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Video transcript

[Music] we're in the de Young Museum part of the fine arts museums of San Francisco looking at a painting called the last moments of John Brown by Thomas Bovington the painting was made 25 years after the execution of John Brown we still don't know what to do with John Brown he's such a complicated and controversial figure he's paralyzed almost sainted but also seen as a murderer at the museum's we like to ask visitors a more pointed version of that was he a martyr or a terrorist John Brown attacked the federal armory at Harpers Ferry with the idea that he could distribute the muskets the arms that were there to black slaves in the south inciting a broad rebellion but this was only the final act by John Brown over the course of a couple of years where he used violence to try to end slavery the raid on Harpers Ferry takes place on October 16th 1859 in a very quick succession John Brown is captured imprisoned tried and sentenced to death and within two months executed in that two-month period people across the United States debated where his actions just was he brave was he a madman a danger to our politics to our values and even today we don't agree this event forced people to choose sides it hardened people's opinions and is seen by historians as leading to the decision by the south to secede but even northerners even abolitionists were concerned about John Brown's violent methods Abraham Lincoln tried to distance himself calling John Brown insane and yet John Brown was trying to use force to use violence to undo the violence that was an everyday occurrence of the slaveholding states of the United States 1859 was a year running up to a presidential election just as news cycles moved today before presidential election people make their feelings known and running up to this election people were asking them sells which side did they stand on and when Lincoln is elected in 1860 those who felt strongly that John Brown was acting in the name of all that was good and just they began seeing a very different America from those who did not vote for Lincoln and so if this event had been portrayed by a southerner who was sympathetic to slavery we would see a very different painting this was made by an artist who was clearly sympathetic to the actions of John Brown and pains him here with a noose around his neck with his arms bound on his way to his execution having the presence and tenderness to stop and kiss a child specifically a black child I love the way the figure just to the left of the sheriff peeks over his shoulder to get a glance at the kiss that's unfolding there has been lots of debate as to whether or not that kiss actually took place it seems extremely unlikely that people were allowed anywhere near John Brown and yet newspaper reports and an early poem do depict that kiss the story of the kiss is traced back to an article for the New York Tribune written a few days after the execution and attributed to Edward H house after the story spread and became mythologized through poetry and print house said he actually had nothing to do with the story now that doesn't mean that the kiss didn't happen but it does mean that we don't have direct evidence there is such care in the representation of each of the figures in this painting the expression of the little girl who was holding on to the skirts of her nanny or caretaker she looks up at John Brown with a great sense of understanding of all of the white figures in the scene she seems to see him in the same light as those he fought to free she is in a sense an embodiment of innocence and morality and is in such contrast to the soldier who stands at the lower left of he's using his rifle to block the crowds and looks off at the black man just to his right with incredible disdain all four of the bayonets express a kind of latent violence and so there's this wonderful contrast with the deep humanity that is seen in the figure of Brown himself John Brown here is shown as a martyr as a quasi-religious figure that long white beard reminiscent of the way that Moses is portrayed critics have noted that there's a subtle cross in back of the figure once you see that cross you understand the story that Hovind in' is trying to get you to see here was a white man willing to take enormous risks in order to free African Americans in bondage and it's interesting to think about how historians have looked at him he had been harassed in the northern press in the years during the civil war in fact a song called the body of John Brown was sung by Union troops as they marched but by the time we get to the First World War historians tend to look at John Brown in a very negative light that is only reversed in the last 10 perhaps 20 years but Brown also had his friends and supporters in his lifetime who fought very hard to have him remembered in a different way Frederick Douglass referred to him even after his execution as captain Brown and Harriet Tubman actually tried to find volunteers to help support his attack at Harpers Ferry we should also say something about where we are as the viewer where just far back enough that we can make out the curb at the edge of the jailhouse steps are we jailers are we in the crowd are we sympathetic supporters are we part of the militia ready to escort him to the gallows what Hovind in has done is he hearted the crowd for us were given this privileged view the artist has given us access to history you [Music]