It happened today - October 16, 2015

Harpers FerryOn October 16, 1859, John Brown and a small militant band seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia, seeking arms with which to trigger a slave revolt. I confess to being conflicted about it. I find it hard not to sympathize with Brown’s raid, and impossible to sympathize with it.

It’s hard not to sympathize because slavery was a monstrous evil, too big for politics, and had already divided the United States so badly that the Civil War was by then as inevitable as anything in human affairs. Slavery was not going to be ended except by force and no “mainstream” politician was willing to advocate such a thing, including Abraham Lincoln, fast rising toward genuine greatness but still seeking the political holy grail of muddled and unworkable compromise.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to sympathize because John Brown was insane, deluded and vicious and his plan could not work. And the latter matters enormously. I am strongly against armed resistance when a government is subject to control of the citizens, and if it was justified against slavery it’s a rare case. On the other hand I do think it would have been justified to shoot down someone trying to recapture a fugitive slave under the duly passed laws of the American Republic. But the key thing about the raid is that no venture led by such a man as John Brown could work and even if it could, that wasn’t that venture. All the raid could do was inflame passions and get people killed including two of his own sons.

Now possibly those passions needed to be inflamed; thousands of Union soldiers would sing “John Brown’s body” in tribute to a man whose living hand they would never have shaken, and shed their own blood and that of others to advance his cause about which they would have refused to hear a speech before the war started. Perhaps Brown finally found the one thing he could do right, not raising a slave revolt but being spectacularly martyred failing to raise one. And once wounded and captured Brown played his part with a dignity not typically part of his life, although the tale of him kissing a black baby in its mother’s arms on his way to the scaffold was pure invention or, to give it its proper name, propaganda. He sought martyrdom and in a very real sense it worked. The raid strengthened militants on both sides and brought the war that ended slavery.

So what if I’d been there?

In some ways the more uncomfortable part of that question is whether I’d have sympathized at all. From our comfortable couches and study chairs we imagine ourselves heroically answering the call at great historical moments that, for some reason, have not knocked at our door. We all think we would have been abolitionists had we lived in the United States in the 1850s although, statistically and logically, it cannot be so.

Consider Robert E. Lee, a man I admire who seems genuinely to have disliked slavery, even detested it. He was given the job of retaking the Harpers Ferry arsenal and capturing Brown and did his “duty”. And interestingly Stonewall Jackson, John Wilkes Booth and Walt Whitman were present for Brown’s execution though not all for the same reasons. Yet Lee, offered command of both the Union and Confederate armies, chose the latter, putting devotion to his “country” (Virginia) above his sworn duty to his actual country and his duty to humanity. A magnificent general and a good man, he fell to the occasion and led the wrong army in the wrong cause in the defining action of his career and his life.

It also haunts me that the raid took place at a spot of such scenic beauty that Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia declared “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Jefferson is much admired, though not by me, but for all his virtues he was monstrously wrong on slavery, having gone from abolitionism in his youth to reluctant advocate in his “maturity”. And of course his hypocrisy extended to having a slave mistress. Yet if he lived today one imagines, given his generally radical temperament, that he’d be in the forefront of progressive causes from abortion to the politics of identity.

So the fact that we see clearly in 2015 that slavery was bad is not the same as being somehow inherently bound to have seen it clearly had we surveyed the scene form 1855 or, indeed, 55 B.C. But grant me the light to see slavery as the evil it was in 1859 and ask, would I have joined John Brown?

No. No I would not. He was doing the right thing for the wrong reason in the wrong way. And my final and comforting thought on my divided views of Brown’s raid is that noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a truly great man, was pestered by Brown to join his group but repeatedly refused and, indeed, tried to prevent others from joining.

If Douglass could say it was the wrong answer to the right question at the time, I can say it now. And yet when it was done, I would have been among those pushed toward war by it, in defence of the liberty of the slaves Brown was trying to start a war to free.