This post is about the historical context of the Pottawatomie killings. But first I want to say a word about what it means to discuss the legitimacy or lack thereof of this action.
David Reynolds in his 2005 biography of Brown notes:
A key difficulty modern Americans have with Brown is that his goal - the abolition of slavery - was undeniably good, but his violent methods are hard to swallow. Indeed, John Brown's legacy is complicated by the fact that ever since his death he has been championed by fringe revolutionaries and agitators. (Reynolds; 49)
I’m not sure that everyone Reynolds mentions in that context exactly fits the description of “fringe”, but the point is well taken. Among various figures he mentions that have taken Brown’s example as a support for their own advocacy and/or practice of violence include: Robert Williams of the Revolutionary Action Movement and author of Negroes With Guns (1962); Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers (who endorsed Ronald Reagan for President in later years); H. Rap Brown; Floyd McKissick of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality); Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam; Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party; legendary attorney Clarence Darrow; labor activist Mother Jones; the Weather Underground; Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing; and, the anti-abortion murderer Paul Hill and various other violent anti-abortion activists.
Also, the Bush administration is currently using a very vaguely-defined Terrorism as the justification for what it’s presently calling the Long War. (Unless the official label has changed in the last few days and I haven’t caught the new line on FOX News yet.) So most everyone in the US is measuring political virtue by how negative someone can be against Terrorism or anything that looks like it. And it seems that any historical reference that comes from Republican writers in the popular these days is some kind of shallow propaganda justification for Bush policies. Victor Davis Hanson is the champion hack in this regard.
But just because the current administration is promoting this or that variety of hysteria to justify preventive wars and massive military budgets for boondoggles like the Star Wars program doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to turn our brain off. The fact that some hack or fanatic may try to cherry-pick something we might say is just unavoidable. But there are few Americans who are actual pacifists, whoever much many of us despise the warmongering that has caused so much damage the past four years. And the founding document of our country, the Declaration of Independence, recognizes the fact that in extreme circumstances that political violence. So it’s entirely sensible to look at acts like those of John Brown in the context of the American and democratic traditions, including the principles of the Declaration. And the hacks will make what they make of it.
I’ll be saying more about Brown’s this legacy in later posts. But here I’ll say that Brown was an important historical figure, who, at the least, became an important Civil War symbol for both North and South. It’s worth trying to understand him in terms of the American and democratic traditions, including the revolutionary commitment to human rights in the Declaration of Independence. The fact that hacks or fanatics may use such reasoning badly shouldn’t deter us from doing so.
John Brown was an important antislavery leader who became an important symbol to both North and South just prior to the Civil War. And so it’s important to try to understand him and to make judgments about what he did in order to understand the coming of the war.
In 1855-6, the victory of democracy and the exclusion of slavery from Kansas was very much in question. The illegitimate proslavery Topeka government and their supporters, including gangs of Border Ruffians from Missouri, were making an active and violent effort to defeat the opponents of slavery and run them out of the Territory. And the federal government under Franklin Pierce was favoring the proslavery cause.
The Pottawatomie massacre took place on the night of May 24-25th, 1846. The incidents that immediately preceded it were the sack of Lawrence on May 21, an event which made a deep impression on Brown.
Proslavery settlers in the Pottawatomie area had just demanded that antislavery people leave and had made violent threats against them.
And although Brown probably conceived the Pottawatomie killings just before he heard the news of it, the caning of antislavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by Congressman Preston Brooks took place on May 22. Brown and his company heard about it the following day on their way to Pottawatomie. Salmon Brown later said of hearing that news, “At that blow the men went crazy – crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.”
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.