John Brown of Harper's Ferry
Eliza Mason was the wife of Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, Confederate ambassador to Great Britain, and stalwart defender of slavery. Nearly a half-century later when their daughter Virginia published a volume on her father’s life, she repeated in much the same terms her mother’s earlier representation of the conditions of African American slaves and John Brown’s raid. Virginia Mason wrote that this was an insurrection that attempted to induce slaves “to carry death and destruction into the homes in which they had always lived peacefully and happily, and in which they were always better fed and better cared for in sickness and in old age, than has been, or is now the case anywhere in the world” (141). The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason (New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1906) The positive view of slave life that Eliza Mason voiced in correspondence to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child remained standard fare in the early twentieth century.
This tract, published in Scotland, is an abbreviated version an 1860 tract published by the American Anti-Slavery Society featuring correspondence concerning John Brown between Child, Governor Wise of Virginia, and Mrs. Mason. The correspondence was originally published in the New York Tribune and became one of the most popular tracts issued by the Society.
Mrs. Mason begins with a letter attacking Child’s defense of John Brown, invoking the spectre of a slave revolt that would “condemn women of your own race, ere death closed their eyes on their sufferings from violence and outrage, to see their husbands and fathers murdered, their children butchered, the ground strewed with the brains of their babies.” (1) Against adverse portrayals of slavery, she draws a portrait of Southern women who care for, dress, and attend to their slaves. Mrs. Mason concludes with an injunction for Southerners against reading Child’s writing.
Child’s reply, written after Brown’s execution, begins by disputing Mason’s citation of 1 Peter ii:8, a favorite biblical citation of pro-slavery writers. She continues through a series of arguments on southern mores and law, citing sources as diverse as public advertisements and eyewitness testimony from former slaveholders. She argues that the efforts of US abolitionists over thirty years to present dispassionate argument have met “violence and abuse almost equal to that poured on the head of John Brown.” (6) “In this enlightened age,” she writes “all despotisms ought to come to an end by the agency of moral and rational means. But if they resist such agencies, it is in the order to Providence that they must come to an end by violence.” (7) Child’s defense of Brown derives, in the end, from an ascription of divine will for such violence.
See also Victor Hugo in Letters on American Slavery (1860) 3-6.