John Brown’s Revolt: How Do We Fight a Great Injustice?

Last week the Liberal Ironist offered his impressions of the beautiful village of Harpers Ferry.  Set in West Virginia in a key gap in the Appalachian Mountains west of Washington, DC, Harpers Ferry lay along a key transportation  corridor from the mid-1700s until the early-20th century.  I was struck with how in subtle yet documented ways (it is after all a National Historical Park) the town bears the marks of its infrastructural and economic evolution through these years, offering a rare microcosm of the material transformation of the United States itself.  But I am convinced no event so brilliantly or so darkly demonstrates Harpers Ferry’s role as a microcosm for the country’s transformations as the incident which makes it so famous–the violent October 1859 raid by radical Abolitionist John Brown.

The raid horrified many, but after the eloquence of his defense during his trial–a trial that only occurred because Brown had strangely survived 2 attacks at his last stand from a Marine lieutenant intended as finishing blows–many in the North not previously involved with the Abolition movement began to take an interest in the enormous injustice of slavery.  (Some argue that John Brown’s raid and his trial defense precipitated the Civil War, but in both cases it seems the Federal Government acted consistently and without primarily-moral motivations: In first doing battle with a radical Abolitionist, then waging war on the pro-slavery secessionist States of the South, it was responding to direct challenges to its own power.)

In any case, since Lieutenant Greene didn’t follow through on his sword strokes, John Brown had the chance to speak in his defense in the Charles Town courtroom on November 2, 1859.  He and the captured surviving men of his raiding party had been charged with treason, and there could have been little doubt that they would be found guilty and subject to the Constitutionally-prescribed hanging.  Brown conceded the material facts of the prosecution’s case had “been fairly proved,” and even expressed gratitude for “the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case.”  He expressed his appreciation to the court itself for maintaining the rule of law in giving him his hearing.  Brown claimed he had hoped to carry out an insurrection against slave owners solely and not the government, and that he hadn’t intended to kill anyone.  It had been only weeks since the Raid on Harpers Ferry, and the contest to make John Brown a martyr for humanity or an idiosyncratic fanatic had already begun.

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote a defense of John Brown for his neighbors–though he pointedly sidestepped the events carried out by the raiders at Harpers Ferry and even Brown’s planned long-term campaign.  Thoreau’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson compared Brown to Jesus.  (This is strange considering the extreme pacifism of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the apparent fact that the most-violent Jesus was with people was in throwing over the tables of the money-exchangers; meanwhile John Brown said in his closing remarks in court that if he and his sons had to die “with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!”)  On December 1, 2009 the New York Times hosted a debate on its op-ed page between a City University of New York professor who called on then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama to grant John Brown a posthumous pardon and a historian who called Brown the most-successful terrorist in American history to that date.  The Liberal Ironist approached this point-counterpoint with an open mind but frankly hoping to find himself primarily persuaded by 1 side or the other; I came away frustrated with the missed opportunities of both columns.

In “Freedom’s Martyr” David S. Reynolds dwells on Brown’s high-minded intentions; he could have been more forthcoming in his column about the tragic gap that sometimes yawns between our intentions and our actions, between ideology and behavior.  To quote the railroad office manager at the beginning of the equally-misguided Sam Peckinpah Western The Wild Bunch, “I don’t care what you were trying to do; I only care what you did.”  We sometimes vainly succumb to our self-image as moral people even as we are distracted from doing the good works or practicing the virtues we tell ourselves we possess as a result.  To note that Brown was uncompromisingly-opposed to the evils of slavery is an easy defense; it assumes, however, that holding “the right opinions” is more-important than the process used to effect change.  Many revolutions carried out with legitimate grievances against the status quo brought on worse conditions for everyone; knowing how to rebel, they didn’t know how to return to conditions of normality, legitimacy, and peace.

I agreed (in broad strokes) with Horwitz’s column which called Brown a terrorist.  I’ll admit I was inclined to do this, but I’ll also admit I felt compromised or even dirty in doing so.  Horwitz accepts the proposition that John Brown’s Raid catalyzed the Civil War (as though James Buchanan’s inattentiveness, Southern anger over the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860, Southern secession and Lincoln’s refusal to accept the Europeanization of America through national division didn’t sufficiently interact regardless of Brown’s actions or defense).  As a result Horwitz unfortunately draws his disapproval of Brown into an argument against trials for suspected terrorists, apparently endorsing the self-defeating message that the justice system shouldn’t apply to those who don’t recognize it.

John Brown was an uncompromising Abolitionist who recognized that ending slavery in America was an issue worth going to war over; the Liberal Ironist–like almost all Americans today–is with him on this, and we can furthermore acknowledge Brown’s sincerity and commitment to his cause in fighting and dieing to abolish slavery.  However, it is also true that he killed innocent people from the Piedmont and 2 US Marines to abolish slavery, so to focus on his goals without analysis of his strategy and tactics isn’t very different from treating the dreams people tell us they’ve had as if they were more real than the World around them.  We have to consider what John Brown did, and what he might have done.  Regardless of the superior moral insight and courage they may have into a burning issue, it is odd to credit someone who doesn’t express remorse for killing innocents for their moral clarity.

As David Reynolds indicates in his column, Brown intended to seize the weapons at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry and start a guerilla war against plantation owners based in the Appalachian South.  Reynolds notes that it was “reasonable” for Brown to expect that a guerilla movement could sustain itself in those Appalachians, and that “His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.”  I think this plan (to borrow Mr. Horwitz’s imperfect metaphor) is no more reasonable than the belief of our current terrorist enemies that the current War in Afghanistan will lead to the breakup of the United States.

Brown led 21 other men to Harpers Ferry.  The only way such a contingent could carry out an effective guerilla war throughout the Appalachian South would be through the rapid liberation of thousands of slaves or the recruitment of thousands of (I’d assume primarily-Northern) Abolitionists.  Short of that they had no reason to expect any fate other than a deserved reputation for massacre, or martyrdom.  But perhaps the most-basic objection to Brown is the naiveté of his expectations about Southern whites.  Acts of violence by unreachable states, terrorists or guerilla fighters in the name of an oppressed minority group well-within the power of another government always creates a political opportunity for the government targeted by that state or faction to escalate hostile action against the minority group on whose behalf it claims to wage that fight.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks there was both increased government surveillance and arrests among both foreign resident and American Muslims in the US, as well as numerous anecdotal hate crimes, including murders, of Muslims and others.  In response to the December 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack on our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, our government confined the whole population of Japanese Americans on the West Coast to camps for the duration of the war.  One of the catalysts of the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of about 1.5 million Armenians during World War I was the increased (but militarily-unenforced) political protection European countries had tried to extend to Turkey’s Armenian minority.  What if, rather than choosing to free millions of black slaves in response to growing support among the oppressed for Brown’s guerilla war, slave owners, several Southern State governments or even our own government under later radicalized Southern leadership had resolved to kill off this threatening minority group wholesale, while it remained vulnerable?  Strategic experience throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from our government’s treatment of American Indian tribes that rebelled to the German Empire’s genocide of the Herero in what is now Namibia over 100 years ago to civil wars supposedly waged by guerillas on behalf of impoverished peasants but which sometimes lead to the mass killing of hundreds of thousands or even millions of them, suggests that a gradual and fitful escalation towards Southern genocide of blacks there would be a more-likely response to an effective guerilla war by John Brown than voluntary abolition.  From this perspective, the waging of the Civil War by our Federal Government with virtually no input from slaves in the South, and resulting in their incremental rather than their immediate emancipation, begins to look like a blessing of fortune, if not great prudence on President Lincoln’s part.

But I have gone well off-topic: This is about John Brown the man, because as one who got the big picture right yet made things worse through an ill-thought-out resort to violence, Brown also serves as a symbol.  Having shed the blood of innocents in this town that literally bridges North and South, and the slave-owning coastal Southern Tidewater and the mountainous, poorer, non-slave-owning Southern Piedmont, Brown set himself as the judge of an entire nation yet not of himself.  Our philosophy is meant to inform the choices we make, but it cannot save us from our guilt when it guides us poorly.  Sympathy for the slave can be as corrupting of an ideology as fascism if it blinds us to the murder of a freedman.  Think of the point as essentially the one Jon Stewart made at his Rally to Restore Sanity, but as sort of a widescreen edition.


2 thoughts on “John Brown’s Revolt: How Do We Fight a Great Injustice?

  1. J-Doug

    Some argue that John Brown’s raid and his trial defense precipitated the Civil War, but in both cases it seems the Federal Government acted consistently and without primarily-moral motivations

    It’s far more likely that John Brown was consciously attempting to precipitate a nationwide military conflict and that he had no discernible effect whatsoever. Lincoln wins his plurality, the first Southern states secede, and Confederate ships bombard Fort Sumter regardless of the Raid, and probably at the same time since the sequence of events was rather rigidly dictated by the Constitution’s electoral and inaugural timetable.

    As for any historian who claims that the effect was significant or even notable, I seriously question their understanding of American political institutions in specific and the most basic concepts of cause and effect in general.


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