The “Good Lord Bird” is a work of historical fiction that misrepresents John Brown as insane, and like the movie “Santa Fe Trail,” preserves the image of John Brown as an insane abolitionist who has no impulse control whatsoever.

John Brown was considered insane in his time because he believed in the equality of all of humanity in the eyes of God, and that African-Americans were equals to European-Americans. To the racist minds of most European-Americans of the 1850s, both North and South, that made John Brown insane, and when John Brown was willing to stand up and fight for the freedom of enslaved African-Americans in Kansas Territory and at Harpers Ferry, his insanity was confirmed in their minds.

This image of Brown has been passed down from generation to generation, which is unfortunate, because this is a false image of John Brown.

John Brown, in reality, was an intelligent, dedicated abolitionist who was calm under pressure and was actually the cool-headed individual amongst the militant abolitionist guerilla fighters in Kansas Territory, only employing violence when it was necessary and effective during the guerilla war over slavery in Kansas Territory.

Indeed, John Brown was instrumental is working to stop unwarranted violence when younger, more hotheaded abolitionist guerilla fighters wanted to attack proslavery forces in the heat of flaring emotional responses to the proslavery guerilla actions against free state settlers.

This reality of John Brown’s temperament under pressure is often suppressed because it does not fit the established historical narrative that fits neatly into the “Lost Cause” narrative of the image of John Brown as a raving lunatic, which was created due to John Brown’s racial egalitarianism and as a means to discredit John Brown as a positive historic figure by the purveyors of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War.

European-Americans held deeply racist views of African-Americans during the mid to late 19th century, and on into the early 20th century when African-Americans began to fight for equality in all areas of American life. They took aggressive measures to combat civil rights activists.

Civil Rights advocates were vilified in general by racist European-Americans, and John Brown was among them. The cultural ideal that European-Americans were racially superior to African-Americans was ingrained into the mainstream set of American cultural ideals, and John Brown was deemed to be a crazed radical for his abolitionist crusade by the majority of European-Americans until the late 1960s and early 1970s by the vast majority of European-Americans.

The “Good Lord Bird” and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown as insane aids and abets in the effort to preserve the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War and presents an historically inaccurate portrait of John Brown that does a disservice to him.

While John Brown was certainly not a perfect man, he was not insane, but rather an intelligent abolitionist activist who deserves better representation than Ethan Hawke’s inaccurate portrayal in “The Good Lord Bird.”

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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