Home / General / This Day in Labor History: October 16, 1859

This Day in Labor History: October 16, 1859

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On October 16, 1859, radical Republican John Brown and a small band of followers, both white and black, launched a violent attack against the American system of slave labor at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia). While unsuccessful (and insane if one assumes he wanted something other than martyrdom), Brown’s raid did more than almost anything else in the 1850s to highlight the differences between northern and southern labor systems and the moral bankruptcy of the latter. Agree or disagree with his actions, he made it almost impossible for northern whites to claimed to be abolitionists to hide behind gradual programs or a vague hope for the future. For southern whites, it was a call to arms against increasingly radical anti-slavery forces in the north and the desires of slaves to escape. For African-Americans, at least the few who had the opportunity to take advantage of Brown’s actions, it was the deliverance from a hell of forced labor and degradation for which they had prayed.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time revisiting Brown’s famous raids here. Most readers here have heard of his 1859 attack and many are no doubt familiar with his 1856 murder of slaveholders in Kansas that put him on the run. Rather, I’d rather explore Brown’s positions and words about the United States’ slave labor system.

African-American women working in cotton field. Not sure of date, but typical of slave labor.

Brown had called for armed resistance to slave labor since at least 1851. Speaking to the United States League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization he founded to mobilize African-Americans, Brown talked about how to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown told 44 attending free blacks that if one was arrested, “Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; Let that be understood beforehand.” As we know from Harpers Ferry and Kansas, Brown had no problem putting this into effect. And we can certainly condemn his violence. But let’s step back and remember just how horrible slavery was. On December 20, 1858, Brown, who had briefly returned to Kansas, led a party into Missouri to free slaves. They liberated 11 slaves and killed a slaveholder. He then took them north, helping to deliver a baby from one of the ex-slaves, and got them into Canada after an 82-day trip. Were his actions justified?

This is from his letter to the New York Tribune, justifying his actions. “On Sunday, September 19, a negro man called Jim came over to Osage settlement, from Missouri, and stated that he, together with his wife, two children, and another negro man, was to be sold within a day or two, and begged for help to get away.” Brown and his friends gathered other slaves and helped them to freedom? If a slave holder was killed in such an action, is this a reasonable price? As Brown put it, “Now for a comparison. Eleven persons are forcibly restored to their natural and inalienable rights, with but one man killed, and ‘all hell is stirred from beneath.'” If one has the opportunity to free people from slavery, what is less moral? Saying no or killing a single white person in the process of saving eleven black people? For Brown, the answer was obvious.



John Brown in Kansas

When Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry, the South recognized it for what it was–a direct and violent attack upon their system of forced labor they had based their economy around for two hundred years. John Brown was their greatest fear and railroading him to the hangman’s rope was the obvious result (even if it also served the national political ambitions of the Virginia governor).

Frederick Douglass, who of course knew the horrors of the slave labor system first hand, lauded Brown’s ideology, if not his strategy. Douglass and Brown had known each other since 1847 and while they did not see eye to eye on many things, they were allies. While Douglass disagreed with the attack on the federal arsenal (he fully supported freeing slaves and starting a hideout in Appalachia), he was close enough to Brown that he had to flee after the raid. With an arrest warrant out for him, Douglass crossed into Canada. Douglass’ own assistant, Shields Green, joined in the raid. In fact, Douglass knew about the attack before it happened. Brown had directly recruited him, saying “I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”

On the other hand, William Lloyd Garrison was outraged by the use of violence, calling it “misguided, wild, and apparently insane.” It took until the South seceded and ending slavery seemed possible before northern whites began embracing Brown as a harbinger of free labor. During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem for the Union army and abolitionists who could not countenance violence in 1859 felt like they were honoring their fallen martyr by using the violent ends Brown died for to end slave labor.

For early African-American scholars of slavery like W.E.B. DuBois, Brown was nothing short of a hero for doing so much to free their people. Here is DuBois from his 1909 biography of Brown:

“Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth? And if a truth, how speaks that truth to-day? John Brown loved his neighbor as himself. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor, poor, unfortunate or oppressed. This natural sympathy was strengthened by a saturation in Hebrew religion which stressed the personal responsibility of every human soul to a just God. To this religion of equality and sympathy with misfortune, was added the strong influence of the social doctrines of the French Revolution with its emphasis on freedom and power in political life. And on all this was built John Brown’s own inchoate but growing belief in a more just and a more equal distribution of property. From this he concluded, — and acted on that conclusion — that all men are created free and equal, and that the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”

For the words of John Brown and other primary sources on his life and attack on Harpers Ferry, see Jonathan Earle, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, is an excellent history of the events, with special attention paid to the issues I highlight here. I borrowed from both books to write this post.

This is the 79th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    Lincoln thought John Brown was a poseur and a terrorist:

    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.

    Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper’s Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it. We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were not held to and made by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” You never dealt fairly by us in relation to this affair. When it occurred, some important State elections were near at hand, and you were in evident glee with the belief that, by charging the blame upon us, you could get an advantage of us in those elections. The elections came, and your expectations were not quite fulfilled. Every Republican man knew that, as to himself at least, your charge was a slander, and he was not much inclined by it to cast his vote in your favor. Republican doctrines and declarations are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves. Surely, this does not encourage them to revolt. True, we do, in common with “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live,” declare our belief that slavery is wrong; but the slaves do not hear us declare even this. For anything we say or do, the slaves would scarcely know there is a Republican party. I believe they would not, in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us, in their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.

    Slave insurrections are no more common now than they were before the Republican party was organized. What induced the Southampton insurrection, twenty-eight years ago, in which, at least three times as many lives were lost as at Harper’s Ferry? You can scarcely stretch your very elastic fancy to the conclusion that Southampton was “got up by Black Republicanism.” In the present state of things in the United States, I do not think a general, or even a very extensive slave insurrection is possible. The indispensable concert of action cannot be attained. The slaves have no means of rapid communication; nor can incendiary freemen, black or white, supply it. The explosive materials are everywhere in parcels; but there neither are, nor can be supplied, the indispensable connecting trains. * * *

    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. Orsini’s attempt on Louis Napoleon, and John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same.

    • This does not seem like a good bit of analysis, but rather a political speech designed to deflect some crap.

      I don’t know if it truly reflects his thinking but it’s striking that the bilk of the quote is to deny involvement and, indeed, even political connection with enslaved blacks! The Republicans don’t inspire black rebellion because the slaves don’t know about Republicans. This is not a wining line from the moral perspective.

      I don’t see that your summary is fair either.

      • witless chum

        Lincoln was a politician, not a radical like Brown or Douglas or even Garrison. Whatever his actual views, he’s playing to the middle in that speech, knowing he’ll have the radicals with him one way or the other. And mainstream Republicans didn’t support Harpers Ferry, but many of them supported Brown when he was fighting for free soil in Kansas.

        He’s arguing a weak case, I think, but he’s arguing it well because, y’know, Lincoln.

        He sure has the South pegged, though, competing with each other to see who can be more extreme in their fantasies of persecution.

      • ajay

        This does not seem like a good bit of analysis, but rather a political speech designed to deflect some crap.

        This bit in particular:
        “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”.
        Missing from this: any assertion that no Republicans were actually involved.

        Douglass disagreed with the attack on the federal arsenal (he fully supported freeing slaves and starting a hideout in Appalachia)

        This is an interesting what-if, because presumably this hideout would have been defended by armed ex-slaves. So you’re basically funding an armed insurgency in the south. Not that that wouldn’t have been a good idea! It just wasn’t necessarily a non-violent idea.

        • Douglass wasn’t nonviolent at all. His disagreement with the federal arsenal attack is that it was so obviously insane and doomed to failure, not because it was violent.

          • ajay

            No, I didn’t mean to imply that he was… just that funding armed insurgency in the south is slower but just as act-of-warry as actually attacking a federal arsenal. (Which, yes, was nuts.)

        • rm

          I know almost nothing in detail about this history, but even I have researched the life of a black Republican poet/orator/politician who had recently moved to Canada, and recruited for Brown’s raid there. There was a political network supporting Brown.

      • rea

        b[u]lk of the quote is to deny involvement and, indeed, even political connection with enslaved blacks!

        No, he denied any connection with slave rebellions, which he viewed (correctly) as much more likely to lead to bloody catastrophe than freedom for the enslaved blacks. His concern at the time of the Cooper’s Union speach was to build political support for a program of restraining the expansion of slavery. Fill up the west with free states, restrain southern ambitions to build a slave empire in the Caribbean and Latin America, let a Republican appoint a few Supreme Court justices, and slavery would be doomed. If slavery did not expand, the pro-slavers would lose control of the federal government, and if the pro-slavers lost control of the federal government, eventually emancipation could be accomplished legally and with a minimum of violence. Of course, the pro-slavers well understood this strategy, and thought it likely enough to be successful that Lincoln’s election to the presidency (after a streak of pro-slavery presidents) motivated them to rebellion. That was a mistake on the part of the pro-slavers, because there were a lot of people in the country who were not supporters of emancipation at the beginning of war, but who would not support the destruction the Union, and who eventually came to support emancipation as a war-fighting measure.

        • steve

          Excellent summary.

        • For anything we say or do, the slaves would scarcely know there is a Republican party. I believe they would not, in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us, in their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.

          Perhaps “the bulk” was an over statement, but I find this to be what I said. The Republican party is no more acting with slaves than he accuses John Brown of doing.

          That may be fine esp. as a political tactic, but it’s not an interesting analytical distinction between them.

          • rea

            The reason the slaves did not know about the Republican party is that the masters kept the slaves deliberately ignorant. Remember, in most of the South, teaching slaves to read was a crime. Lincoln is making a reference to this.

            • Could you substantiate that? “For anything we say or do” implies agency on the Republicans’ part.

              And it’s inconsistent with the rest of the passage. For example:

              Republican doctrines and declarations are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves.

              And then:

              I believe they would not, in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us, in their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.

              Will all due respect, I don’t get the feeling that you read the passage very carefully or have some out of band knowledge that makes the plain reading of the text wrong. If the latter, could you provide me a pointer so that I might get up to speed?

              • rea

                I might respectfully inquire: How does the Republican Party of 1858 or so communicate with southern black slaves?

                • Is that germane? And it seems like a dodge.

                  I’m not saying that that it was possible or tactically or strategically wise, but Lincoln in the first block quote disavows it entirely. He doesn’t complain about their not being given access to Republican ideas, but that Republican ideas are being misrepresented.

                  I’m happy to believe that this was a super smart and helpful speech but the content is not systematically morally sophisticated and the ending bit is ok but hardly sophisticated.

                  Brown worked with blacks and slaves in the raid.

                  In any cae how is the first passage a reference to the salve owners control of what slaves knew? The latter contains one, of course.

            • witless chum

              Maybe that’s what he’s referring to, maybe not. I tend to read him as saying that the Republican Party might have been antislavery, but it was still a respectable, white person’s party.

              I think the way Brown was superior to Lincoln is that he seems to have conceived of black people as fully human and equal to himself, whereas Lincoln doesn’t seem to have gotten there until later, if at all.

              • ChrisTS

                Brown was said, by African Americans of the time, to have had a ‘black heart,’ meaning exactly that he “conceived of black people as fully human and equal to himself.”

                • Yes.

                  I also found his last prophecy interesting:

                  “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

                  Which suggests that he thought his plan would result in less net violence.

        • njorl

          “Fill up the west with free states, restrain southern ambitions to build a slave empire in the Caribbean and Latin America, let a Republican appoint a few Supreme Court justices, and slavery would be doomed. If slavery did not expand, the pro-slavers would lose control of the federal government, and if the pro-slavers lost control of the federal government, eventually emancipation could be accomplished legally and with a minimum of violence.”

          I’ve said much the same thing myself, but looking at the math, I don’t see how it happens before 1889. The Constitution allows slavery. The only way to eliminate it was with an amendment. With 15 slave states, you’d need 45 free states. Even assuming MD and DE ban it on their own initiative and become free states (not likely) you’d need 52 states before it could be undone. Remember, there would be no W. Virginia.

          Short of an amendment, you could pass laws to make slavery less profitable in practice, but that wouldn’t end it. At best, you’d knock it down to 11 states where it would remain, economically, politically and socially viable. It also requires decades of sustained good motives by the Republican party, which could be corrupted by business interests who might want to use slave miners in the western territories. We would have had slavery until 1889, if we pushed the admission of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah up a bit. I can’t see state admissions being pushed further forward. The admission of the Dakotas as 2 states was bizarre enough as it was. It wouldn’t take that much to push emancipation to 1912.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Lincoln was a better man than John Brown. But John Brown was better than most.

      • rea

        A good man does not pull people out of their beds at midnight and have them hack to death with broadswords.

        • ChrisTS

          Perhaps he does if he is in Bloody Kansas and the local ‘authorities’ have one’s name and one’s family members’ names on a list of people to be dealt with.

        • wengler

          Nor is one who owns their fellow human beings. Would those slaveowners have freed their slaves if Brown asked them nicely?

  • djw

    How the hell did I not know Dubois wrote a biography of Brown?

  • Thanks for writing this, Erik. Nice piece.

    I think Brown remains a challenge. In the end he was right about both the need and morality of violence to end slavery. The Civil War showed that. Yes, his raid was a failure and his hopes for a general (and effective) insurrection were wildly unrealistic. I’d be interested to know whether his action delayed or hurried the Civil War (I don’t think it was a significant causal factor).

    Of course, appropriation of his reasoning is worrisome (e.g., as your argued before by the violent antiabortionists) but everyone appropriates everything seen as right. I don’t think that should block analysis. Nor would I want armed resistance (for all my pacifist leanings) to be taken off the table. I’m hard pressed to see that it will be justified in our lifetimes in the US but Gilead seems a more real possibility than ever.

    I think one think that the progressive moment hasn’t fully grasped is that the big struggle at the moment is against Republicanism per se. That doesn’t mean we can abandon all the specific work of social and economic justice, but the most salient fight is to keep the Republicans from destroying everything either all at once or piece by piece. It’s a fragile fragile moment and I hope we never cross the line into fast collapse. But the sheer recklessness and escalating enabled radicalism are sobering at best.

    • Malaclypse

      In the end he was right about both the need and morality of violence to end slavery. The Civil War showed that.

      The Congress decisively rejects terrorism, i.e., the system of individual political assassinations, as being a method of political struggle which is most inexpedient at the present time, diverting the best forces from the urgent and imperatively necessary work of organisation and agitation, destroying contact between the revolutionaries and the masses of the revolutionary classes of the population, and spreading both among the revolutionaries themselves and the population in general utterly distorted ideas of the aims and methods of struggle against the autocracy. – Lenin

      But the Civil War was violence against the state power which made slavery possible. Brown’s violence was against individual slaveholders. While that violence might free individual slaves, the remaining slaves will see increased oppression from the remaining slaveholders. Brown’s violence did nothing to disrupt the system.

      • steve

        Well, he was hoping to instigate a widespread rebellion that would have attacked the state and disrupted the system but obviously that did not happen. I don’t know what the underlying probability was that his action could have led to this end but I imagine it was quite low.

        • rea

          Well, of course he was wrong. Think about the huge struggle necessary to in the Civil War. How could the slaves hope to fight and win such a war on their own, without the active support of the federal government and the population of the North?

          • ajay

            False comparison because they are two different sorts of war. A slave rising would have torn the guts out of the Southern economy.

      • rea

        the Civil War was violence against the state power which made slavery possible.

        The Civil War started as pro-slavery violence against a federal government no longer controlled by the slavers.

      • But the Civil War was violence against the state power which made slavery possible.

        Yes, so violence was necessary and just, which is Brown’s view. His modality was hopeless which made it not necessary (afaik).

        Brown’s violence was against individual slaveholders. While that violence might free individual slaves, the remaining slaves will see increased oppression from the remaining slaveholders.

        As Steve pointed out, there was a theory behind it. The theory was wrong, but it was a theory. Furthermore, I think there’s an argument that freeing individual slaves was justifiable. Every freeing of slaves tended to immiserate the rest. The underground railroad provoked reactions. Individual fleeings provoked retaliation and harsher measures.

        Brown’s violence did nothing to disrupt the system.

        It failed on its own terms for sure. While I’d love a full analysis, my impression is that it did serve some utility as propaganda once the war started. And consider the Malcolm X line:

        There are many white people in this country, especially the younger generation, who realize that the injustice that has been done and is being done to black people cannot go on without the chickens coming home to roost eventually. And those white people, even if they’re not morally motivated, their intelligence forces them to see that something must be done. And many of them would be willing to involve themselves in the type of operation that you were just talking about.

        For one, when a white man comes to me and tells me how liberal he is, the first thing I want to know, is he a nonviolent liberal, or the other kind. I don’t go for any nonviolent white liberals. If you are for me and my problems – when I say me, I mean us, our people – then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did. And if you’re not of the John Brown school of liberals, we’ll get you later – later.

        Now there’s classic over the top there at the end, but I think there is something in what Brown did that symbolizes in several quarters the depth of commitment which was ultimately needed. Brown didn’t just kill, he fought and he died and he fought pretty much knowing he would die. We can argue about his strategy and the morality of his tactics, but I think the backlash which just writes him off misses a lot of important, tough moral issues.

        I say this as someone with pacifist leanings.

        • I say this as someone with pacifist leanings.

          Reading back, it seems that this might be an attempt to inoculate me from…something. Being pro-butchering people straight from their beds, or something. Or to lend extra seriousness to my argument.

          I don’t mean it to do that. My key point is that I think the issue of justifiable violence in response to societal injustice is a genuinely hard one in general and even in John Brown’s case. There’s no denying that it failed utterly and was brutal. It’s unclear that jus ad bello per se applies, but clearly moral considerations are important. However, I don’t think that the failure proves every wrongness. It’s only wholly wrong if futility implies forbidden. And I don’t see that it does. If a slave tried to kill an overseer because of the lash, it was almost certain futile as a means to liberation, but I have a hard time condemning the action.

        • ChrisTS

          Douglass thought Brown’s raid was a genuine cause of the Civil War insofar as it freaked out the slavers even more than they already were.

          Also, Brown’s speeches and writings before his execution, as well as his interactions with various Southern authorities, moved people enormously.

          • Interesting!

            I guess I’m downplaying his influence a bit but because I don’t really know. Any reasonable definitive discussion you could recommend?

            • The Dark God of Time, AKA DA

              Thoreau wrote “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, which he first gave as a public speech in Concord, MA. You can judge it for yourself here.

              I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself. Little as I know of Captain Brown, I would fain do my part to correct the tone and the statements of the newspapers, and of my countrymen generally, respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be just. We can at least express our sympathy with, and admiration of, him and his companions, and that is what I now propose to do.

              • Thanks! That was really interesting to read. This part was (unwittingly) echoed here:

                “All is quiet at Harper’s Ferry,” say the journals. What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail? I regard this event as a touchstone designed to bring out, with glaring distinctness, the character of this government. We needed to be thus assisted to see it by the light of history. It needed to see itself. When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, it reveals itself a merely brute force, or worse, a demoniacal force. It is the head of the Plug-Uglies. It is more manifest than ever that tyranny rules. I see this government to be effectually allied with France and Austria in oppressing mankind. There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of slaves; here comes their heroic liberator. This most hypocritical and diabolical government looks up from its seat on the gasping four millions, and inquires with an assumption of innocence: “What do you assault me for? Am I not an honest man? Cease agitation on this subject, or I will make a slave of you, too, or else hang you.”

                Treason! Where does such treason take its rise? I cannot help thinking of you as you deserve, ye governments. Can you dry up the fountains of thought? High treason, when it is resistance to tyranny here below, has its origin in, and is first committed by, the power that makes and forever recreates man. When you have caught and hung all these human rebels, you have accomplished nothing but your own guilt, for you have not struck at the fountain-head. You presume to contend with a foe against whom West Point cadets and rifled cannon point not. Can all the art of the cannon-founder tempt matter to turn against its maker? Is the form in which the founder thinks he casts it more essential than the constitution of it and of himself?

  • Patricia Kayden

    “And we can certainly condemn his violence.”

    Why? Brown’s violence was directed towards slave owners. No sympathy from me.

    • Just a Rube

      It may have been principally directed towards slave owners, but

      a) Just because someone is doing something evil doesn’t automatically justify killing them

      b) Violence tends to catch innocents in with the guilty; see the Harper’s Ferry raid, where the first person killed was a free black man.

      This is all aside from more philosophical concerns about the morality of violence in and of itself, as well as concerns about feasibility and the like.

      • witless chum

        Not much to add to this, I agree.

      • steve

        B is most important for me as it speaks to the largest problem in justifying humanitarian interventions: you may end up killing a lot of innocent people and plunging an area into chaos that leaves everyone worse off.

      • These are all reasonable moves, but the hard part is the fact that there was massive ongoing hideous violence against millions of people which was only ended by massive violence.

        “a” is obviously true but simply a question dodge. Just because there’s no automatic justification doesn’t mean there’s no justification. That’s precisely what’s at issue.

        Re: “b”, there was already massive violence which was directed systematically at innocents. So we’re immediately at efficacy.

        So I don’t see that a and b are “aside from” the issues of the morality and feasibility.

        • ChrisTS

          This, on all points.

      • Patricia Kayden

        But wasn’t the ultimate “violence” the civil war which was subsequently fought to end slavery?

        • rea

          The Civil War was started by the South, in the hope of getting the country off a path toward peaceful emancipation. Cuba abolished slavery in 1886 and Brazil in 1888 without civil wars–I suspect it could similarly have happened here on a similar timeline once the South decisively lost the struggle for political control of the federal government. The real problem would not have been abolishing slavery, but creating a racially egalitarian society afterwards–as, indeed, turned out to be the real problem after the Civil War.

          • One of the Blue

            Don’t you think that maybe the slavowners in Brazil, Cuba (and Puerto Rico) were considerably less recalcitrant than they might have been precisely because of what happened in the United States 1861-5?

  • I seem to recall, somewhere in the mists of Blogvalon, hearing that you could suss out how the American historiographical wind was blowing by how John Brown was treated, as a hero or a crazy man. As a nonexpert, I would like to ask: what’s people’s perspective on that?

    • ChrisTS

      I think there might be some truth to this. One of the things that drives me crazy is the way so many Americans blithely dismiss Brown as either a garden-variety lunatic or a religious lunatic. (Helped, of course, by revisionism like Russell Banks’ novel.)

      Why do we think him ‘crazy?’ Because we cannot believe a sane white man would sacrifice his life and the lives of his sons for black people? No one ever seems to ridicule or dismiss people who risked their lives to save Jews in Europe.

      • Lee Rudolph

        No one ever seems to ridicule or dismiss people who risked their lives to save Jews in Europe.

        Oh, my. I am not going to go track it down, but I am quite sure I have seen just that, sometime, somewhere. Somebody with a better memory or a stronger stomach may be able to verify this claim.

    • Patricia Kayden

      John Brown could be both a hero and a crazy man. I don’t see a dichotomy in that.

  • witless chum

    Speaking to the United States League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization he founded to mobilize African-Americans, Brown talked about how to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Brown told 44 attending free blacks that if one was arrested, “Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; Let that be understood beforehand.”

    The local museum in Kalamazoo just had an exhibit that discussed the Kentucky slave raid of 1847(? I think that was the year), where slave catchers from Kentucky showed up to collect escaped slaves living south of Kalamazoo in a Quaker area and were met by an armed mob, who disarmed them, roughed them up and had the sheriff jail them on charges of disturbing the peace. They later sued for damages and got a judgement in their favor.

    Part of why southern radicals were never going to be satisfied with any number of fugitive slave acts, because they knew they’d be flouted in antislavery areas.

    • JoyfulA

      Abolitionists were created in Pennsylvania by the Fugitive Slave Law. Ordinary people who didn’t care one way or the other saw slavecatchers crossing the border frequently and often taking any black or mulatto person they saw, some of whom were known in their communities as freemen for generations. Some violent Northern white action against the slavecatchers was recorded. There should have been more.

  • LeeEsq

    Brown’s tactics were futile but his belief that only violence would end slavery in the United States was right. White Southerners based their entire society around slavery and were so invested in it that there was no way that they were going to give it up willingly. War was probably the only way to end slavery in the United States.

    • wengler

      Slavery was violence. Every single day either in threat or application. Slaver states are organized along the lines of violence to expand violence. They had emergency military systems to temper slave revolts. A good portion of the non-slave labor was employed in the violent control of the enslaved. The massive wealth inequality between slave, to poor non-slave laborer to huge plantation king was immense. And that inequality always leads to war.

  • microtherion

    With congressional Republicans now singing “Amazing Grace” at their meetings, maybe Democrats should be singing “John Brown’s Body” ?

  • Bruce Vail

    Gee, a whole post about an armed attack on the forces of the United States of America and the word ‘treason’ is not uttered a single time!

    • Peter Hovde

      It’s not a legal analysis, and the legal question is uninteresting, since there’s no plausible argument that Brown’s actions did not meet the Constitutional definition. That does not answer the questions of the morality or efficacy of those actions.

      • Yeah, he was hung for treason. I’m comfortable with “treason in opposition to slavery”. That, in some circumstance, is morally required and laudable. The converse is vanishingly rarely permissible and always shameful.

        American political theory is shot through with the idea that treason might sometimes be required. Cf the revolutionary war. What is not required and is rightfully forbidden is treason for the sake of evil and injustice which was the Southern Cause.

  • peggy

    This discussion seems to have centered around the efficacy of John Brown’s martial strategy which ignores Brown’s effectiveness as a propagandist using political theater.

    Brown succeeded in changing the political climate. He enraged and terrified the slave owners, while his dignified bearing facing execution impressed observers and forced them to acknowledge the nobility of his cause.

    Other examples of widely influential political theater include Occupy Wall Street which brought the “1%” into common discourse and the monks who burned themselves to death protesting the Vietnam War. (Norman Morrison’s self immolation at the Pentagon unnerved Robert McNamara.)

    Political science that ignores the weight of public opinion is too narrow in its analysis.

  • Peter Hovde

    Erik-I take it that you don’t agree with the subtitle of the Horwitz book, because if the raid did spark civil war, and that was Brown’s intention, what’s insane about the raid?

    • liberal

      Agreed.

  • You also should mention today is Cake Day http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Antoinette_of_Austria

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