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:
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