John Brown is either a hero or a madman, depending on your opinion of him. He played a significant role in history, regardless of your opinion of him.
John Brown led a raid on Pottawatomie, Kansas, after the people of Kansas voted to expand slavery in to their state. John Brown, devoutly religious, could not accept the democratic will of the people in this case. He could not accept that a majority voted democratically to enslave a minority. Rightly so, too.
During the raid, John Brown and his many sons violently slaughtered their neighbors. It is fair to use the term slaughter in this case. John Brown and his sons used swords to hack their victims to death. This very bloody, inefficient and personal method of killing implies a man unhinged from reality. This may be why you might see John Brown as a madman. He certainly participated in mad killings.
The end of one fight, the start of another.
The decision to expand slavery was ultimately undone in Kansas, but not after much bloodshed. It is possible the John Brown’s violence caused some Kansans to pull back their support for slavery. Maybe they sensed it would lead to a bad end for more innocent people.
For John Brown, the undoing of slavery in Kansas was a major moment for him. It was a moment he became radicalized, having crossed the line from citizen to rebel. He embraced violence as a means to affect change, having lost all faith in the peaceful means of democracy to do the right thing.
It was also the moment he took his radical rebellion on the road.
With the support of invisible and wealthy Americans in the East, Brown gathered men and weapons and traveled to Virginia. There he laid plans to launch a raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. That raid would give more weapons for Brown to distribute to the many African slaves living in bondage.
With the slaves and the weapons, Brown planned to do what other slave rebellions had failed to do – lead a successful uprising against slavery. What that uprising was to be is something of a debate.
He Will Make The Gallows Holy As The Cross.
The website History Is A Weapon describes what came next:
| On October, 16, 1859, John Brown and nearly two dozen comrades seized the armory at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, hoping to use its massive arsenal in the struggle to forcibly end slavery. |
Captured and brought to trial at nearby Charles Town, Brown was found guilty of treason. One month before his execution, John Brown
addressed a courtroom in Charlestown, West Virginia, defending his role in the action at Harper’s Ferry.
Henry David Thoreau, although himself did not favor violence, praised
John Brown, and when the fiery Preacher was sentenced to death,
Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“He will make the gallows holy as the cross.”
A Fair and Public Trial
Before he was executed, John Brown was put on trial. This public display of American justice in action is a noble and proud thing. It shows that ours is a nation of laws, performed in public, transparent to all to see. The outcome was never in doubt of course. [One wonders why we do not believe terrorists today could also receive a fair trial.]
John Brown was found guilty, and sentenced to die. At his sentencing hearing, we was allowed to address the court.
A Moses leading his people
John Brown said the following, in a way to explain his actions and thinking.
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 the slaves.
I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there 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 have done 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.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html
Here we have his own explanation of his intentions. John Brown did not want to start a slave rebellion, as he was ultimately accused and convicted for doing. He wanted to lead the slaves to Canada, where they would be free.
This is a subtle difference, of course, but important, nevertheless. John Brown was not a traitor in his heart, nor was he a terrorist by intention. He was trying to save people. That is not the same thing as trying to overthrow the government or kill innocent people.
An act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
John Brown continued:
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, brother, 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.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html
This may be the most interesting moment of John Brown’s final speech. Here he asks us to consider his efforts from a different light. This is just what we must always do in history. We must always ask ourselves, if the roles were reversed, or even altered slightly, would the meaning change? If it would, why and how might that change be significant?
In this case, John Brown asks the court, and us, to consider how his efforts might have been seen differently by the court if he were acting for the wealthy and not the poor; if he were fighting for the powerful and not the powerless.
He answers his question for us: If he were an agent of the powerful and rich, he would be considered a hero.
Therefore we are left to wonder if he saw what others also knew. The support of slavery was wrong, and loyalty to a government and a nation that embraced it was also wrong. It was like being an accomplice to a crime. Logically and legally, if the killing was done for the wealthy, it would not make it legal or logical. Nevertheless, this is how the law and the Nation behaved. Indeed it is how our law and nation continue to behave even today.
Remember them that are in bonds
This 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 yet 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.http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html
He uses religion effectively here. John Brown knows that his audience is most likely all made up of Christians. This was the era of the Second Great Awakening in the United States, a time when Americans were seized by religious fever, and tried to live their lives with a sense of the Gospel teachings.
Here John Brown calls out his accusers, describing his actions as more in keeping with the teachings of the Christian Gospels than the defenders of the law and slavery.
Forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice…
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!http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html
At this point, he may have become a martyr in his own words. He does not reject the judgement of the court. He embraces the guilt. For John Brown to be guilty of acting in accordance with the Gospel teachings, and to give his life that others may be free is to be guilty of great and wonderful things.
If he is to be judged by those he sees as wicked, as he tried to save those who are to be killed, then he is living the life of a martyr. He knows and declares that his is a life of noble sacrifice; a life a real meaning.
He was a patriot in a land of traitors; traitors to the principles of freedom and equality that were laid in the foundations of the nation during the Revolution.
At the end, all John Brown could say was the obvious.