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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

Martyr or murderer? Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown

The painting "The Last Moments of John Brown" by Thomas Hovenden sparks debate about John Brown's controversial actions against slavery. Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry and his execution polarized opinions, leading to the Civil War. The painting portrays Brown as a martyr, symbolizing his fight for freedom. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] 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 Hovenden. - [Lauren] The painting was made 25 years after the execution of John Brown. - [Steven] 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. - [Lauren] At the museums, we like to ask visitors a more pointed version of that. Was he a martyr or a terrorist? - [Steven] John Brown attacked the Federal Armory at Harper's 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. - [Lauren] The raid on Harper's Ferry takes place on October 16th, 1859. In very quick succession, John Brown is captured, imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to death. - [Steven] And within two months, executed. - [Lauren] In that two-month period, people across the United States debated. Were 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. - [Steven] 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 slave-holding states of the United States. - [Lauren] 1859 was a year running up to a presidential election. Just as news cycles move today, before a presidential election, people make their feelings known. And running up to this election, people were asking themselves 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. - [Steven] 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 is clearly sympathetic to the actions of John Brown. And paints 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 that 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. - [Lauren] 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 become mythologized through poetry and print, House said he actually had nothing to do with the story. - [Steven] 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. - [Lauren] The expression of the little girl, who's 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 this scene, she seems to see him in the same light as those he fought to free. - [Steven] 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, who'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. - [Lauren] Once you see that cross, you understand the story that Hovenden is trying to get you to see. - [Steven] 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 heroized 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. - [Lauren] 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. - [Steven] And Harriet Tubman actually tried to find volunteers to help support his attack at Harper's Ferry. - [Lauren] We should also say something about where we are as the viewer. We're 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? - [Steven] What Hovenden has done is parted the crowd for us. We're given this privileged view. The artist has given us access to history. (jazzy piano music)