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.