Sunday, May 19, 2013

Was the abolitionist John Brown a terrorist?


A few days ago I included the pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown in a list of "terrorists." Several friends have asked me if I really believed that. Was John Brown, who tried to incite a slave revolt by leading a bungled raid on the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, really a terrorist?

James M. McPherson's This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War includes an essay on this question. He certainly doesn't paint Brown as an attractive figure, at least for secular modern people. Brown moved to the Kansas territory in 1855 when it was up for grabs whether the newly opened area would enter the Union as free soil where slavery was outlawed or, alternatively, would extend the Southern institution. The competition for the territory led to a shooting war and the sacking of the town of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. The same year, a pro-slavery Senator caned an abolitionist Senator in the Senate. McPherson describes Brown's reaction:
For Brown these events were the last straw. He was a strict Calvinist who believed in a God of wrath and justice. In appearance and character he was an Old Testament warrior prophet transplanted to the nineteenth century. He considered himself God's predestined instrument to strike a blow for freedom. "We must show by actual work;' he said, "that there are two sides to this thing and that they (proslavery forces) cannot go on with impunity." He told his company to prepare for a "radical retaliatory measure." When one of them advised caution, Brown exploded: "Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice."

The next night Brown led four of his sons and two other men to carry out their retaliatory measure for the earlier murders of five free-soil settlers. Brown's party seized five men -- who were proslavery activists but had not participated in the murders -- from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and split open their skulls with broadswords.
Brown was clearly not a temperate character. But this was not a temperate moment. The national impasse over the continued existence and expansion of slavery had dogged national politics for three decades. In the absence of resolution, the issue simply became more superheated. Under the Constitution, there probably was no legal way to end slavery because of Southern over-representation in the Senate and the two thirds of the states required for an amendment. The pro-slavery forces could apparently permanently block any legal route to abolition, even one that included compensation to slave owners.

In hindsight, it seems no wonder at all that a person who felt a prophetic call to achieve abolition might have turned to violence. At the time, Brown's adoption of bloody force in the interests of freeing slaves and his raid on Harpers Ferry evoked significant support from some "respectable" Northerners. After he was captured,
[Ralph Waldo] Emerson caused a sensation with his pronouncement that Brown was a "new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death -- the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious as the cross."
Reactions like Emerson's naturally fueled white Southern terror that their Northern brothers and sisters had become ready to see them murdered by their "property." The gulf between the moral systems of South and North became less bridgeable; Lincoln's election seemed to herald the South eventually losing its national veto; and the war came.

It is not hard to see John Brown as a terrorist whose provocative acts hastened the end he sought, the climatic clash between slavery and abolition. Most of us applaud the outcome. Yet his acts -- unlawful violence against people and property to force political ends -- fit anybody's definition of terrorism.

So is terrorism sometimes justified by the morality of its ends? I hope not. In most of historical experience, good ends sought by way of indiscriminate violence have devolved into meaningless slaughter far more often than such eruptions have led to better societies. I do think John Brown was a terrorist. And I think terrorism is wrong.

But I am also glad that my Unionist ancestors fought and won the Civil War, creating the possibility for our democratic experiment to further evolve. I guess I'm an indecisive wuss about this. One of the advantages most of us in the United States have enjoyed over more recent history is not to have had to decide such questions in real life. That's the democratic polity I find worth struggling for.

Oh yes -- McPherson too avoids coming down definitively about John Brown.
Both Brown and [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee saw themselves as soldiers in a just war and therefore claimed that their acts were not unlawful but justified under the laws of war. Brown professed to act under the government of God; Lee acted under the government of the Confederate States of America. Whether both or neither was a legitimate government I leave to the reader.

This is one of a series of posts arising from my encounter with This Mighty Scourge. Another is here.

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