Remember that I die for others' freedom
To liberate the poor and the oppressed
Remember there are many yet to suffer
Before the scourge of slavery's laid to rest
Before the scourge of slavery's laid to rest
- Greg Artzner, "John Copeland" (one of Brown's men at Harpers Ferry)
Political philosopher Scott John Hammond contributed an essay to the Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (2005) on "John Brown as Founder: America's Vilent Confrontation with Its First Principles". The title refers to his argument that Brown fits the model of a leader who was important in establishing some basic principles for a society.
He has some provocative observations about Brown. For instance, given the increasingly obvious ways in which slavery was undermining democracy even for white men:
In turning back to Harpers Ferry, we must also raise the following question: Why weren't more people of conscience moved to arms, as was John Brown? This can be partially explained by the close connection between abolition and nonviolent moral suasion, as in the case of William Lloyd Garrison and the Transcendentalists, but that connection notwithstanding, it is still remarkable that, after conceding the pacifism of most free opponents of slavery, we cannot remember another case that resembles or emulates the Harpers Ferry raid. (Russo/Finkelman; 72)
After all, some of the leading figures of the Revolutionary generation - Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine - had been opponents of slavery. Given the outrages that were taking place in Kansas Territory, the suppression of democratic rights for whites in the South and the general brutality of slavery, Hammond's question is a disturbing one.
Hammond also reminds us that acting against slavery was "consistent both with the tenets of scripture and with the political principles of the polity within which he lived". And he seems to me to be on solid ground in arguing:
Although Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was ultimately unsuccessful, he exemplifies the true spirit of just liberty; and while he contributed neither new law to support democracy nor any new concept to develop the idea of freedom, his deeds accelerated its progress. Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the egalitarian creed when he drafted the Declaration, but he was unable to renounce his own status as master or overcome his idiosyncratic ideas about racial difference. ... John Brown, however, perhaps more than any founder since Thomas Paine, fully incorporated the creed into his actions and lived the idea of equality and racial friendship with unparalleled purity and ardor. John Brown compels us to think of him as a founder - one who, unlike Jefferson and Lincoln, appears to live and act on the fringes of society, but one who, on closer examination, springs from its very center. (Russo/Finkelman; 73; my emphasis)
Unless we are inclined to write off any kind of dedication to a larger cause than oneself and one's own immediate material interests as irrational, or some kind of psychological aberration, Hammond makes a very valid point. He also observes:
Measuring the character and relevance of any historical figure is a task that lends itself to a certain degree of ambiguity. Figures such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and King have all been assessed differently by their champions and critics, and interpretations of their character and descriptions of their heroism as well as their lesser acts have all undergone continual redefinition. Yet they remain, for us, heroes all the same, for in spite of any inadequacies, they reflect the perpetual quest for the affirmation of higher political principle and remain among the great movers who helped shape the conscience and the development of the republic. (Russo/Finkelman; 73; my emphasis)
And, in fact, John Brown believed in the principles of the American Revolution and was ready to act on them. Brown himself lost and was put to death. But his cause won. In the introduction to that same volume, Paul Finkelman points out one of the differences in the Brown of real life and those today who superficially (or even hyprocritically) use his image to justify acts of violence, like bombing abortion clinics or murdering doctors who perform abortions. That difference was the lack of democratic or eaceful alternatives. He writes:
Brown lived at a time when the political process and democratic values been undermined, or destroyed, by slavery. In Kansas the sword and the gun, not the ballot and the printing press, had become the method of determining what kind of government the territory and future state would have. Violence and fraudulent elections were the rule. A war was in progress, and one can view [the] Pottawatomie [massacre] as a tragic event in a tragic war. But even here Brown is clearly not a terrorist; he killed only soldiers or potential soldiers for the enemy at Pottawatomie, and he did not kill children or women, nor did he destroy buildings or other property. He killed those who threatened to kill him. This after all, is what warfare is about.
... [B]y y the 1850s democracy in America was in crisis. In the South there was no discourse on slavery. No debate was tolerated, and agitation against slavery was illegal. Thus there was no possibility for internal change in the South. The Constitution did not allow the national government to interfere with slavery in the states. Thus there was no political process that could end slavery or even challenge it where it existed. In Kansas there was an open political process, but violence, intimidation, and vote fraud undermined the legitimacy of any elections. For Brown, revolution was the only way to significantly challenge slavery. Thus some modern Americans see Brown as a hero of civil rights, challenging slavery in a nation where a proslavery constitution made political change impossible. (Russo/Finkelman; Introduction; my emphasis)
In another context, I might quibble a bit over whether the Constitution was inherently pro-slavery, but his point is an important one. And not only does it distinguish Brown from present-day abortion-clinic bombers, it also is a reminder of the extent of the challenges the partisans of democracy faced at that time. And of the way Brown was ready to confront an ugly reality and defend democracy and freedom, the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence, at a time when they were being challenged in the most severe way by the Slave Power.
One of the great ironies of Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry is that the federal commander who captured him was Robert E. Lee, who was to become the most successful military leaderof the Confederacy and the patron saint -or rather the Christ-figure - of the Lost Cause after the war. Hammond asks some pefectly sensible question about Lee, a man who even many people who generally have little sympathy for the Lost Cause manage to admire (though not with very good reason). Hammond writes:
If some can embrace as a great hero the figure of Robert E. Lee, the defender of a commonwealth that included slavery as an accepted institution, then is it implausible to recognize heroism in the more astonishing figure of Brown? Lee never supported secession until the deed was committed, yet he chose to renounce his commission and past loyalties after years of distinction under arms only in order to side with his state. Other distinguished Southern warriors, such as David Farragut of Tennessee and Winfield Scott, Lee's fellow Virginian, went with the North, but Lee reluctantly [!?!] followed the Old Dominion [Virginia] into the Confederacy. Is it fair to say that whereas Lee chose his homeland, Brown chose humanity? (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
Yes. It would be fair to say that Brown was hung for treason to the state of Virginia, a state of which he had never been a citizen, while Lee chose to betray his country for the cause of slavery. Brown fought for the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence; Lee fought to destroy them.
Whose abstraction is more meaningful: Lee's insistence on abiding with Virginia right or wrong or Brown's devotion to a people sealed in bondage? We must bear in mind that, in spite of his protestations, Lee owned slaves, and his wife owned even more than he did. Regardless of the answer to these questions, popular history has made its judgments, and Lee is known (by most) today as a gentleman warrior, acting from duty and on principle, while Brown is considered (by many) as the guerrilla fanatic, blinded by undignified zeal and without honor. But we must ask which of the two acted on the higher principle, which violated the greater law, which one carries more blood on his hands, and who between them is a more genuinely American hero? (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
I think I'll go with John Brown on that choice.
If it is madness to conduct a private,unruly, and suicidal war against an enemy that one perceives as the very cause of sinful oppression, then what state of mind could cause a man of principle to lead thousands into death out of questionable loyalty to a political system that acknowledges oppression as a venerable institution? (Russo/Finkelman; 74; my emphasis)
These days, our President and his supporters use Democracy primarily as a slogan to justify foreign wars that have little to do with democracy. It's worthwhile to keep in mind the difference between that and actually believing in and acting on the principles of democracy.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.