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Wrestling with John Brown   Leave a comment

tragicprelude

Above:  Tragic Prelude (1938-1940), by John Steuart Curry, Capitol Building, Topeka, Kansas

A Fair Use Image

John Brown as a Latter-Day Moses-Christ Figure

Notice, O reader, the Alpha and the Omega on the Bible.

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Always treat others as you would like others to treat you:  that is the law and the prophets.

–Matthew 7:12, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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[Judith] went to the bed-rail beside Holofernes’s head, reached down his sword, and drawing close to the bed she gripped him by the hair.  “Now give me strength, O Lord, God of Israel,” she said, and struck at his neck twice with all her might and cut off his head.  She rolled the body off the bed and removed the mosquito-net from its posts; quickly she came out and gave Holofernes’ head to the maid, who put it in the food-bag.

–Judith 13:6-10a, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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Besides, Brown saw slavery as a state of war against an entire race.  Sometimes a social evil is so egregious, so entrenched, that violence is the only answer.  For those of John Brown’s moral vision, American slavery–a system of repression, torture, rape, and murder–had to be eliminated by any means.  And it was.

–David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist:  The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York, NY:  Random House, 2006), page x.  Paperback, 2006.

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This, then, is the truth:  the cost of liberty is less than the cost of repression, even though that cost be blood.

–William Edward Burghardt DuBois, John Brown, 1909.  Reprint, New York, NY:  The Modern Library, 2001, page 237.

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I have tried to be a pacifist.  Alas, that suit does not suit me.  I do, however, respect pacifists, for I wish that more people were nonviolent in that way.  Although I am a nonviolent person, I acknowledge the following realities:

  1. Violence is unavoidable sometimes;
  2. Nonviolence is the worst option on other occasions; and
  3. I live in freedom under the protection of police and military forces which protect me from the violence of bad people.

Violence has become an issue I have pondered deeply and regarding which I have arrived at nuanced opinions.  Many to my left and my right disagree with me strongly, often for different reasons.  In time I might change my mind, and therefore disagree with my current position.  I am a realist with a strong moral conscience, not an ideologue.  Jesus commands me to love my neighbors as I love myself and to behave toward them as I would have them to act toward me.  All people are my neighbors.  But what if one of my neighbors is holding others of my neighbors hostage and threatening their lives?  What if that criminal neighbor is thwarting all attempts to resolve the matter nonviolently?  Perhaps the violent liberation of my hostage neighbors will prove necessary, to the detriment of my criminal neighbor.

Now I step into the nineteenth century.

Frederick Douglass

Above:  Frederick Douglass, Circa 1870

Photographer = John White Hurn

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ds-07422

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), a great abolitionist, wrote of John Brown (1800-1859) in 1881:

He was a constant thorn in my side.  I could not help feeling that this man’s zeal in the cause of my enslaved people was holier and higher than mine.  I could speak for my race–he could fight for my race.  I could live for my race–John Brown could die for my race.  My zeal was bounded by time; his stretched into the silent depths of eternity.

Brown, who according to Douglass, put him to shame, has prompted a range of reactions and responses in many people.  On one end of the spectrum is the understanding of Brown as a hero and a martyr.  After his execution (December 2, 1859) many abolitionist ministers in the North, taking their inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), likened the gallows where Brown died to the cross of Christ, for example.

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Above:  John Brown–The Martyr (1870)

Image Creator = Currier & Ives

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZC2-2703

There were other opinions.  Many others supported the abolition of slavery yet condemned Brown’s tactics.  Abraham Lincoln was one prominent figure who held this opinion.  Then there were those who condemned Brown, his cause, and his tactics.  Many White Southerners of the time fit into this category.

Since Brown’s lifetime the range of opinions has persisted.  The treatment of him in public school textbooks has varied over time.  In some, for example, he was sane, but in others he was out of his mind.  I posit that his mental state was what it was, so both evaluations cannot not be accurate.  The range of opinions regarding Brown has indicated more about those who have held those perspectives than about the executed abolitionist.

John Brown

Above:  John Brown

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-21600

On the positive side Brown was a radical for social justice.  At a time when most White Americans (even many abolitionists) were unapologetic racists Brown was not a racist.  He affirmed human equality and acted accordingly in a variety of ways.  For example, when he dined and spoke with African Americans, he treated them as his social equals–often to their shock and the surprise of onlooking White people.

His violence, however has caused generations of people to struggle with his legacy.  Yes, Brown was on the right side of history.  Yes, his activities (especially the raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859), sped up the coming of the Civil War, which hastened the end of slavery.  Yet hacking people to death in “Bleeding Kansas” was inconsistent with the Golden Rule, a standard he cited in court after the judge announced the death penalty on November 2, 1859:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, — the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to do the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), — had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. I feel no consciousness of my guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of any kind.

Let me say also, a word in regard to the statements made by some to those connected with me. I hear it has been said by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown was an Old Testament Christian who understood God to command him to smite evildoers, especially slaveholders and defenders of slavery.  He smote with skill and efficiency.

His violence–vigilantism at best and domestic terrorism at worst–was a serious matter for moral consideration at the time.  It is also such a matter in contemporary times.  Hopefully nobody who imagines himself or herself to be a latter-day John Brown will target me or someone I know for a reason he or she considers justifiable.  Although some violence becomes unavoidable due to human actions and violence becomes preferable for the same reasons, much violence is both avoidable and needless.  The cycle of violence is destructive to all involved in it.  May the level of violence in society decrease and the level of justice in society increase.

May we also give Brown his due, for he was unambiguously correct in at least one matter.  His last written statement, from December 2, 1859, the day of his execution, declared:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.  I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

(Corrected for spelling and punctuation)

The Civil War, which had become inevitable, was an extremely bloody affair.  Slavery was never going to end by means of slaves and antislavery activists asking nicely.  In states where the “Peculiar Institution of the South” (not entirely Southern, but overwhelmingly so) was the crucial to the economic, political, and social order, and was therefore entrenched, the way to end slavery was with violence.  Denmark Vesey (circa 1767-1822), Nat Turner (1800-1831), and John Brown understood this reality well.  So did certain federal officials, including Thomas Jefferson (a slaveholder) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).  So did leading Confederates, such as Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812-1883), who declared to a cheering audience in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, that race-based slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

Brown simultaneously frightens me and earns my admiration and scorn.  It is a complicated response to a complicated man who was right and wrong at the same time.  In John Brown (1909), half a century after Brown died and during the latter stage of the construction of Jim Crow in the South, William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) argued that

John Brown was right.

My evaluation is nuanced.  Brown was unambiguously correct about much, but his tactics and case should not become an excuse for any violent extremist.  The study of the past tells me that, among other things, violence can become a legitimate and necessary tactic of non-state players when the state is oppressive, stifling even nonviolent dissent.  Thus the oppressive state encourages the radicalization of its opponents.  These circumstances do not exist in many contexts in which non-state players commit violence in the name of social change.

Brown challenges me.  He defies easy categorization as either a hero or a villain.  He functions as a Rorschach test, forcing people to look into themselves.  So be it.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 4, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ALFRED TENNYSON, ENGLISH POET

THE FEAST OF FREDERICK WILLIAM FOSTER, ENGLISH MORAVIAN BISHOP, LITURGIST, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF J. ROBERT HARRIS, SOUTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER AND WITNESS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

THE FEAST OF JOHN BROWNLIE, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, HYMN WRITER, AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

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