Marching on to Virginia and Armageddon: John Brown and His Heirs

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S. Reynolds' new biography of John Brown
has been greeted
as a revelation (congratulatory appearances on NPR, laudatory
reviews in The Atlantic) – the forgotten hero and
martyr rediscovered, his bones exhumed from an unmarked grave
hidden in the basement stacks of a university library, restored
to their rightful place within the American pantheon. Reynolds
thinks Brown has gotten a bad rap from the historians (slandering
him as too violent, too religious, a little fanatical, probably
insane), when they should have been lauding him as a fighting
multiculturist and inspired visionary of racial justice, without
whom no war, no emancipation, no civil rights revolution.

who is not a historian, writes like a defense attorney, sometimes
as a prosecutor, and always as a monk glorifying the holy deeds
of a saint. No sooner does he elucidate one of Brown's shady business
speculations, describe a brutal murder, or explain Brown's rather
peculiar child-rearing philosophy (rigorous beatings, father absent
for years at a time), than the rationalizations kick in: nobody
paid their debts back then, embezzlement was normal, corporal
punishment as customary as the milking of a cow, horse stealing
and castle rustling a part of war, brutal Southrons deserving
to be shot. And like his hero, he has high standards of righteousness
(selectively applied of course). Even the abolitionists, although
meaning well and progressive for their time, fail to come up to
the mark (chided as patrician and racist); the others gradually
falling away into the pits of darkness: the Kansas free-state
militia are antislavery but tarnished with white supremacy; Republicans
are opportunistic and unprincipled; the Democrats beyond the pale
of humanity; Southerners deserving to be shot. Only Brown and
his Sacred Band of antislavery warriors, his financial backers
(the Secret Six), and the Concord Transcendentalists who deified
him merit his praise.

might be tempted to dismiss Reynolds as yet another raving leftist
lunatic (like his hero), but we would be wise to refrain from
the temptation. Like it or not, Brown represents one pole of the
American character. The type recurs throughout our history, usually
preceding a war, and is well represented in our literature, by
authors skeptical of the founding of the Republic of Heaven. Our
current president may lack Brown's courage and eloquence, but
he shares his moral certainty and faith in the redemptive properties
of war. Like Brown, he clearly sees himself as an instrument of
Providence, the war in which he is engaged (or started) as holy
and righteous, and the methods he chooses as sanctified by the
Almighty. The figure of the martial Christian armed with a Bible
in one hand and a revolver in the other, battling for the Lord,
(to paraphrase Henry Ward Beecher's famous phrase) is a strikingly
loathsome one, at utter variance with the example and teachings
of Christ. But it has returned.

is surely significant and foreboding that the Whiggish North hosted
a Cromwell revival ten years before the war. Brown raptly read
the key texts: Joel Tyler Headley's Oliver
(1848), an iconic biography that washed the blood-stained
garments of the Royalists and the Irish with sanctimony; Thomas
Carlyle's study in proto-fascism, On
Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic
(1845) and his edition of Cromwell's Letters
and Speeches
(1845). Today, the revival tents are hosting
a seminar featuring authors Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose
Left Behind novels celebrate the rapture of the saints
and the extermination of the sinners at the Battle of Armageddon.

smell of Brown's gunpowder is all around us. Two years after the
Iraq war began with great fanfare to the music of Shock &
Awe, the government stills seems uncertain as to the identity
of the enemy: are they foreign fighters or Baathist holdouts?
Islamist fanatics or Saddam's cousins? Not Lt. Colonel Gareth
Brandl of the Marine Corps who announced last year: "The
enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Falluja.
And we're going to destroy him." Not the president: "It
is good versus evil." One hundred and forty eight years before,
John Brown rode west to meet "Satan and his legions"
(his words) on the plains of Kansas. Film critic Michael Medved,
a favorite of the so-called Christian Right, has just given a
speech before the theocon divines of Hillsdale College. After
flushing some of our better antiwar films down the toilet of anti-Americanism,
he closes with this peroration to the sword: "What solved
Hitler was violence. And what will solve the problem of Islamo-fascist
terrorism, I'm sorry to say [no he's not], is not understanding,
negotiation, conferences, social workers, daisies, or anything
other than heroic violence of brave men and women with guns, fighting
selflessly for their country – this greatest nation on God's
green earth." I wondered why he did not close with "His
truth is marching on," or "Exterminate the Evil Doer's!"
Medved's jeremiad leaves out the effect of a previous American
intervention in creating the conditions for the rise of Nazism
and Bolshevism; and why is it Americans think every political
argument can be won by mentioning Hitler?

violence begets violence is a principle found in the Bible, validated
by experience, and confirmed by human nature. Those dropping the
bombs may very well be more humane, enlightened, and civilized
than those being bombed, but it is unlikely the latter will accept
the lesson. They will feel aggrieved and will strike back (in
whatever way they can). The failure to understand the reciprocity
of violence partly accounts for the Bush administration's folly
in declaring war on terror. For everyone they kill, they instill
ten more with the desire for martyrdom. And the innocent die.
Sometimes even the objects of redemptive violence. During the
initial fighting at Harper's Ferry, Brown's men ordered a man
walking on the street to surrender. When he ran, they shot him
in the back, just below the heart (he spent the night writhing
in agony and died the next day). The victim (Shephard Hayward)
was a free black, popular and respected in the town, gainfully
employed as baggage master at the train station. They also fatally
shot the mayor (Fontaine Beckham) in the face as he peered around
a corner and an Irish grocer (Thomas Boerly) in the groin as he
tried to cross the street. Collateral damage.

of this caused Brown to lose any sleep. Not even the death of
two of his sons during the battle, one of whom, Oliver, had been
shot in the bowels and, in excruciating pain, begged to be shot.
Brown told him to shut up and "die like a man." In his
last days, Brown slept soundly, appeared cheerful, eager to receive
visitors, and reported that he had never "enjoyed life better."
Reynolds thinks this all as it should be, for Brown waged only
philanthropic war. Consider his view of the Pottawatomie Massacre
(May 1856), in which Brown and his sons roused five southern or
proslavery (but non-slaveholding) settlers from their homes in
the dead of night and then butchered them with broad swords, except
for one (James Doyle) whom Brown executed by a pistol shot to
the head. Reynolds does not gloss over the brutality of the deed,
and he admits it was "a horrible crime," "an act
of terrorism," even "murder." But that is not his
final word. He proceeds to justify it on various grounds: the
victims were supportive of the proslavery territorial government
and guilty of bluster and brag; Missouri "border ruffians"
had crossed the border to cast a ballot or shoot an abolitionist;
Kansas was in a state of war. Thus, Brown "gave the South
some of its own medicine" and delivered a "long-delayed
retaliation for years of Southern violence." That was how
Brown saw it too – righteous retribution, preemptive defense, and
a warning.

defense is not sufficiently unqualified for Christopher Hitchens,
whose review of the book graces the patriotic pages of the May
issue of The Atlantic Militancy. Hitchens is perturbed
by the author's lengthy rationalization of Brown's midnight frolic
along Pottawatomie Creek, and indignant that Reynolds concedes
the political murders constituted "terrorism" (italics
Hitchens). He explains that since terrorism "by definition
offers nothing programmatic," Brown (who wanted to extirpate
slavery) could not have been a terrorist. The definition is peculiar
(not to be found in the OED) but it seems to be favored by the
speechwriters and press agents of the Bush administration, who
have long maintained that the terrorist enemy has no other aim
in view than love of evil and hatred of the good. For Hitchens,
the slashing represented "only a small installment of payback"
for the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton,
Illinois by an anti-abolitionist mob, and the brutal caning of
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston
Brooks of South Carolina. He does not inform the magazine's readers
that the Lovejoy killing took place nearly twenty years before
(November 1837), nor does he explain how a beating justifies a
murder, but Hitchens has the mind and morals of a commissar. It
is hard to decide who is more reprehensible, the Trotskyite turned
militant neocon, or the editors who give space to his pronunciamentos,
as well as to the imperial posturing of Robert D. Kaplan, who
dreams of the glories of a Sino-American war in the June issue.

think the editors. The caption below the title of Hitchens review
reads: "Slandered by craven abolitionists as unhinged, John
Brown was in fact an eloquent, cool-headed tactician who succeeded
in his long-range plan: launching a civil war." That last
part gave me pause. I knew that Brown had been sane, though fanatical,
and a capable guerrilla fighter, but I always thought his Harper's
Ferry raid was intended to spark a slave insurrection (using the
Appalachian Mountains as refuge and redoubt) – not to provoke southern
secession followed by northern emancipation. So I read Reynolds
closely to see if he makes this claim – he doesn't. That Brown had
nothing like that in mind is evident from Article 46 of his Provisional
Constitution, which forswears any intention of overthrowing a
government, state or federal, or bringing about the "dissolution
of the Union." The editors, evidently carried away by their
enthusiasm for the resurrection of a saint, have decided to burnish
the image with the gilt of a lie.

Gopnik's review of the book in The New Yorker reassured
me that the humanist tradition is not entirely dead in this country.
Unlike Hitchens, whose writing style is as humorless as an NKVD
interrogator and as rigid as a Fatwah, Gopnik knows how to write
and has not massacred irony on the altar of crusade. He admits
that Brown was "by almost any definition a terrorist,"
and concedes that his Harper's Ferry venture was "to say
the least, quixotic." Reynold's strenuously and indignantly
denies the charge. According to him, Brown's plan was "progressive
and multicultural" – and eminently rational. Brown expected
the local slaves (mostly house and field servants, who had no
advance knowledge of Brown or his raid) to flock to his banner
of revolt the instant they heard him blow the trumpet of freedom
from the top of the federal arsenal. Gopnik isn't persuaded, wondering
how anyone could expect them to rush to the side of an "unknown
white man with a flowing beard who handed them a pike and told
them to kill somebody and run for the hills." Reynolds believes
such criticism misses the point – Brown had such an enlightened
opinion of blacks that he was willing to fill his regiments with
the hope of just such an instantaneous (and suicidal?) response.
Gopnik aptly describes Brown as representative of a peculiar American
type: the innocent idealist, who possesses an "indifference
to human life lost on the way toward his ideal. Like our current
idealists in power, he didn't want to kill, but he didn't want
to count the dead he did kill either." Gopnik, however, fails
to sustain the insight, falling in the end beneath the weight
of the American tradition of redemptive war: "In the long
run, even the best moral arguments get their force from the readiness
of men to kill and die for them." But is it moral to kill
to impose a morality?

endorses Doris Lessing's distinction between "good terrorism,"
invoked to remedy "obvious social injustice," and the
other kind, perpetrated for a reactionary cause (i.e. racism,
patriarchy, inequality, European civilization). Since Brown "used
violence in order to create a society devoid of slavery and racism,"
he qualifies as a good terrorist, worthy of emulation. Reynolds
takes umbrage at the suggestion that Brown may have fathered some
illegitimate children: a Gulf War veteran named McVeigh, a Polish
mathematician hiding behind the mask of the Unabomber, an assassin
named Paul Hill (who shot an abortionist). For Reynolds, "slavery
was a uniquely immoral institution," not at all like abortion,
high taxes, industrial pollution, or the incineration of children.
Like so many of his countrymen, Reynolds wants to privilege the
violence of which he approves, to grant a prerogative on killing
to the tolerant and multi-culturally enlightened. Brown said that
he never shed blood but "in self-defense or promotion of
a righteous cause," but has any government ever gone to war
in defense of what they believed to be an unrighteous cause? And
what assassin has ever struck from a conviction of sin?

had conceived the outlines of his plan as early as 1838 when he
described them to Frederick Douglas on their first meeting. Douglas
was skeptical (of the chance of success and the need for violence),
but Brown was adamant that Southerners, whom he claimed to know
intimately, would never relinquish their slaves unless forced
to do so. "No political action will ever abolish the system
of slavery," he assured Douglas. "It will have to go
out in blood." The theory rests upon the premise of omniscience
(knowing the hearts of men and the course of the future), which
is an incommunicable attribute of divinity. His actions rested
on his possession of another: "Those men who hold slaves
have even forfeited their right to live." Reynolds too believes
"war was needed to rid the nation of slavery," for,
rather than fading away, it was becoming more profitable, more
dogmatic, and more aggressive.

should know better. The first law of market economics, reinforced
by the force of technological innovation, is that nothing ever
stays the same. The combination of mechanization and the rise
of cotton production in other parts of the world would have made
slavery a losing investment sooner or later, and how could the
South have long endured the role of international pariah? Reynolds
neglects to mention the northern conservatives who rebuked the
abolitionists for contributing to a proslavery backlash. People
don't like to be hectored, especially by outsiders with a claim
to special virtue, and will often grow worse under the lash of
moral condemnation.

the most important question is whether a Christian should draw
the sword at all except in self-defense (and by logical extension
the defense of one's neighbor or country). Beyond that, choosing
violence is usurping a prerogative of God (defining good, delivering
retribution, deciding who lives and who dies). Brown acted upon
the doctrine that the moral sublimity of his end purified the
choice of his means. The Apostle Paul expressly repudiated such
presumption, forbidding us from doing evil that good may come.
After Brown was hanged (no man more justly, wrote Hawthorne),
John Greenleaf Whittier, a non-violent abolitionist, penned the
morally beautiful line: "Perish with him the folly/that seeks
through evil good." Amen.

10, 2005

Arthur Scott Trask, Ph.D., [send
him mail
] is
an independent historian, currently writing The
Other North: Northern Democrats and Conservatives Who Opposed the
Civil War.

Arthur Scott Trask Archives

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