What do YOU think of John Brown, all these years later?

I used to see this original mural in the state capitol in Topeka when I supervised the people who covered state politics for the Wichita paper. It seems to me to sum up Brown pretty well.

I’ve learned a lot of new things, and been reminded of things I once knew, in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the latter part of which inspired the movie “Lincoln.” (I’m not nearly to that part yet; last night I read up through Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.)

One of them was the radical differences of opinion that existed about John Brown at the time. From my 21st-century perspective, I tend to think of who Brown was and what he meant as being a pretty settled matter. It is in my mind, anyway. But of course, at the time, he was perhaps the most extreme litmus test of attitudes ever to occur in U.S. history.

Today, I perused a review of another book, The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, which consists of contemporary writings about Brown from authors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher, Jefferson Davis, Herman Melville, Stephen Douglas, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx.

Emerson saw Brown as a Christ-like “saint” and Douglass hailed him as “our noblest American hero.” His detractors saw him as “a deranged fanatic whose violent actions made civil war inevitable.”

I always thought of him as a deranged fanatic who just happened to be right about slavery. What he did was inexcusable, however laudable his motivations.

What the Union did in the Civil War was justified not only by the nobility of the cause, but by the fact that it was a case of the duly constituted authority of the country taking action against violent insurrection. But what Brown did was itself violent, murderous insurrection, not in any way supportable under the rule of law, and therefore unjustifiable. (There’s another measurement suggested by Just War theory, which is, Were the goals of his actions achievable? His most decidedly were not.)

A person can have the right idea on a burning issue and still be mad. A person can have noble goals and do despicable things in the name of them. To me, that’s always summed up Brown.

Your thoughts?

41 thoughts on “What do YOU think of John Brown, all these years later?

  1. Jason

    I think you are correct.

    He was probably the equivalent of the folks who have murdered abortion doctors in the last generation.

    A vigilante fanatic, right about one thing, but wrong about everything else.

    It’s fascinating to me the amount of real fear that he caused in South Carolina and other states. Lincoln’s election meant to folks in Columbia, Atlanta, Montgomery, etc, that armies of John Brown’s were coming. That is irrational, but I think that is what the thought.

    In Southern literature from the mid 1700’s to the Civil War, there is not more constant fear than a slave inserection.

  2. Karen McLeod

    He certainly not Christ-like or saintly. Last time I checked Jesus chose dying himself over leading an insurrection against the Romans. He called us to follow him, not the insurrectionists of his day (of which there were plenty.

  3. Brad

    On another subject…

    Y’all, I’m sorry this is all I’ve posted yesterday or today. Yesterday was a busy day for ADCO, and today I seem to be coming down with a bug that my grandchildren are passing around.

    I’m going home to bed. I’ll try to check in from time to time to approve comments.

    This is happening JUST when I thought I’d shaken the cold I’d had for a month — last night I couldn’t sleep for a long, long time for coughing. Now the aches. I had been scheduled to give blood this afternoon. Maybe some of y’all can give in my place.

    This stinks…

  4. bud

    How would the invasion of Iraq war (2003 version) qualify under this so-called “Just War Theory”?

  5. Doug Ross

    “Maybe some of y’all can give in my place.” Typical liberal response.

    I kid… I kid.. hope you feel better. Kids are germ pools.

  6. David Carlton

    The reason John Brown was a litmus test was because his “madness” consisted of the notion that slavery had so deeply corrupted the whole American experiment that it had to be purged with blood (his phrase). The problem with your cherished “rule of law” is that in 1859 the “rule of law” was all on the side of the slaveholders. Indeed, even with the beginning of the war in 1861 most of the Union leadership from Lincoln on down was eager to keep the slavery issue out of it; if the war was to be about the rule of law, it couldn’t be about ending an institution that was blanketed with legal sanction from the Supreme Court (see Scott, Dred) on down. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was at best of shaky legality (One of the bold moves in the movie Lincoln is to have Lincoln launch into a wordy speech to his cabinet on just that point, and the resulting need for a Thirteenth Amendment–good history, but not exactly cinematic). Indeed, what I’d say the Civil War showed was the impossibility of dealing with the slavery issue within the framework of ordinary civility. Ending slavery, like secession, was a revolutionary act, and, as scary as Brown’s approach was, it was prescient. The only way slavery could have been ended was the way it was ended; there was never a “civil” option. We need to remember that whenever we get self-congratulatory about our ability to settle these issues all nice and legal-like.

  7. Silence

    I was wondering why your output had slowed down, I figured you might have been sick or at a doctor’s appointment. Hope you feel better soon!

    No time for the vampires today, gotta conduct phone interviews tonight.

  8. Steven Davis II

    I would, but I don’t know if Red Cross wants to deal with a passed out guy on the floor this afternoon.

  9. Steve Gordy

    Brown’s life strikes me as a case in point of the fine line that sometimes lies between saintliness and madness.

  10. die deutsche Flußgabelung

    Brad, based on your logic of the state having a monopoly on the use of violence, then would you not also charge the Founding Fathers with being insane fanatics. Last time I checked they also killed people in their struggle for freedom. Were they not also violating Great Britain’s (uncodified) constitution by committing violent insurrection.

    Oh and if you consider Brown’s actions in Kansas to be despicable, than you must also hold SC’s Founding Fathers to fault for the “civil war” that took place in South Carolina during the Revolution between Lowcountry Patriots and the Upstate Loyalists.

    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

  11. bud

    Most possitive change in the US has occurred as a result of civil disobedience. John Brown was a trend setter in that regard. Where we be today without the suggragetes, draft card burners and lunch counter protestors. These are the real heros in America. Today we have the pot smokers and gay rights advocates carrying on the great American tradition of civil disobedience. Rosa Parks shouldn’t take a back seat to anyone as a great American hero.

  12. Brad

    Update: After I’ve been home sick for three days, my wife dragged me to the doctor. They ran a test. It’s influenza. I’m still sitting on the exam table, waiting to learn whether there’s anything they can DO about it.

  13. bud

    I take it you didn’t get the flu shot. Thankfully the flu isn’t one of the virus types than can be transmitted through blogging. Hope you feel better soon.

  14. Brad

    If I’d had a flu shot, I’d be dead. I’m that allergic to them. The serum is cultured out in egg.

    I got a shot like that when I was a kid. They gave me just half a child’s dose, because they knew about (but didn’t fully understand) the allergy.

    I don’t remember much about the next few days, but it was worse than the flu, I think.

    But those of you who CAN get flu shots, please do. It improves the odds for us all.

  15. JoanneH

    Wow. I’m always asked the question about the allergy and was curious about it.

    You are correct, though, that all that can take it should.

  16. Michael Rodgers

    Ta-Nehisi Coates — in a comment he wrote to his blog post — says, “The claim that slavery was ‘abolished peacefully’ by the British is comfortable and reassuring fiction. It depends on the notion that slavery everywhere is the same. But even when bent on that dubious foundation it is still demonstrably false.”

  17. Kathryn Fenner

    They are free after insurance to state employees at the Minute Clinic at CVS and basically in and out in five minutes.

  18. Kevin Dietrich

    Slavery may not have been ended with “civility” in the British Empire, but it did not require a war that cost the lives of 650,000 individuals.

    Nor did the end of slavery in the rest of the Western Hemisphere result in catastrophic loss of life, except in Haiti, and that was through a slave revolt.

  19. bud

    Folks in the US tend to overlook atrocities by nations that we share certain bonds with. That is especially true of the Brits. They certainly slaughtered many 10s of thousands of innocents in their overarching efforts to sustain an international empire. I suggest that anyone who finds the Brits this benevolent purveyor of prosperity and righteousness that they read about the history of imperialism in the early days of Iraq. Winston Churchill for his part was more than willing to use air power to bomb and gas the civilian population into submission. In the end they decided it was better to simply leave. But not for humanitarian reasons. It was just too expensive.

  20. Dixieviking

    I’m sorry to read about your medical malady and send you my best wishes that you will be healing soon.

  21. Jean Smolen

    I check your site every work day and was wondering why John Brown was still up there. Hope you’re feeling better soon.

  22. Brad

    Does John Brown ever really go away? Doesn’t he continue to hover over our past and our present, Bible in one hand, rifle in the other?

    OK, forget me trying to be profound.

    This flu is WEIRD. Most of my symptoms have disappeared, except the wracking cough with which it all started, and a bizarre sort of exhaustion. I can’t do any MENTAL activity for more than a moment. I spend a few minutes trying to sort email and have to lie down. I’ll have a thought and start to write it down, and have to stop and close my eyes in mid-sentence.

    Which I’ve had to do several times typing this.


  23. Brad

    … and right after typing that, I called someone at work and spoke for less than five minutes, and broke out all over in a sweat before it was over.

    I’ve never known writing and talking to be so taxing…

  24. susanincola

    I know a bunch of folks (including myself) that had exactly the same thing. The fatigue was weird, and lasted about 9 days. The cough hangs on for weeks…..hope you’re feeling better soon.

  25. bud

    Give Obama a few more years and EVERYTHING will be taxing or rather taxed. That would be funnier from a Republican.

    All kidding aside I hope you get to feeling better soon. I’ve lived with someone who has had several non-stop coughing attacks that can go on night and day for a week or more. It gets to be very exhausting. Fortunatelly that hasn’t happened in several years.

  26. Jason

    Burl – no civil war in the Britain isles, but there were lots of conflicts in British colonies from the mid 17th century through abolition in 1831.

    And remember, until 1783 the South was British. And in Latin America there was tremendous native slavery, wth many revolts. And there were more slaves shipped to Cuba than the whole South, and it was in constant state of insurrection as was Jamaica.

  27. Kathryn Fenner

    The cough is par for the course with the flu. The mental confusion,not so much. Call your doctor!

  28. JoanneH

    My mother is a nurse. She used to say that the flu will stay with you for quite a while, even when you think you’re over it.

    Sweating is a sign of weakness. Take it easy.

  29. Brad

    Actually, Kathryn, it occurred to me about an hour ago that the mental fatigue (and it’s that rather than confusion — it’s like I start running out of air trying to have a sustained thought) might be the cough suppressant the doc gave me. I’m just not going to take it tonight. Doesn’t really help much, anyway.

    It’s getting a little better. I just put up a new blog post. Wore me out, but I couldn’t have done it yesterday, or even earlier today…

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