John Brown: Problem Child of American History

Our history has its share of odd characters, but surely none odder than John Brown.  An Old Testament prophet somehow marooned in Nineteenth Century America, John Brown preached the wrath of God against slave holders and considered himself the bloody sword of the Almighty.  It is tempting to write off John Brown as a murderous fanatic, and he was certainly that, but he was also something more.

The American political process was simply unable to resolve the question of slavery.  Each year the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battered at each other with no head way made.  Bleeding Kansas was the result of Stephen A. Douglas’ plan to simply let the people of the territory resolve the issue.  Where ballots cannot, or will not, resolve a question of the first magnitude in a democracy, ultimately bullets will.   A man like Brown, totally dedicated to the anti-slavery cause, was only too willing to see violence resolve an issue that the politicians would not.

Brown attacked a great evil, American slavery, but he was also  a murderer, as the five pro-slavery men he had dragged from their houses at night and hacked to death at Pottawotamie in Kansas with home made swords would surely attest.   His raid on Harper’s Ferry was a crack-brained expedition that had absolutely no chance of success, and yet his raid helped bring about the huge war that would ultimately end slavery.

 After his mad and futile attempt to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown was tried and hung for treason against the state of Virginia.  He considered his trial and treatment quite fair and thanked the Court.  Brown impressed quite a few Southerners with the courage with which he met his death, including Thomas Jackson, the future Stonewall, who observed his execution. 

Brown of course lit the fuse for the Civil War.  He convinced many moderate Southerners that there were forces in the North all too ready to incite, in the name of abolition, a race war in the South.  The guns fired at Harper’s Ferry were actually the first shots of the Civil War.

Brown, as he stepped forward to the gallows, had a paper and pen thrust into his hand by a woman.  Assuming for the last time the role of a prophet, Brown wrote out, I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Abraham Lincoln commented on Brown at his Cooper’s Union  speech on February 27, 1860 and took pains to separate the Republican Party from Brown:

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.

*******************************************************************************************

John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.

Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, captures Brown well:

JOHN BROWN’S PRAYER

       Omnipotent and steadfast God,
       Who, in Thy mercy, hath
       Upheaved in me Jehovah’s rod
       And his chastising wrath,

       For fifty-nine unsparing years
       Thy Grace hath worked apart
       To mould a man of iron tears
       With a bullet for a heart.

       Yet, since this body may be weak
       With all it has to bear,
       Once more, before Thy thunders speak,
       Almighty, hear my prayer.

       I saw Thee when Thou did display
       The black man and his lord
       To bid me free the one, and slay
       The other with the sword.

       I heard Thee when Thou bade me spurn
       Destruction from my hand
       And, though all Kansas bleed and burn,
       It was at Thy command.

       I hear the rolling of the wheels,
       The chariots of war!
       I hear the breaking of the seals
       And the opening of the door!

       The glorious beasts with many eyes
       Exult before the Crowned.
       The buried saints arise, arise
       Like incense from the ground!

       Before them march the martyr-kings,
       In bloody sunsets drest,
       _O, Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
       You will not let me rest!_

       _I hear your sighing corn again,
       I smell your prairie-sky,
       And I remember five dead men
       By Pottawattamie._

       Lord God it was a work of Thine,
       And how might I refrain?
       _But Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
       I hear her in her pain._

       _Her corn is rustling in the ground,
       An arrow in my flesh.
       And all night long I staunch a wound
       That ever bleeds afresh._

       Get up, get up, my hardy sons,
       From this time forth we are
       No longer men, but pikes and guns
       In God’s advancing war.

       And if we live, we free the slave,
       And if we die, we die.
       But God has digged His saints a grave
       Beyond the western sky.

       Oh, fairer than the bugle-call
       Its walls of jasper shine!
       And Joshua’s sword is on the wall
       With space beside for mine.

       And should the Philistine defend
       His strength against our blows,
       The God who doth not spare His friend,
       Will not forget His foes.

 

12 Responses to John Brown: Problem Child of American History

  • John Brown was nothing more than a bloodthirty terrorist and fanatic. He threw gasoline into a fire that reasonable men on both sides were trying to quench. He was not a hero to be emulated, but a criminal to be abhorred. And he was a willing tool of the Northeastern establishment progressive group called the Secret Six, just like the Radicals of the 60’s were tools of the Communist Party.

  • Tell us how you really feel Stephen! :) I readily agree with you that Brown was a terrorist. However, he was not a terrorist in order to establish a Communist state, or a Fascist state, or some other tyranny, but rather to help free a people held in bondage by his time for almost 250 years. When people are unwilling to agree to peaceful change to remedy a great evil, sooner or later men of blood and violence like Brown will appear on the scene to attempt to bring about the change by other means. This does not lessen the moral culpability of Brown for his actions. It does mean that we also have to look at the moral culpability of a great many people at that time who thought it was perfectly fine for people of a certain race to be owned as if they were so many cattle or hogs. The unwillingness of slave holders in the South to even listen to arguments in favor of gradual emancipation, made the advent of violent abolitionism such as practiced by John Brown inevitable.

  • “When people are unwilling to agree to peaceful change to remedy a great evil, sooner or later men of blood and violence like Brown will appear on the scene to attempt to bring about the change by other means… The unwillingness of slave holders in the South to even listen to arguments in favor of gradual emancipation, made the advent of violent abolitionism such as practiced by John Brown inevitable.”

    Let us hope and pray that history doesn’t repeat itself with respect to abortion.

  • Precisely what I have long thought also Jay.

  • Well intentioned? Maybe. Terrorist? Without a doubt. Was violence really necessary? Of course not! Slavery has existed throughout human history and there are more people in slavery today than ever. Some are direct slaves, mostly in the sex trade. Others, are slaves to tyranny and even more, I dare say all, are slaves to vice.

    Could these United States have purged the scourge of slavery without war and bloodshed? Probably, but as Aslan (C.S. Lewis) says, we can never know what would have happened. At the core was a racist ideology that black Africans were inferior to the white man, this is was as prevalent if not more so in the North as in the South. Is it true? Of course not; however, the African slaves were not well disposed, through no fault of their own, to be integrated into society in a role other than as slaves. To truly free African slaves, war was the worst way, what was needed was education. Eduction of the white Americans that black Africans were people just like them, only different and all are children of God. Eduction of the black slaves, which was undertaken by great men like Jackson. Slaves needed to be educated into knowledge of God, Christianity and the civil society of their respective states, so they could be self-supporting as freedmen.

    Of course, this would not do for those who merely want to conserve the status quo, or those who wish to keep mankind in perpetual revolution and turmoil. The money interests were too strong to prevent war and slavery gave the North, moral cover, for a disastrous war. Slavery is a blight on America’s history and is only made worse by liberal revolutionaries like John Brown.

    Harper’s Ferry is now in West Virginia, because those traitors and the Yankee government stole the land of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, I live less than an hour from there and make frequent visits in the Spring and the Autumn. It is quite beautiful and there is tinge of sadness when one stands at the ammunition depot, although it is moved from the original location where Captain R. Lee put down the terrorist attack. Over the years I have noticed changes in the historical plaques. Brown the murderer, has been replaced by Brown the community-organizing, liberal, do gooder. Mentions of Lee are practically non-existent. Of course, for the revolution to roll on, we must re-write history.

    If this trend is not reversed, the revisionist history will lead all of us into slavery. Isn’t that ironic. Evil actions cannot bring about good results. We will all need to keep that in our hearts and minds, as the forces of social progress spin up the revolution in the form. The goal, as usual is slavery, but this time, we want happy slaves, who enjoy bread and circuses. We don’t need slaves to pick cotton in the fields, we need slaves to serve the consumer and be good corporate consumers themselves.

    Sadly, groupthink often leads to confusion. Instead of seeking fist the Kingdom of Heaven, we wish to turn stone into bread. Brown was not morally right, despite being against slavery – a moral evil, for he was seeking ‘social justice’ by any means necessary. We can only seek social justice if the first order of business is God’s Kingdom. Christ would have reprimanded Brown, get behind me Satan!

  • “Harper’s Ferry is now in West Virginia, because those traitors and the Yankee government stole the land of the Commonwealth.”

    Didn’t you know, AK, that secession can be justified as long is it’s for the right (i.e. politically correct) reasons?

    ;-)

    Speaking of stealing land, it’s hard for me to appreciate Arlington National Cemetery knowing that it was placed where it was out of spite for a great man.

  • “The money interests were too strong to prevent war and slavery gave the North, moral cover, for a disastrous war.”

    620,000 dead was a high price to pay, but not too high I think to end slavery and preserve the Union. Of course without secession, which was undertaken to protect slavery, as the Confederate states made quite clear at the time, there would have been no war.

    As for the creation of West Virginia, the Union government of Viriginia, under Francis Pierpont, the father of West Virginia, approved of it, thereby meeting the Constitutional requirement. The Confederate government of Virginia, by their own contention, did not recognize the authority of the United States Constitution and was thus hardly in a position to make an objection that would have to be recogized under the US Constitution. Rule one for any state that wishes to secede from the Union: Make very sure that a very large portion of your own state will not wish to secede from you.

  • Donald,

    The price was too high. Not that slavery was not to be ended, but it could have been done without war. It wasn’t. The cost in blood was too high. The cost in treasure was greater than the economic value of all the slaves. Too high. Of course, once war starts, it has to be finished. We should have done more to avoid war. Yet, freeing direct private slaves at the expense of making them and everyone else public slaves of the state can’t be seen as a good thing. In fact, it is a Communist idea.

    Preserving the Union is very important. Secession should not be taken lightly and only as a last measure. Yet, the battle for a federated system with diffused power and local autonomy instead of a national Leviathan is very important too. If we preserve the Union at the expense of the purpose of the Union, then what kind of union have we.

    As for so-called West Virginia, it was shady business and has done nothing but ill serve the Republic.

  • Slavery wasn’t abolished without war AK in the South. That is the key point. The issue had been debated since the American Revolution and it was clear as glass that the South would not voluntarily part with slavery.

    As for people being public slaves as a result of the Civil War, I think that proposition is not supported at all by history.

    The Union, the country, is what we make of it.

    The creation of West Virginia was shady, but I would submit no shadier than the secession of Virginia from the Union. Admit the right of secession, and I’ll be hanged if I can see a good reason as to why it should be limited only to states.

    A good overview of the birth of West Virignia is in the case of The State of Virginia v. The State of West Virginia.

    http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=78&invol=39

  • Donald,

    The federal victory of the war set the precedent for a national government as opposed to a federal one – this is the beginning of tyranny and slavery. Sure there are other factors, but how else can you explain the state of the Union today? Unconstitutional legislation is the rule not the exception, massive debt, fiat money, intrusiveness of government into personal liberties and localities, perpetual warfare and welfare.

    The federal government is a creature of the states, Virginia being one of them and we voluntarily entered into the federal compact, so we may voluntarily leave if it becomes necessary. So-called west Virginia did not create Virginia, it is part of Virginia’s geography – no right of session at all.

    To be clear I am glad we have a Union; however, I am not at all pleased with having an illicit, illegitimate and unconstitutional national government run by a private banking cartel and these days anti-American, socialist revolutionaries.

  • Sure there are other factors, but how else can you explain the state of the Union today?

    The federal government – or national government – remained largely subservient to the states until well after the conclusion of the Civil War. It was not until the dawn of the Progressive era and the Wilson presidency that the idea that the federal government should take on further powers really blossomed, and indeed then the true expansion of federal powers didn’t get jumping until FDR.

    Unconstitutional legislation is the rule not the exception, massive debt, fiat money, intrusiveness of government into personal liberties and localities, perpetual warfare and welfare.

    All true, and all legacies of FDR and his followers, not Lincoln.

  • Paul, I do not lay the blame at the feet of Lincoln. No doubt that both Roosevelts, Wilson, Johnson, etc. are the figureheads of the progress toward the elimination of the American Republic. Yet, it was the Union victory that placed the strain on state’s sovereignty. Had the states maintained their proper power with sufficient checks against each other and the federal authority, progressivism would have had to seek another way to revolutionize a constitutional republic into a democracy cum corporatist oligarchy.

    To be clear, I think Lincoln was aware of this and his conviction to keep the Union trumped his ability to curb the money power and the coming age of ‘progressivism’. Who knows if things would have been different had he not been murdered. I rank Booth with Brown – terrorists.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .