As I described before, the sack of Lawrence, Preston Brooks' beating of Charles Sumner in the Senate, and the Pottawatomie massacre occurred within less than a week. Richard Boyer writes about the mood at the time:
Seldom in all of America's political or criminal annals has there been such overwhelming shock and indignation as swept the North the day after the assault on Sumner. The most conservative of men in Boston were talking of a march on Washington, a taking over by force of the Southern-owned government ...
Now the talk of revolution was more prevalent than ever before, revolution against the slaveholder-owned national government which, many Northerners believed, was using violence in Washington as it had in Kansas to subvert on behalf of slavery the most fundamental of American rights, including the right of Senate debate. Sumner had used the terms of Revolution and 1776 in describing the administration's tyranny in Kansas, and Seward had said in so many words "Kansas is today in the very act of revolution against a tyranny of the President of the United States." In Kansas many more than John Brown were declaring, despite the strategy of peace urged by Charles Robinson and other Free State leaders, that only a recourse to the armed Revolutionary resistance of 1776 could save Kansas and the nation. (Doyle; 113; my emphasis)
In 1856, and in the years following until Lincoln's election, the national government was dominated by the Slave Power, and the ways in which slavery was undermining democracy for everyone was becoming more and more obvious, even to whites who wanted nothing to do with free blacks. The Free Staters in Kansas Territory - against the bitter opposition of John Brown and his sons - voted by a large majority to exclude all blacks, slave or free, from the Territory. It's tempting today to imagine that opponents of slavery were particularly favorable toward blacks. Only in some cases was that true. But that shouldn't obscure the intensity of the hostility to slavery among increasing numbers of people in the free states who rejected the Slave Power's increasingly tyrannical use of their power in the national government.
But as Seward talked, and Sumner spoke, and Free State leaders in Kansas attempted negotiation, the South was acting and the South was winning. Six Free State settlers had been killed by the Border Ruffians and one of the slain had been tortured before he died, lynched by a mob one of whom fractured his skull with a hatchet. The North was growing tired of saint-liness, of passive resistance like that of Garrison's, of triumphs of character won by turning the other cheek. They admired Sumner, the martyr, but they longed for victories other than the moral grandeur of physical defeat. As they spoke of charred and looted Lawrence, the Free State center which had been reduced by Missouri's forces, there were those who yearned passionately for a hero who would meet the South on its own ground and on its own terms, for a champion who would oppose the slaveholders not with the purity of superior character but with the strength of superior force. Soon they were to have such a hero [in John Brown]. And if his methods were occasionally dubious they were ignored because his victories were bloody, actual, and sorely needed, many felt, at a time when all victories actual and not [merely] moral had seemed to belong only to the partisans of slavery. (Boyer; 113-114; my emphasis)
Oswald Garrison Villard clearly believed the Pottawatomie killings were not justified. But his discussion of the various issues around that event is a thorough one. And his descriptions of the generals situation in Kansas paint a vivid picture of the particular situation:
In Kansas in 1856 the situation was different from that of California in 1849-50, in that most of the existing lawlessness had its origin largely in the national politics of the day. That there were the same rude and dangerous characters to be found on every frontier is proved by the recital of thecrimes committed in Kansas prior to the Pottawatomie murders. In the case of Kansas, the high character of part of the emigration was offset by the lawless character of the Border Ruffians. Slavery itself tended to that overbearing lawlessness which is inevitable wherever the fate of a dark-colored people is placed unreservedly in the hands of whites. It was the spirit of intolerance and lawlessness bred by slavery which dictated the destruction of Lawrence and made the abuse of the ballot-boxes seem proper and justifiable. (Villard; 171; my emphasis)
And this framing of the Pottawatomie massacre is also a good one:
In the light of all the evidence now accumulated, the truth would seem to be that John Brown came to Kansas bringing arms and ammunition, eager to fight, and convinced that force alone would save Kansas. He was under arms at the polls within three days of his arrival in Kansas, to shed blood to defend the voters, if need be, and he was bitterly disappointed that the Wakarusa "war" ended without a single conflict. Thereafter he believed that a collision was inevitable in the spring, and Jones and Donaldson proved him to be correct. Fired with indignation at the wrongs he witnessed on every hand, impelled by the Covenanter's spirit that made him so strange a figure in the nineteenth century, and believing fully that there should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, he killed his men in the conscientious belief that he was a faithful servant of Kansas and of the Lord. He killed not to kill, but to free; not to make wives widows and children fatherless, but to attack on its own ground the hideous institution of human slavery, against which his whole life was a protest. He pictured himself a modern crusader as much empowered to remove the unbeliever as any armored searcher after the Grail. It was to his mind a righteous and necessary act; if he concealed his part in it and always took refuge in the half-truth that his own hands were not stained, that was as near to a compromise for the sake of policy as this rigid, self-denying Roundhead ever came. Naturally a tenderhearted man, he directed a particularly shocking crime without remorse, because the men killed typified to him the slave-drivers who counted their victims by the hundreds. It was to him a necessary carrying into Africa [i.e.,carrying it to the slavery supporters] of the war in which he firmly desired himself engaged. And always it must not be forgotten that his motives were wholly unselfish, and that his aims were none other than the freeing of a race. With his ardent, masterful temperament, he needed no counsel from a Lane or a Robinson to make him ready to strike a blow, or to tell him that the time for it had come. The smoke of burning Lawrence was more than sufficient.
If this interpretation of the man and his motives lifts him far above the scale of that Border Ruffian who boasted that he would have the scalp of an Abolitionist within two hours and actually killed and scalped the very first one he met, it cannot be denied that the Border Ruffians who sacked Lawrence believed as thoroughly in the justice of their cause, and their right to establish in Kansas what was to them a sacred institution, as John Brown did in his. Their leaders had told them of an agreement in Congress that Kansas should be a slave State and Nebraska free. Hence their belief that the North had broken this compact rendered them particularly bitter against the Free Soilers. It was to them also a holy war in which they were engaged, - even with its admixture of whiskey and lawlessness, characteristics of the Southern "poor white" civilization of the period. (Villard; 185-6; my emphasis)
Of course, as we have seen, many of the foot-soldiers of slavery in Kansas may have been poor whites who had no slaves. But the fact that a former Senator of Missouri came over the lead the proslavery irregulars is an illustration that the cause they were serving was that of the large slaveholders.
I've given a lot of attention in this series of posts to the Pottawatomie massacre. But it's also important to keep in mind that John Brown the man is not the same as John Brown, the legend and symbol. Brown's supporters tended to deny or brush over his alleged role in Pottawatomie. It was his exploits later that year in Kansas that made him a well-known antislavery figure. It's even the case that many of his most devoted admirers did not endorse even his failed raid at Harper's Ferry, though it wasn't nearly so morally ambiguous as the Pottawatomie action. Even before he was hanged in December of 1859, his admirers were consciously distinguishing betweeen John Brown the man and John Brown the symbol.
It also worth recalling at this point that human frailty is what it is. As Boyer observes:
The growing conviction in the North that something had to be done to stop the expansion of slavery did more than bring thousands of his fellow citizens into partial agreement with views long held by Brown. It provided the necessary setting, the essential scene, for his own individual renascence, after a critical failure that for some time made him almost incapable of decisive action. It brought him four years of success, of a kind at least, after all his reverses. The fevered political scene, the gathering crisis, seemed to revitalize the Old Man and give his life a force and meaning that it had never had before.
... Like most Americans of the period, he was still under the spell of the American Revolution and the words "All men are created equal" were to him not a Fourth of July orator's phrase but a fact his grandfather had died to prove in the War for Independence and to which he would similarly attest. Sometimes he enjoyed speaking of the Revolution to the eminent as if it were still going on and then he liked to say, bristling and rearing back and savoring himself a little, that he believed in the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule, sir, that he believed they meant the same thing, sir, and that it would be better for a whole generation to pass from the earth, men, women, and children, than that one jot or tittle of either should be lost, adding with an imperious flash, "I mean exactly so, sir."
When he spoke so to Emerson and Thoreau in Concord in 1857, they regarded him with unfeigned admiration. After all, in their view he was the foremost victor of Kansas, the pre-eminent champion against slavery in that Territory's civil war. It was an age of absolutes, and both Thoreau and Emerson were inclined to regard him as spotless. Yet they had every reason for knowing, if they wished to know, of his bloody exploit at Pottawatomie, where he supervised the midnight execution of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, since it had been reported in a widely circulated government report. (Boyer; 121)It's always valuable to remember that it's very tempting to overlook the misdeeds or questionable judgment of Our Side. That's not to say passing more responsible judgments isn't possible. It's just that it's all too human not to do so.
Still, in understanding the historical image of John Brown, it wasn't for "midnight assassinations" that he was admired. And many admired him while disapproving of his less controversial violent exploits.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index toConfederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.