John Brown’s body

Jacob Lawrence_John Brown_22

It was 151 years ago today that they hanged John Brown’s body. Time has passed, but his truth keeps marching on. There is an almost endless amount that has been written about him, his meaning, his contradictions, his impact and his legacy. In a review of a 2005 biography of Brown Christopher Hitchens made an important point:

Almost all whites in that epoch feared almost all blacks. And many blacks resented the condescension of anti-slavery organizations—most especially those groups that wanted to free them and then deport them to Africa. John Brown shared his life with slaves, and re-wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution so as to try to repair the hideous wrong that had been done to them. (In issuing these documents, by the way, he exculpated himself from any ahistorical charge of “terrorism,” which by definition offers nothing programmatic.) The record shows that admiration for Brown was intense, widespread, and continuous, from Douglass to DuBois and beyond. Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people.

I’ve spent part of the day remembering John Brown and being thankful for him. He is a complicated man to like in many ways. He has a lot of shadows in his story.

Perhaps the best way to reflect on John Brown is by viewing the 22 screenprints by Jacob Lawrence known as The Legend of John Brown series. The image above is #22.

Each image is matched with a bit of narrative to tell John Brown’s story, like this text:

No. 13 • John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennessee and there make raids on the surrounding plantations, freeing slaves.

That travels with this image:

Jacob Lawrence_John Brown_13

For those who might want more, David Blight’s Civil War lectures #9 and #10 are good place to spend some time as well. In Lecture #10, Blight summed up why Brown is important:

And I want to suggest–I’m going to give you really four arguments, just try them on–of why John Brown matters, why he mattered then, and why he still matters in any discussion we have in American society about what constitutes terrorism now, what constitutes revolutionary violence. When is a cause so just that the means justify the end? When is violence in a moral cause justified? Is it ever justified? Go answer those questions in an ethics course, go answer those questions in a politics course, go answer those questions in a history course, and you have one of the hardest questions of all. Was John Brown a midnight terrorist or a revolutionary hero? John Brown’s a very troubling legacy. Nobody should prettify him and nobody should utterly dismiss him. I’d say he leaves us with four essential questions; and you can add to this if you want. First, he really makes us face this question of the meaning of martyrdom. What is a martyr? How do we define a martyr? What constitutes the values or elements of martyrdom? Two, how do we deal with revolutionary violence, in history or today? When can a cause be just–as I just said earlier–so just that violence in its name is somehow justified?

Three–and here I’m going to give you a list within the list–I think John Brown is our template in American history–there are others you could point to, the leaders of the Haymarket Riot. There are many other cases in our history of people who acted in a cause and used violence. But John Brown forces us to face the almost natural ambivalences about his acts. He is disturbing and inspiring. Note all these opposites. He in some ways worked for the highest ideals–human freedom and the idea of equality–but he also used the most ruthless deeds. There’s a certain majesty about his character, at least in the aftermath, but there’s also a lot of folly. He was a monster, to some. To others he’s a saint, he’s a warrior saint. He killed for justice. When does that work for you? He was a great example of what had been brewing all over the culture, by the 1850s. We’ve talked about this over and over, of this struggle between human law, law fashioned in Congress, law fashioned by people, and the so-called higher law. When do you abide by a higher law than the laws of your society? When is it just to break human law in the name of higher law? Who decides? And lastly, I think he’s one of those avengers of history who do the work other people won’t, can’t, or shouldn’t. “Men consented to his death,” said Frederick Douglass in one of those eulogy speeches much later, in 1880, “Men consented to his death and then went home and taught their children to honor his memory.”

And then fourth, that last question that’s always laying out there. John Brown was a white man who killed white people to free black people.

In John Brown’s time the slave holders–the Confederate Party–were winning every battle by refusing to negotiate and refusing any and all compromise. The rest of the Nation–in the hope of avoiding conflict–kept giving ground to these thugs. Even after that bastard Surpreme Court Justice Taney pulled the Dred Scott decision out of his ass to give the Confederates a free hand to expand slavery in all the Territories, they still wanted more. They always wanted more, just as the neo-Confederates controlling the Republican party today always wanted more. Negotiating with people like this seems to be madness and yet that is what Abraham Lincoln tried to do. His Cooper Union speech came in the wake of John Brown’s failed raid and the entire second half of the speech is a call for working together to resolve the issues of disagreement and preserve the Union. Throughout the rest of his life Lincoln kept trying to work on what we might call today ‘bipartisanship’. His insistence on trying to work with folks who hated him drove the progressive of his day nuts. This may be yet another similarity between Lincoln and Obama.

Once again we have another era where the Confederate Party maintains their decades old control of Washington. Last month proved yet again that the old appeals to fear, ignorance, and white supremacy are still very powerful especially when paired with tons of money and shameless demagoguery. In this cycle Obama gets to echo the Lincoln role of trying to find a compromise with these bastards who hate him. Sure they created the problems we face but a reality of our political system is it is next to impossible to move the Nation forward and deal with the many problems facing us without finding some number of Republicans who will occasionally put Country before Party. Now as it was in 1860, this effort to find a way to work with these dickheads is frustrating to watch, but I think it is important to try.

And yet, I can see the need for somebody to step into John Brown’s shoes. Not in the literal sense of the violence and murder (which were the forms of political speech favored by Confederates and that Brown use to speak back to them), but in the sense of being somebody who fights back when everybody else is willing to find a negotiated settlement. The spirit of John Brown is that willingness to to stand up to these race baiting neo-Confederate assholes, even if it does make some folks think you’re shrill.

I don’t think being John Brown is Obama’s role anymore than that was Lincoln’s role 150 years ago. And yet, it would be good to see somebody pick up the spirit of John Brown and fight back in a way that would unite the Nation once again against these bastards. I think it will happen.

They hanged John Brown, but his truth keeps marching on

Cheers

91 replies
  1. 1
    Little Boots says:

    okay, did a whole Doug J thread disappear? freaky.

  2. 2
    Little Boots says:

    not that this isn’t interesting in its own right.

  3. 3
    srv says:

    Maybe DougJ heard my wail about Dennis’ posts getting washed out (if so, thx). It is a night of too many threads.

  4. 4
    Little Boots says:

    I wonder how much has really changed. I heard a weird noise last night, like someone breaking in. wasn’t the case, but guess what color I thought the intruders were? go ahead. guess what I imagined.

  5. 5
    DougJ says:

    @srv: @Little Boots:

    Yes, I delayed it, because of all the other posts, especially this one which is very interesting.

  6. 6
    Resident Firebagger says:

    Throughout the rest of his life Lincoln kept trying to work on what we might call today ‘bipartisanship’. His insistence on trying to work with folks who hated him drove the progressive of his day nuts. This may be yet another similarity between Lincoln and Obama.

    First of all, thanks for that laugh.

    Second of all, when you talk about a new John Brown, I immediately thought of Alan Grayson. And then I thought, given what happened to Grayson, that there won’t be any more John Browns. Even Jon Stewart would complain that a modern-day John Brown is too mean.

    I don’t wonder why Grayson lost. I wonder how he ever got elected in Floriduh in the first place…

  7. 7
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Little Boots: Orange? It is bad to dream about Boehner.

  8. 8
    Dennis G. says:

    @DougJ:
    Thanks. Some nights are just action packed.

    Cheers

  9. 9
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    I have always been somewhat conflicted about Brown. Righteousness, selflessness, and a good cause on one hand. Violence and (I think) the desire to be a martyr on the other.

  10. 10
    J says:

    Thanks for this post about John Brown.

    It will be sad if the neo-confederates win the battle over the past. The real heroes of the era were men like Robert Gould Shaw

    Robert Lowell – For the Union Dead
    “Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”

    The old South Boston Aquarium stands
    in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
    The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
    The airy tanks are dry.

    Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
    my hand tingled
    to burst the bubbles
    drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

    My hand draws back. I often sigh still
    for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
    of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
    I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

    fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
    yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
    as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
    to gouge their underworld garage.

    Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
    sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
    A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
    braces the tingling Statehouse,

    shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
    and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
    on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
    propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

    Two months after marching through Boston,
    half the regiment was dead;
    at the dedication,
    William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

    Their monument sticks like a fishbone
    in the city’s throat.
    Its Colonel is as lean
    as a compass-needle.

    He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
    a greyhound’s gently tautness;
    he seems to wince at pleasure,
    and suffocate for privacy.

    He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
    peculiar power to choose life and die–
    when he leads his black soldiers to death,
    he cannot bend his back.

    On a thousand small town New England greens,
    the old white churches hold their air
    of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
    quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

    The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
    grow slimmer and younger each year–
    wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
    and muse through their sideburns . . .

    Shaw’s father wanted no monument
    except the ditch,
    where his son’s body was thrown
    and lost with his “niggers.”

    The ditch is nearer.
    There are no statues for the last war here;
    on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
    shows Hiroshima boiling

    over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
    that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
    When I crouch to my television set,
    the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

    Colonel Shaw
    is riding on his bubble,
    he waits
    for the blessèd break.

    The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
    giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
    a savage servility
    slides by on grease.

  11. 11
    Andy K says:

    And yet, I can see the need for somebody to step into John Brown’s shoes.

    Over what issue, exactly? I just can’t imagine which single issue today could so extremely polarize a progressive. Slavery was THE issue of Brown’s time, ya know, not one of a dozen or so.

  12. 12
    Steeplejack says:

    __

    It was 151 years ago today that they hung John Brown’s body.

    Copyeditor’s note: Probably should go with they hanged John Brown’s body, which is the traditional usage for executing someone as opposed to putting a picture on the wall. Just sayin’.

    ETA: Jeez! I didn’t even get to the second sentence: Time has past [. . .]. Make that “Time has passed.”

  13. 13
    Little Boots says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    It is true. imagine what Obama dreams.

  14. 14
    Little Boots says:

    @DougJ:

    it was a good post, can’t wait to really see it.

  15. 15
    sturunner says:

    Brilliant, Just a Brilliant Post.

    . . . & the graphics are incredible.

    When we understand the US Civil War & it’s lead-up, the world will end (a la A C Clark’s The Nine Billion Names of God)

    Thanks again

  16. 16
    Nellcote says:

    Dennis G.

    Have you seen this civil war blog at the NYT of all places?

  17. 17
    Dennis G. says:

    @Steeplejack:
    Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed and apologies.

  18. 18
    Steeplejack says:

    Great post. Grammatical felonies misdemeanors (pleaded down and) dismissed.

  19. 19
    Bloix says:

    (In issuing these documents, by the way, he exculpated himself from any ahistorical charge of “terrorism,” which by definition offers nothing programmatic.)

    What on earth can this possibly mean? The very word “terrorism” originates in the French Revolution. Are you contending that Robespierre had no program? Do you believe that the People’s Will had no program? Did Menachem Begin have no program? Did the FLQ have no program? Does Osama Bin Laden have no program?

  20. 20
    Steeplejack says:

    @Dennis G.:

    De nada. Give me a little OCD closure here: you’ve got “They hung John Brown, but his truth keeps marching on” at the very end. Fix that and you’ve got a pitch-perfect post, and I will hoist a Sam Adams Irish Red in your honor.

  21. 21
    Loneoak says:

    Beautiful post, Dennis.

  22. 22
    srv says:

    Have to say, if you had told me in 1998 or 2008 that we would be where we are now, I would not have believed it could get this much worse. I’ve never believed we’re one country, and do not believe the Great Nation that we were can get to where we need to go without letting some of these states & people go.

    But if this Nihilism isn’t fought here, then we are cooked. If I can’t see how a Dem Administration, with Wall Street driving policies, can get us out of this hole – then how the hell do we recover from a Confederate Party running the show for the next 2 to 6 years? Anyone really believe we can dig out of that mess? These people make Bush look sane.

    The time is ripe for some outside/unforeseen event to spin things out of control. I’d like to believe it would be something we’ll look back to like a John Brown event. But I’m pretty confident it will be another Enron, another LTCM, another AIG.

  23. 23
    Andy K says:

    @Bloix:

    The very word “terrorism” originates in the French Revolution.

    Sure, the word originates then and there, but it’s been redefined in the interim- where it related to the reign of terror rained down on the French by the Jacobins who governed at the time, using the law to terrorize their political opponents, it now refers to private groups who act outside the law, and target randomly.

  24. 24
    Dennis G. says:

    @Steeplejack:
    Done. And one back at you.

    Cheers

  25. 25
    Menzies says:

    As a classicist (but not a karate expert), my contribution to this thread shall be the three verses of “John Brown’s Body,” translated into Latin, that I remember picking up this summer in Milwaukee. Huge fan of the tune.

    Corpus Ioannis reddit nunc in pulverem,
    corpus Ioannis reddit nunc in pulverem,
    corpus Ioannis reddit nunc in pulverem,
    pergit animus protinus!

    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate,
    pergit animus protinus!

    Mortuus Ioannis est ut servos liberet,
    mortuus Ioannis est ut servos liberet,
    mortuus Ioannis est ut servos liberet,
    pergit animus protinus!

    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate,
    pergit animus protinus!

    Sidera ex caelo comiter despiciunt,
    sidera ex caelo comiter despiciunt,
    sidera ex caelo comiter despiciunt
    in sepultum Ioannem.

    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate!
    Io, triumphe, conclamate,
    pergit animus protinus!

    (Translation:

    John’s body returns to the ground (x3),
    his soul keeps marching on!

    Oh, triumphant ones, now shout it! (x3)
    His soul keeps marching on!

    Ioannis has died to give freedom to the slaves (x3),
    his soul keeps marching on!

    Oh, triumphant ones, now shout it! (x3)
    His soul keeps marching on!

    The stars look kindly down from the night sky (x3),
    on buried John’s grave!

    Oh, triumphant ones, now shout it! (x3)
    His soul keeps marching on!)

  26. 26
    Steeplejack says:

    Deleted for redirection.

  27. 27
    RalfW says:

    @srv: Krugman is up. It’s a doozy. Totally goes full on Obama is the black Jimmy Carter on us.

    Nihilism indeed.

  28. 28
    Steeplejack says:

    @Dennis G.:

    Ah. Perfection. Here’s to you, Dennis G. Great post. [Glug glug glug]

  29. 29
    lacp says:

    So…the teabaggers are trying to follow the tradition of John Brown? They find people they don’t like and chop them to pieces with swords, a la Pottawatomie? What am I not understanding here?

  30. 30
    Sasha says:

    @Andy K:

    Over what issue, exactly? I just can’t imagine which single issue today could so extremely polarize a progressive. Slavery was THE issue of Brown’s time, ya know, not one of a dozen or so.

    Mounting income/social justice inequality is a good start.

  31. 31
    Little Boots says:

    @Sasha:

    I wonder. That should be a big one, but most Americans sort of like inequality. We see it as proof of our wonderful system. It sucks, but we have to find a way around it.

  32. 32
    srv says:

    @RalfW: I’m going to close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and sing la-la-la and wait for a few months. Don’t know what else to do.

  33. 33
    Delia says:

    Here is the difference between the Civil War era and our own: during the mid-nineteenth century the business and industrial interests identified with the North, even if they had little interest per se in the slavery question. Today those same moneyed interests have found a way to play on the fears and prejudices of the neo-confederates, bringing them along so that they’ll vote against their economic self-interest until it kills them.

    It’s sort of the late stage capitalism that Marx foresaw meets Old Virginny. I really don’t know how this one plays out. Not well, I imagine.

  34. 34
    Hal says:

    @RalfW

    Krugman is up. It’s a doozy. Totally goes full on Obama is the black Jimmy Carter on us.
    Nihilism indeed.

    I read the article and Krugman gives way too much credit to Congress. I think they are as bad as Obama when it comes to dealing with Republican bullshit.

  35. 35

    I don’t know that Krugman is right, in fact I don’t have a fucking clue what the WH is trying to do. What I do know is that if I wanted to vote for a damned Republican I’d have voted for the white one.

    I’m 200 miles from home watching it snow and freeze with a roof to do and an hour into being sick as hell, some kind of flu thing I think, shivering, shaking, and aching and maybe the dinner I was enjoying will stay with me. I might feel testy.

  36. 36
    BGinCHI says:

    Has no one mentioned Russell Banks’ great, great novel Cloudsplitter?

    A must read if you have any interest in Brown and his times.

  37. 37
    fucen tarmal says:

    well, john brown did catch the touchdown from dan marino to win the sugar bowl…

    oh, THAT, john brown.

    and yes, studying history as a kid, in high school, college, just as when i read about it today, i have to block that memory, the other john brown, in order to focus in on better known everywhere, except in my mind, john brown…

    i swear sometimes i wish there was a defragging program for the human mind.

  38. 38
    Sasha says:

    Actually, you know what would really be fun for the modern Confederates?

    Create a new organization that celebrates the Civil War — The John Brown Society (JBS).

    They can dress up (complete with firearms) and romantically reenact John Brown’s own lost cause — the slave uprisings.

    In fact, every Black person in the South should get a weapon — improvised and otherwise — and march in every capital of every state that was in the Confederacy, as a proud demonstration the noble drama of the oppressed finally standing up to the oppressor.

    (I’m sure members of the Sons of the Confederacy — who represent states’-rights slaves constantly whipped by the tyrannical master that is the federal government — would gladly march with the John Brown Society in solidarity of the dream of throwing the off shackles of their subjugation.)

    And of course, both Blacks and Whites can be member of the JBS.

    Whadya think?

  39. 39
    Steeplejack says:

    @Chuck Butcher:

    When don’t you feel testy? (Rhetorical question.)

    Hope you feel better soon. It sucks to be sick. Especially when you have to work. Sending cosmic (but testy) healing beams your way.

  40. 40
    General Stuck says:

    These days, the lynchings are hi tech

  41. 41
    asiangrrlMN says:

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post, Dennis. I really struggle with what I think of John Brown and how I would react to a modern-day equivalent. If it were in words only, then I would applaud and egg him on. If it were in deeds, though, I am not sure.

    @Sasha: Love. It. But only if I can participate.

    I do agree that we need more people willing to be shrill–but not Obama. It’s gotta come from elsewhere.

    @Steeplejack: Hiya. From one OCD sufferer to another, I salute you. And, how are you doing?

  42. 42
    Andy K says:

    @Sasha:

    Not seeing it.

    Let’s put Brown in context: He was openly fighting against slavery for over twenty years before the Harpers Ferry raid. Three years before that raid, in Bloody Kansas, he led the Pottawatomie Massacre, where he and his followers killed pro-slavery settlers with broadswords- BROADSWORDS, for Chrissakes!- and never faced legal charges related to the event.

    What I’m getting at is that in 1859, a zealot could actually believe that if he staged a violent revolution over the issue of the day with very few followers in tow, there was a chance he’d succeed. I just can’t imagine someone- a sane someone, anyway- thinking that they could sway public opinion, let alone kick off a revolution, with a spontaneous act over one of many issues facing the nation today.

  43. 43
    goblue72 says:

    The story of John Brown always put an electric shock down my spine – a man serving a truly just cause while being utterly unafraid in the face of certain death in service of that cause – that whole thing about really, truly being willing to put your life on the line for someone else. Not because its your job, but just because. When you look people like that in the eye, you just can’t help but blink first.

    His violence never bothered me – you take another man in bondage & under the whip, well…live by the sword, then you die by it – preferably in a lot of pain before you expire. Ghandi-esque non-violence wasn’t going to end slavery anymore than it would have stopped the Germans in the 30s. Some things just need the end of a knife or gun to be defeated.

    We don’t have a modern day equivalent to slavery, but we sure do have a class war going on. I wouldn’t mind some Wobblies-style folks exploding the homes of the plutocrats to start helping shape a REAL message to rich that there are far worse things to face than your taxes going up if you don’t let off the end of your boot heel a bit.

  44. 44
    lacp says:

    @Andy K: Ted Kaczynski – the John Brown of environmentalism.

  45. 45
    Scott P. says:

    Sorry, John Brown was a homicidal crazy man. Look at the Potawatomie Massacre. The first person killed by Brown during his Harper’s Ferry Raid was a free black man. That he was opposed to slavery doesn’t make him a hero.

  46. 46
    Joseph Nobles says:

    Sidenote: it’s a crying shame no one ever wrote a John Brown script for Gregory Peck.

  47. 47
    Andy K says:

    @lacp:

    Maybe if there’d been some discord in Trashy Indiana in the years leading up to Kaczynski’s actions…Or maybe if he’d not been such a Luddite…

  48. 48
    Dennis G. says:

    @Andy K:
    One of the risks of this post would be the possible confusion that it was a call to repeat Brown’s violence. It is not.

    Violence was the political language that the Confederates spoke in and continued to use as political speech until way into the 1970s. In the 1850s Brown talked back to the slave power using their form of political speech–violence. Things are a bit different today and political violence in America is no longer an acceptable form of speech. As the avenues to use violence without paying a steep price closed in on the Confederate Party they moved to other forms of speech–codes, money, and dog whistles–to seek the same outcomes. And yet, even today, the threat of violence is never far from their rhetoric.

    The desire for somebody to fill Brown’s shoes is more about the way that John Brown stood against the slave power inspired opposition and change.

    If there is a single issue, it may well be coming to grips with the class struggle in America–the gap between rich and poor that has been swept under the rug for decades. The recent SCOTUS elevation of corporations to personhood makes for a bookend to the Dred Scott decision–both were radical departures from settled law to benefit the oligarchs of the day. Filling John Brown’s shoes today might be taking action to try and correct this injustice in a confrontational way that mobilized most Americans for reform. I do not know if anything like that would ever happen, but I hope it will.

    Regardless of any historical echoes, our times are not the same as things were 150 years ago. Things are better now, much better and the struggle we face today is about keeping the movement towards a more perfect Union on track.

    Cheers

  49. 49
    goblue72 says:

    @Scott P.: John Brown wasn’t crazy – as is quite clear from the historical literature available about his life.

    Books – they’re not just for paperweights anymore!

  50. 50
    lacp says:

    @Dennis G.: Dennis, I hope my snarkiness (admittedly strongly influenced by Capt. Morgan) doesn’t wipe out the fact that I agree with you that we can be very conflicted about people who espouse goals we find noble but who are, at the same time, completely bugfuck insane, which I think both Brown was and Kaczynski is. I’m not even trying to make an argument against violence in pursuit of necessary ends (or what we perceive as necessary); it’s just that with both of these people the violence was divorced from any connection with realistic goals.

  51. 51
    JWL says:

    If memory serves, the first person killed in Brown’s suicidal raid at Harpers Ferry was a free black man. He also murdered free soil white settlers in cold blood during his earlier rampage along the Pottawatomie.

    Brown’s thirst to shed blood lent him insight into the violent cataclysm that could (and soon would) be unleashed in the cause of perpetuating American slavery. But that was a common insight to people both north and south of the Mason Dixon line in 1859. Lincoln strove mightily to suppress it upon assuming office, but the South chose war, and sealed its fate.

    That he inspired many northerners notwithstanding, it was his own dementia and homicidal rage that illuminated Brown, not the inherent evil of American slavery.

  52. 52
    JWL says:

    If memory serves, the first person killed in Brown’s suicidal raid at Harpers Ferry was a free black man. He also murdered free soil white settlers in cold blood during his earlier rampage along the Pottawatomie.

    Brown’s thirst to shed blood lent him insight into the violent cataclysm that could (and soon would) be unleashed in the cause of perpetuating American slavery. But that was a common insight to people both north and south of the Mason Dixon line in 1859. Lincoln strove mightily to suppress it upon assuming office, but the South chose war, and sealed its fate.

    That he inspired many northerners notwithstanding, it was his own dementia and homicidal rage that illuminated Brown, not the inherent evil of American slavery.

  53. 53
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:

    Jesus.

    I don’t think anyone has a bug up their butt about about the fucking Confederacy the way Dennis G. does, including actual descendants of Confederate soldiers. It’s fascinating. It’s like he’s a stalker of historical figures or something.

  54. 54
    Steeplejack says:

    @asiangrrlMN:

    Feeling pretty good tonight, which is weird. Had a tough closing shift at the BBB, but I got home relatively early (about 11:15) and have had some time to putter around on Balloon Juice and blow down some suds before going to bed (in a few minutes) so I can be back at the store at 8:30 a.m. I switched shifts with a coworker who needed tonight off, so that’s why I’m doing the dreaded “clopening” (closing and then opening). I care too much, damn it. It’s really my biggest flaw.

  55. 55
    goblue72 says:

    @Dennis G.: I’d go even further and say it wasn’t merely that John Brown spoke violence back to the Confederates. If he had partially succeeded at Harper’s Ferry and managed to disappear into the hills of Virginia (present W. Va) to wage various guerilla skirmishes until the Civil War started, he’d probably be a minor footnote in a Civil War textbook.

    Rather, it was the reaction by the South that put him into history, when they hanged the man. Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth were in the audience of his execution for chrissakes. (if that doesn’t give one chills). In his death, he hardened the line between the abolitionists and the accommodationsists – a cleave that needed to happen.

    We someone – or someones – to do that for the class war we are in – someone who TAKES back from plutocrats what they stole and goads them into overplaying their hand. I am at a loss as to how to do that though.

  56. 56
    Steeplejack says:

    @Joseph Nobles:

    True dat. Peck would have been perfect as John Brown.

    Raymond Massey was cast perfectly as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940), but the movie lacked a good script.

  57. 57
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Steeplejack: Clopening. No fun at all. I’m glad you’re in a decent mood and that you’re lifting a few. And, you do care too much, damn it. That’s why you’re the Steepman.

  58. 58
    Andy K says:

    @Dennis G.:

    Yeah, I got that, Dennis, that’s why in my next comment I included

    I just can’t imagine someone- a sane someone, anyway- thinking that they could sway public opinion, let alone kick off a revolution, with a spontaneous act over one of many issues facing the nation today.

    Spontaneous act being open to definition as an act of violence, a flash mob…whatevah. :D

  59. 59
    goblue72 says:

    @JWL: There were five people killed at Pottawatomie: James Doyle, Drury Doyle, William Doyle, William Sherman and Allen Wilkinson. The victims were all members of the pro-slavery Law & Order Party – the Doyles were also former slave catchers. Their hands were NOT clean. (Notably, Brown spared the Doyle’s youngest son who was not a member of the L & O Party.) Free soilers they were not.

  60. 60
    Calouste says:

    @goblue72:
    __

    Ghandi-esque non-violence wasn’t going to end slavery anymore than it would have stopped the Germans in the 30s. Some things just need the end of a knife or gun to be defeated.

    Gandhi’s non-violence worked against the British in his day (not sure about the 1857 Mutiny) because for them violence was a means to an end. Einstein, admirer of Gandhi though he was, abolished his pacificism with regards to the Nazis because he realized that for the Nazis violence was a goal in itself.

  61. 61
    Dollared says:

    Dennis,

    There are people ready to emulate John Brown. I haven’t seen it on the thread yet.

    They are the violent pro-lifers.

    Please understand that I love the post. But gang, violence- in-your-own-hands-then-heading-off-into-the-hills, has been done in the past ten years. By one or more “defenders of the unborn.” Probably with explicit reference to John Brown.

    Yup. Try this one. http://www.epm.org/resources/2.....-violence/

    The problem is the source of the absolute conviction. If it comes from religion, it is not a source of enlightenment or justice.

  62. 62
    Yutsano says:

    @Steeplejack:

    I switched shifts with a coworker who needed tonight off, so that’s why I’m doing the dreaded “clopening” (closing and then opening). I care too much, damn it. It’s really my biggest flaw

    Actually, these are good favor cards to hold onto should you need a favor back in the future. It gets kinda difficult to say no to someone who bailed your ass out.

  63. 63
    Steeplejack says:

    @asiangrrlMN:

    Thanks for the validation and shoring up of my low self-esteem.

    Forgot to mention that I got a good haircut last night, which has also helped to improve my mood. I have this ongoing issue where I find someone who cuts my hair well and then they disappear from my life. It’s like abandonment issues or something. WTF?! Anyway, I was way overdue for a haircut since Stephanie disappeared. Salt in the wound was that when I went to get a haircut from the substitute Stephanie recommended she was gone. Abandonment without even getting a haircut in the first place. That’s cold.

    Secondary issue is that a lot of the haircut places in my hunter-gatherer area are run by middle-aged Asian women, most of whom seem to want to give me a high and tight buzz cut like that G.I. they had a romance with in Saigon back in ’73. I end up looking/feeling like John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, without the star quality.

    But last night my long hair was bugging me so much that I bit the bullet and went back to the place vacated by Stephanie and the nameless substitute. I started off talking with a middle-aged Asian woman who quickly passed me off to someone else, probably because I was radiating fear vibes (and possibly crazy vibes with the long hair). I ended up with a young black woman named Makiyah who did a great job. I gave her the whole spiel about Saigon, told her it was better if she erred on the side of it being too long, etc. And she did a good job. I didn’t know for sure until after I came out of the shower today. After I showered and shampooed, dried my hair and brushed it in the usual fashion, I was well satisfied. It actually is a little bit longer than I like, but she got the shape and look right, so in a week or so I’ll go back for a trim, then tell her to memorize that. It feels good not to have hair hanging over my ears and bunched up on the nape of my neck. It is a good bit shorter than it was, and yet I didn’t get any “Jee&#150sus—you got a haircut!” reactions at work today. Nobody said anything, in fact. So it was subtle work. Either that or nobody cares. Either way works for me. Definitely don’t feel like John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. I feel sleek and aerodynamic. End of story.

  64. 64
    Andy K says:

    @Dennis G.:

    The recent SCOTUS elevation of corporations to personhood…

    Dude, recent? That started back in the 1880s, when one- just one– of the Republicans who helped write the 14th Amendment testified to some SCOTUS justices that the authors meant corporations to be included as persons in the Amendment, even if they didn’t actually write it that way. Citizens United is just the latest in a string of SCOTUS decisions that upholds corporate personhood.

    Santa Clara County vs. Union Pacific is one of the five worst SCOTUS decisions ever.

  65. 65
    WyldPirate says:

    @Andy K:

    Santa Clara County vs. Union Pacific is one of the five worst SCOTUS decisions ever.

    Wasn’t that case something about a court recorder slipping the “personhood” crap that into the decision?

    Yep. I was right:

    The decisions reached by the Supreme Court are promulgated to the legal community by way of books called United States Reports. Preceding every case entry is a headnote, a short summary in which a court reporter summarizes the opinion as well as outlining the main facts and arguments. For example, in United States v. Detroit Timber Lumber Company (1906), headnotes are defined as “not the work of the Court, but are simply the work of the Reporter, giving his understanding of the decision, prepared for the convenience of the profession.”[4]
    The court reporter and former president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company, J.C. Bancroft Davis, wrote the following as part of the headnote for the case:
    “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”[5]
    In other words, corporations enjoyed the same rights under the Fourteenth Amendment as did natural persons.[6] However, this issue is absent from the court’s opinion itself.

    edited to add: damn, it’s late. I guess you kinda said that, Andy K.

  66. 66
    JWL says:

    Goblu72: That’s very interesting. I certainly don’t recall ever having read as much. I’ll investigate, and come what may, thank you now for throwing down that gauntlet.

    The term Free Soilers was certainly a mischaracterization on my part; my recollection being simply that the victims were not slave-holders.

    Finally, I stand by the gist of my remarks about Brown.

  67. 67
    lumpenprole says:

    NO! Fucking Hitch made me cry!

    thanks. It’s been a long week.

  68. 68
    West of the Cascades says:

    @Dollared:

    “The problem is the source of the absolute conviction. If it comes from religion, it is not a source of enlightenment or justice.”

    Horseshit. See,e.g., King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.; Beecher, Rev. Henry Ward; Tutu, Archbishop Desmond.

  69. 69
    Andy K says:

    @WyldPirate:

    Yeah, I sorta said it. Sorta. I’m bouncing between things right now, so I sorta didn’t make myself clear.

    BTW, I like you much more after your last couple of days worth of comments. Take that as you will- it’s meant as a compliment.

  70. 70
    Redshift says:

    A friend of mine is a descendent of Brown (or his family; I’m not sure of the exact relationship.) He used to have long hair and a beard, and bore an eerie resemblance to some of the period engravings. He can do that same intense gaze, too.

  71. 71
    Dollared says:

    @west of the cascades (hey, me too! but east of the Olympics…)

    I know, I’m kinda torn about the whole religion problem. Let me put it this way: I admire Desmond Tutu, but I am in awe of Nelson Mandela. And I despise Benedict. Of all three, who has the most power and influence.

    Yup. That’s my problem with religion.

  72. 72
    fucen tarmal says:

    @lacp:

    i think ted kaczynski was ahead of his time, he could have been the john brown of facebook.

  73. 73
    Joey Maloney says:

    Side point:

    (In issuing these documents, by the way, he exculpated himself from any ahistorical charge of “terrorism,” which by definition offers nothing programmatic.)

    What did Hitchens mean by this? By this definition bin Laden isn’t a terrorist because he has a “program”.

  74. 74
    Joey Maloney says:

    Since @Bloix anticipated my comment well before I made it – maybe I should try reading the thread first, huh? – I’d like to revise and extend my remarks:

    Clopening

    Sounds a lot like “Clonopin”. And from what I remember of my fast food management days, the effects are not dissimilar.

  75. 75
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Dennis G.: From Wikipedia (yes, I know):

    On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher’s Bibles — breechloading .52 caliber Sharps rifles — and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Frederick Douglass and Brown’s family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Thus, while violence was essential to self-defense and advancement of the movement, Brown’s hope was to limit and minimize bloodshed, not ignite a slave insurrection as many have charged. From the Southern point of view, of course, any effort to arm the enslaved was perceived as a definitive threat…

    The thing is, I think the closest we’re liable to get to a modern-day John Brown is… Julian Assange. Another very bright, intense, hyperfocused “liberator” with a wild hair about TheOnlyThingThatMatters — slavery in the 19th century, and the meshing of political/corporate global plutocracy today. Both very, very important social factors which are, frankly, “invisible” (ignorable) to most Americans, most of the time. It could be argued that only a John Brown (Julian Assange) has the dedication, and the ability, to shed light on the ugliness running just below the surface of everyday life like the fruiting body of an immense fungus… but that doesn’t make those individuals any more tolerable as family members or co-workers.

  76. 76
    Rob says:

    The world today can be a pretty frustrating place for activism. People like John Brown showed the way by doing, he didn’t have mass comm platforms like TV, Interwebz and global reach broadsheets, heck most of his comms were delivered to crowds or via WOM – yet today, some might say that influencing and getting heard and changing shit is even more difficult. Any activism that bucks the status quo is often filtered by our MSM, tarred in some way with a brush of general “ooh don’t you do this, it’s ick” Whilst the interwebz for some offer a means of change and owning the message, the reality is that it’s slowly becoming a platform based medium with crowds flocking to the kings or queens of the day, eg Facebook today, My[space] yesterday and Google world every other day. Blogs like this thankfully, still provide a little independent thought non tempered by social media noise and other filtered bollocks, Thanks :)

  77. 77
    WereBear says:

    John Brown was also involved with Timbuctoo, the rather legendary (very little documentation still exists) free slave settlement in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was supposed to give them their forty acres and a mule and teach them to farm for themselves.

    But the weather and terrain were against them, and the settlement broke up and drifted apart. But it shows Brown was not a short sighted revolutionary, in any case; it wasn’t just about shedding blood.

    In fact, I always see him as mad, yes; but driven that way by the suffering around him.

  78. 78
    Josie says:

    @Anne Laurie: The idea of Assange as our John Brown is intriguing. If you consider the rumors of his planned expose of Bank of America and the desire of several of the world’s police forces to arrest him (shut him up), the comparison is eerily believable.

  79. 79
    joeyess says:

    It’s a good thing that Blight wasn’t Scott Roeder’s attorney in the Tiller murder case. Using the whole bit about “revolutionary violence” and “when is it justified?”.

    That murderous son of a bitch just might have gotten acquitted in Kansas had that passionate defense and the images of John Brown been employed.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t care much for “ends justifying means” or “with us, or against us”.

    Not to go all ComicCon on you all, but as the man once said: “only a Sith deals in absolutes”.

  80. 80
    Sasha says:

    @Andy K:

    Not seeing it.

    You understand I was making “a modest proposal”, right?

  81. 81
    Hawes says:

    Hmmm, I think Bright is closer to the truth about Brown. He forces us to ask uncomfortable questions because he was an uncomfortable figure. What he did at Potawotamee(sic) Creek was not principled political action, it was vicious murder. Dragging people out of their beds and hacking them to death with broadswords is not OK.

    You say that Taney pulled Dred Scott out of his ass. I think part of the problem that abolitionists like Garrison, Douglass and Brown had with America was that you didn’t have to pull Dred Scott out of your ass.

    Taney’s legal arguments aren’t a HUGE stretch. The Constitution implicitly and explicitly acknowledges the existence and legality of slavery. It also prohibits the federal government from taking property without due process or by legislative fiat. Those restrictions in the 5th Amendment only apply to the federal government, not the states (at least prior to the 14th).

    So when Taney says that the federal government can not prohibit slavery anywhere, he’s not really creating the ruling from thin air.

    In fact, THAT was why abolitionists considered the Constitution part of the problem. I think Garrison called it a pact with the devil. That’s also why Brown felt the need to re-write it apparently.

    Other parts of Dred Scott – denying the citizenship rights of even free blacks – are less grounded in the Constitution, but that’s also key to understanding why the 14th was necessary.

  82. 82
    TomG says:

    There aren’t too many people I admire without reservation, especially from the 19th century. John Brown is one.
    Lysander Spooner, one of our greatest anarchists, is of course another. It looks like Spooner knew and assisted John Brown:

    From a web biography of Spooner – do a FIND on the term ‘John Brown’, and around the middle of the page there are several paragraphs about their association.

  83. 83
    Kedzie says:

    According to Wiki John Brown had TWENTY kids! Holy crap! I’m going to say that’s my personal favorite fact about him.

    And his wife.

  84. 84
    rdldot says:

    Thanks, Dennis. I always enjoy your posts, but for some reason I really appreciate this one. I do a good bit of reading about the pre-civil war and civil war period, so I will make a note of picking up one of the John Brown biographies.

  85. 85
    Paris says:

    @BGinCHI: I came to this thread late. Thanks for mentioning Cloudsplitter. What a great read. I can’t recommend it enough.

  86. 86
    Upper West says:

    @Delia:

    That is an excellent point, Delia. It’s the culmination of the alliance between the religious right and the extreme capitalists. We thought it would implode when the very wealthy got scared of the religious nuts.

    But the religious right has essentially morphed into, or allied with the racist/paranoid right, and the top 1% people are more comfortable with that faction than with the religious crazies.

    Palin may still be a breaking point, though.

  87. 87
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @Hal: And no mention of corporate-controlled media. That is a big piece of the mechanism controlling the thinking of a majority of Americans. It has ghetto-ized the “left” in this country, so people who, in actuality (as opposed to tea-bagger faux populism), work against the corporate interests have no voice in opposition to the apathy of corporate media and the out-sized rightwing puke funnel.

  88. 88
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @Dennis G.: Dennis, I like this post quite a bit. John Brown’s role in this history has always seemed murky to me, and you have clarified it quite a bit.
    I’m sure you know, however, that the elevation of corporations to personhood is not recent, although it was the SCOTUS in old case in the 19th century that did that – from what I’ve read, it seems a clerk added a header to the opinion that the opinion didn’t contain, to the effect that under the law, corporations are persons. So it wasn’t even a judge, president or legislature who accomplished this monstrosity, but a judicial bureaucrat.
    To me, the most important step toward restoring democracy is undoing this travesty. Get the big money out of media and politics.

  89. 89
    Andy K says:

    @Sasha:

    Yeah-yeah, sure-sure! And I wish there was more attention paid to the topic outside of the prog-o-sphere. I just don’t think there’s sufficient traction to get it pushed way out front in any way.

  90. 90
    Dean Booth says:

    If only someone was able to articulate the arguments against slavery clearly and forcefully, John Brown — and the Civil War — would not have been necessary.

  91. 91
    Dennis G. says:

    @Anne Laurie:
    That’s an interesting point.

    I’m late back to the party as I had to a medical test that took me out of things for the entire day. So it goes.

    Thanks for that thought. It is worth mulling over.

    Cheers

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