In writing about John Brown's actions against slavery, the easy approach would be to either softpedal the Pottawatomie massacre by saying it was obviously wrong but his later actions outweighed it, or just to avoid passing judgment on it.
That approach didn't make sense to me in the context of these posts, which are meant to throw light on the absurdity of neo-Confederate pseudohistory. So I've stated that in my jdugment, those killings were justified in that particular set of circumstances at that moment in time. One reason I think it's important to make such judgments is the fact that I'm apalled that so many Americans, including devout Christians, seemed to be so little interested in thinking seriously about the justice of the Iraq War, either from a Christian just-war doctrine or some counterpart. And there's much more involved in that than simply picking sides.
Those who take the position that the Pottawatomie killings could be justified have to take account of some storng arguments against it. The killings were not only brutal, they were targeted assassinations. And they were not killings in direct combat, but "knocks on the door in the middle of the night", of the kind we stereotypically associate with the state terror of practiced by dictatorships. (The main association then would have been Robespierre's official Terror during the French Revolution.)
The killings were illegal, done by private individuals and not under the cover of law. The men executed were not given even a kangaroo-court pretense of a trial.The initial response among Free State partisans in Kansas, including two of Brown's other sons who were not involved in those killings but who were active in an irregular Free State militia, was condemnation. Brown himself and the other participants consistently denied their involvement unitl well after the Civil War when some of them discussed the details. and the effect of the killings, one consciously anticipated by Brown, was to immediately polarize the political conflict in Kansas and to intensify the violence, thereby forestalling any more peaceful resolution of the issue.
In my mind, the last consideration is by far the most persuasive. Violence begets violence even in far less tense situations. In a genuine civil-war atmosphere like that, deciding to make a step like the Pottawatomie killings was a decision not only to kill those five individuals but to virtually guarantee that even more people would be hurt and killed.
The fact that the actions were outside the scope of acceptable military conduct interms of the prevailing laws of war and standards of conduct even of that time is also a strong one. I'll say more about these two considerations in the next post.
The other objections don't strike me as nearly so substantial. This was guerrilla war on both sides. Both pro-slavery and Free State partisans were acting in a largely lawless, wild-west environment. To the extent that the national government under Franklin Pierce had actual power to enforce the law in Kansas Territory at all, the administration was supporting the blatant criminality of the Border Ruffians in stealing elections by "force and fraud", in the words of the Howard Committee Report. The rule of law in any normal sense by the standards of the time was simply not in force there.
The fact that the members of Brown's party denied their involvement is also not a significant argument against it. This was guerrilla warfare, not civil disobedience. Willingly submitting to being prosecuted for the actions taken was just not a consideration.
It's worth mentioning at this point that there is still some dispute about Brown's exact motive in the action. I agree with Stephen Oates that Brown's stated reason of wishing to strike a retaliatory blow for the sack of Lawrence is correct. As he argues, "it seems to fit the logic of events and the behavior of Brown in all the frustration and hysteria that surrounded the sacking of Lawrence". (Oates; 384) He describes it this way:
As the hours [after the sack of Lawrence] dragged unbearably by, Brown "turned back to our troubles on the Pottawatomie." And his frenzy subsided into cold, calculating hatred as he bitterly condemned "the slave hounds" on the creek who had supported the "black laws," echoed the threats of the proslavery party, and were as guilty of the sacking of Lawrence as the Missouri mob assembled in Lecompton. With Lawrence in flames, with proslavery columns prowling the territory, and with the Pottawatomie Rifles [the local Free State militia then headed by John, Jr.] huddled here in inert confusion, it was up to him - it was up to him and his company - to avenge the proslavery atrocities, to show by actual work that there were two sides to this thing....
Sometime in all the commodtion and excitement that prevailed at Ottawa Creek that Thursday night the old man [Brown] decided what kind of work that should be: a blow against the enemy, their aiders and abettors, who sought to kill and burn out "our suffering people" - a blow delivered in such a frightful and shocking way as to cause "a restraining fear." He called his company about him and revealed the general purpose of his intentions. A "radical retaliatory measure" against their enemies on the Pottawatomie. It would involve "some killing." (Oates; 28)
Oates discusses some other possible contributing factors. One was a report, supported by multiple witnesses, that Brown had received word through a messenger that the Pottawatomie pro-slavery men were threatening to kill a particular Free State man. But the idea that this was a decisive factor in Brown's decision, Oates rejects as unsupported by the evidence.
Brown himself claimed afterward that he had heard news that the proslavery men at Pottowatomie were about to move immediately to kill all the Free State settlers there. Oates also rejects this as not substantiated by the available evidence. He does observe that in the state of mind in which Brown and the Pottawatomie Rifles found themselves after the sack of Lawrence, he might have believed something like that was about to happen. But even this is hard to square with the particular moves Brown made that weekend, i.e, if he had thought the danger was that immediate, it's unlikely that he would have lain low on that Saturday instead of rushing back to the creek to protect the Free States settlers.
Another possibility that has been suggested is that Brown had a grudge against the particular individuals because they were involved with the Lecompton-government local court or were set to testify against him. Oates also dismisses this as not only lacking evidence but being seemingly in contradiction to the available evidence.
Oates did not discuss the alternative suggested by the young Robert Penn Warren in his 1929 hostile biography of Brown. Warren argued that the killings were just cover for stealing horses. Actually, "argued" is a very generous term ; he makes the "argument' almost exclusively by sneering inuendo. Brown did steal horse as part of the Pottawatomie raid. Again, it was guerrilla war. Both sides routinely stole horses and cattle in their attacks on the other side. Warren's suggestion is not only unsupported by him, it's implausible in the extreme on the face of it to argue that Brown's band systematically sought out and executed five people in a midnight raid simply as a cover for stealing horses.
But it does suggest something of the quality of pro-Confederate historical perspective, which Warren's biography reflects, that he would go to the trouble to try to make Brown sound like a common horse-thief. To argue that he had murdered five people without cause just wasn't enough for the pro-Confederate view of John Brown.
The Howard Committee was in the Territory at this time, and they were able to take testimony on the Pottawatomie killings very soon after the events. Their report includes statements from Mahala Doyle, John Doyle, James Harris, on what they witnessed. The minority (pro-slavery) report, which was included as part of the Howard Committee's formal report, also has a description of the Pottawatomie massacre.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.