond my ability to see or my courage to hope. God grant you thorough conversion from sin, and full purpose of heart to continue steadfast in His way through the very short season you will have to pass."[20]

And again he writes: "One word in regard to the religious belief of yourself and the ideas of several of my children. My affections are too deep-rooted to be alienated from them; but 'my gray hairs must go down in sorrow to the grave' unless the true God forgive their denial and rejection of Him and open their eyes."

And again: "I would fain hope that the spirit of God has not done striving in our hard hearts. I sometimes feel encouraged to hope that my sons will give up their miserable delusions and believe in God and in His Son, our Saviour."[21]

All this is evidence of a striving soul, of a man to whom the world was a terribly earnest thing. Here was neither the smug content of the man beyond religious doubt, nor the carelessness of the unharassed conscience. To him the world was a mighty drama. God was an actor in the play and so was John Brown. But just what his part was to be his soul in the long agony of years tried to know, and ever and again the chilling doubt assailed him lest he be unworthy of his place or had missed the call. Often the brooding masculine mind which demanded "Action! Action!" sought to pierce the mystic veil. His brother-in-law became a spiritualist, and he himself hearkened for voices from the Other Land. Once or twice he thought he heard them. Did not the spirit of Dianthe Lusk guide him again and again in his perplexity? He once said it did.

And so this saturation in Hebrew prophecy, the chastisement of death, the sense of personal sin and shortcoming and the voices from nowhere, deepened, darkened and broadened his religious life. Yet with all this there went a peculiar common sense, a spirit of thrift and stickling for detail, a homely shrewd attention to all the little facts of daily existence. Sometimes this prosaic tinkering with things burdened, buried and submerged the spiritual life and striving. There was nothing left except the commonplace, unstable tanner, but ever as one is tempted thus to fix his place in the world, there wells up surging spiritual life out of great unfathomed depths—the intellectual longing to see, the moral wistfulness of the hesitating groping doer. This was the deeper, truer man, although it was not the whole man. "Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious influence than while in this man's house," said Frederick Douglass in 1847.

  1. John Brown's Autobiography, Sanborn, p. 16.
  2. Heman Hallock, in the New York Journal of Commerce, quoted in Sanborn, p. 32.
  3. John Brown's Autobiography, Sanborn, p. 16.
  4. John Brown's Autobiography, Sanborn, pp. 16, 17.
  5. John Brown, Jr., in Sanborn, p. 34.
  6. Ruth Brown in Sanborn, pp. 37–39.
  7. John Brown, Jr., in Sanborn, pp.91–93.
  8. Ruth Brown in Sanborn, pp. 93–94.
  9. Ibid., p. 104.
  10. Ruth Brown in Sanborn, p. 44.
  11. Letter to John Brown, Jr., 1841, in Sanborn, p. 139.
  12. Letter to his wife, 1844, in Sanborn, p. 61.
  13. Ruth Brown in Sanborn, pp. 38–39.
  14. Letter to his wife, 1839, in Sanborn, p. 69.
  15. Letter to his wife, 1851, in Sanborn, p. 146.
  16. Letter to his wife, 1846, in Sanborn, p. 142.
  17. Letter to his daughter, 1847, in Sanborn, p. 142.
  18. Letter to his wife, 1844, in Sanborn, pp. 60–61.
  19. Letter to his father, 1846, in Sanborn, pp. 21, 22.
  20. Letter to his daughter, 1852, in Sanborn, p. 45.
  21. Letter to John Brown, Jr., 1852, and to his children, 1853, in Sanborn, pp. 151 and 155.