Saturday, June 5, 2010

Henry Clay Pate Strikes Again

Researching in the University of Kentucky Special Collections at the Margret I. King Library a couple of weeks ago I ran across a pamphlet that was in very bad condition and that I didn't know existed. In all of my reading on John Brown I had never come across a reference to it that I can recall.

Anyone doing research on John Brown has probably come across the name Henry Clay Pate (see June 15, and December 30, 2009 posts). Brown and Pate had some run-ins in the "Bleeding Kansas" years, and Pate, a native Virginian, visited the incarcerated Brown while he was in jail at Charlestown, Virginia awaiting his hanging.

Anyway, this pamphlet was printed in 1859, so it had to have been produced in the few weeks following Brown's execution on December 2. It was printed in New York "by the author." The title is, John Brown as Viewed by H. Clay Pate; a very brief title for a mid-nineteenth century publication of this type - the titles to these things usually run into almost paragraph length.

Other than the usual rhetoric you might expect from a person in Pate's position, and with past experiences with Brown, there was nothing that really caught my eye, except for Pate's biographical narrative on Brown. There were some things that he got right, but for the most part it was totally off the mark.

This section of the pamphlet is labeled, "The Antecedents of John Brown," and I will provide the entire quote:

It will be a gratification to the friends of Horace [Greeley] and Frederick [Douglass] for them to know all about him whose champion they are, and whose advocates they have been. We will first look at the old hero as a Kentucky jail bird. The Evansville (Indiana) Enquirer informs us that John Brown passed two years in Frankfort [state penitentiary] at hard labor, "having been concerned in running off slaves, and was caught in the act." After his term was out, "he went North, avowed himself a martyr to the anti-slavery cause, and became the idol of the Republicans." It seems that old Brown made his headquarters at Henderson, Kentucky, pretending to be a "pedlar," instead of a "miner," as at Harper's Ferry. This was about 1852 or '53. Then Enquirer adds: "Old 'Pedlar' Brown, on one of his excursions, stayed over night at a house about six miles from Evansville, where the editor of this paper happened also to be a guest. The subject of slavery was discussed between them, and in the conversation, Brown stated he had lived in Portage county, Ohio. This, also, it seems, was formerly the home of old "Ossawatomie." He also said that he had a family of sons whom he had dedicated to eternal hostility to slavery. Old 'Ossawatomie' lost two sons at Harper's Ferry, carrying out their eternal hostility." And lost them, the editor might have added, in carrying out the country's "emancipation from the slave power in blood."

I am very curious to know where the editor of the Evansville Enquirer got his information. To my knowledge, John Brown never set foot in the state of Kentucky, and other than this one, there is certainly no solid historic record that he served two years in the state penitentiary. Pate mentions that Brown's activity in Kentucky was in "1852 or '53." At that time John Brown was tied up attending numerous court cases in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts concerning suits with his unsuccessful operation of the wool firm Perkins and Brown. He certainly wasn't in Kentucky making little rocks out of big rocks. And, although he did have ties to Portage County, Ohio, (Franklin Mills) and did have a flock of sons that were committed to abolition, that information could have easily been gleaned from the numerous newspaper accounts in the wake of the Harpers Ferry raid.

Obviously, by writing the pamphlet Pate was attempting to make Brown look as dispicable as possible. He certainly had his motives to denigrate Brown; one of the most important being his honor. Brown had captured Pate in Kansas and Pate had published cards and newspaper articles defending himself and giving his side to that story. It just goes to show; retaliation in the media is not something the twenty-first century invented.


  1. Hey Tim, have you talked with Russ Hatter at the Capital City Museum? There were two John Browns in Frankfort. One is the John Brown at Liberty Hall (the US senator). But there was another one. Maybe he served time in the penitentiary. Very interesting blog. I didn't know you had one but now that I do I'll check in frequently.

  2. Sara,
    Thanks for the info. I'll have to look into that. John Brown is after all a pretty common name.