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John Brown — beyond the pale

December 11, 2009

On Monday's Enterprise, a front page heading caught my eye: " John Brown died for freedom."

It was a perfect heading - short, direct and unambiguous. But was it accurate? That question nagged me then and it still does.

Ultimately, the issue is who was John Brown and what was his lasting contribution? The answers depend on who's talking.

According to his supporters, he was a freedom fighter, an idealist and a man far ahead of his time.

To his detractors, he was a wild-eyed fanatic, a misguided ideologue and a terrorist.

There's no doubt Brown was a committed abolitionist who truly wanted to end slavery. Beyond that, he believed in racial equality. Many, if not most abolitionists opposed slavery but never considered African-Americans their equals, nor did they want them to have equal rights.

So Brown pursued admirable ends. On the other hand, he did it through violent means.


Brown's career as an abolitionist was highlighted by two focal incidents.

The first was "The Pottawattamie Massacre." It took place in Kansas in 1856, during the period known as "Bleeding Kansas." Essentially, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 declared that the Kansas and Nebraska territories would enter the Union as either free or slave states based on a popular vote. This led proponents of both factions to flood the territories and slaughter each other as a matter of course.

Brown contributed his share to the bloodbath, as he and four of his raiding party stabbed and hacked to death five unarmed pro-slavery men, none of whom were slave owners.

The second incident, the one that ensured Brown's lasting fame, was his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. His plan was to capture the arsenal and its 100,000 weapons and arm slaves in surrounding areas. From there, he hoped to free and arm more and more slaves, until he eventually toppled the hierarchy and economy of the South.

The raid was a dismal failure. Almost immediately after taking over the arsenal, it was surrounded by local militia and, shortly after that, U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the arsenal, killed some of Brown's band and captured the rest. Brown went on trial on Oct. 27, was found guilty on November 2 and was hanged a month later.

As for freeing the slaves and subverting the South? Brown clearly failed with that too. But as far as inflaming already-volatile national passions and achieving personal martyrdom, he was an unqualified success.

People who support Brown's methods say he was a man of his times, which were violent times. And indeed they were. But guess what? We live in violent times as well. Still, if someone hates my opinions I'd prefer they attack me with words, not knives and swords.

Some people condone the Harpers Ferry raid, saying it brought the country closer to civil war, thus closer to ending slavery. It's a moot point, since the relationship of the raid to the start of the Civil War can't be calculated.

Moreover, by 1859 the Civil War was inevitable, with or without John Brown. First, the North and South had been on a decades-long collision course. Second, slavery could have been abolished only by war, since there weren't enough Free states to pass a constitutional amendment banning it. John Brown's raid was certainly a contributory cause of the start of the war, but it was neither a necessary nor sufficient one.

A troubling fact about the Harpers Ferry raid: The first casualty was a freed African-American. He was the baggage master at the train station who tried to warn passengers of an incoming train of Brown's party. For his efforts, one of Brown's men shot and killed him. While no one knows his name, just for the record it was Hayward Shepherd.

At first glance, it seems ironic that Shepherd was killed by the same folks who were attempting to liberate his people. But upon reconsideration, given a gang of jacked-up jamokes armed to the teeth, rather than his murder being an exception, it was a perfect example of vigilante "justice."

So who was John Brown, the man? I don't know. But neither does anyone else, since the man himself is lost in the mists of time.

What has remained of John Brown is the myth - immortal, and much greater than the man himself. And since myths are larger than life, they lend themselves to being either lionized or demonized.


What's my take on John Brown?

While I admire his ideals, I loathe his methods. Plus, thinking the raid would succeed was short-sighted; thinking he could conduct a slave revolt that would involve limited bloodshed was downright delusory.

His rationale behind the slave revolt was based on his belief in a law higher than the government's. And of course he was right: Slavery was an abomination, especially in its U.S. form. It was also a national disgrace in light of its having been outlawed in almost every other Western nations - including that bastion of backwardness, Russia.

But both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed in a higher law, pursued a course of nonviolence and, unlike John Brown, succeeded in all respects.

To answer the question of whether Brown was a freedom fighter or a terrorist is easy: Both do the same things, but terrorists are one of them - freedom fighters are one of U.S.

So, ultimately, is John Brown a hero?

While he clearly is to most people, to me he's no hero at all.



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