John Brown’s Vexed Legacy
Historians can’t stop saying it: John Brown still lives. As long as there are causes worth dying for, he always will. Brown’s allure, epitomized by his 1859 botched raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, was his radicalized quest to emancipate North American slaves. This he aimed to do immediately, violently, and without the time-consuming task of political or social legitimization, which he implicitly viewed with contempt. Grassroots were his home turf and pragmatism his nemesis. Politics, as he saw them, were an impotent force at best. Social beliefs were to be damned.
Evidence that Brown had tapped deeply into incipient questions about social change and radicalism in America became evident in the voluminous commentary that followed his hanging. Quickly, and not surprisingly, a clear dichotomy crystalized around the public meaning of John Brown. This debate started playing out before the Civil War ended.
Some viewed Brown as a heroic crusader who infused the abolitionist cause with moral fervor. Others, by contrast, condemned him as a lunatic fringer whose lust for violence threatened to undermine a political process that would, for all its flaws, eventually ended the legality of slavery in the United States.
The legacy of this division remains intact and, as a result, the man continues to enjoy a polarizing influence today. It is often noted that the spirit of his radicalism—which many animal rights activists claim we should nurture—was steadfastly uncompromised by moral lassitude. Less appreciated, however, is how Brown’s rage for moral perfection backfired all over the place—and mostly onto innocent bystanders.
In 1856, driven by characteristic fervor, he attacked and killed five men living in a pro-slavery camp along Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. None of them were slave owners. All of them were fathers. A grieving widow would later send Brown a heartbreaking letter reminding him of the havoc he wrought upon the life of her family (“you can’t say you done it to free our slaves,” she wrote, “we had none, and never expected to have.” All that mattered to Brown, though, was that the area was pro-slave. He never responded to the widow.
Of course, he was busy enacting other schemes. Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry was full of hard-charging zealotry. But, logistically, it was marred by grandiose visions that the rusty nuts-and-bolts of very poor planning (and lack of support) could never fulfill. The first shot fired in the defense of the occupied armory killed a baggage handler on a passing train. That handler was a freed slave.
Brown seemed to relish his image as an impending martyr as much as he did the purity of his emancipatory ideology. When Brown’s own son lie writhing on the floor of the beseiged armory, shot by one of Robert E. Lee’s troops, Brown basically told him to shut up and die like a man. This was a cause he was dying for, after all, one bigger than him. Thus Brown’s blind rage exploded and the cause obscured the consequence.
But Brown’s failures were not just about Brown. They were—controversial claim here—the necessary result of his inflexible approach. Radical emancipatory ideology let loose upon a conventional progressive culture that values gradual change is like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Even if you are right you are going to end up wrong. Stuff that people don’t want broken, and in many cases should not be broken, is going to get broken. You, no matter how noble your cause, will get the blame. The fallout will be immense, possibly counter-productive. That’s the reality of reality (as I’ve called it before), the history we have inherited as surely and unavoidably as we inherit the genetic codes of a male and female.
This is not to suggest that we should accept the reality of reality for what it is. It’s just to acknowledge that radicalism comes with shades, some which are less stark than others. John Brown won’t let us see this. But activists for any cause must be prepared to embrace that spectrum. The upshot of this embrace would be an opportunity to avoid the ideological stagnation that Brown’s raid engendered and, to this day, sustains in its original polarized form. Thankfully, a less violent and more gradual process prevailed and, thankfully, there’s no more slavery (albeit plenty of racism).
The downside to this approach is the time it takes to achieve goals that we, surging with indignation, want to accomplish with immediacy. Accepting that trade off is often dismissed as selling out or worse. I prefer to call it growing up and learning how to make moral choices in the world as it is and not as we want it to be. For that I can, I suppose, thank John Brown.
Tomorrow: John Stuart Mill and the complexity of personal choice.