God's Terrible Avenger: John Brown and Liberty

Article excerpt

When they hanged John Brown for treason in Charlestown, Virginia, even his enemies said he died "game." Aside from that, though, there has never really been a national consensus in the United Stares about the man who in 1859 tried to foment a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He has variously been called fanatic, madman, freedom fighter, martyr, and--in keeping with the political climate of our own day--"terrorist." What is certain is that his actions brought to the boiling point those sectional differences that were tearing his country apart.

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I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel: As ye deal
with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born
of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.
"Battle Hymn of the Republic"
JULIA WARD HOWE

So enduringly powerful is John Brown's saga as anti-slavery partisan, and so ambiguous as well, that it is perhaps not surprising that it was appropriated by the likes of the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and more recently by those Christian fundamentalists from America's heartland who are opposed to stem-cell research, abortion, and same-sex marriage. If his soul, as the old Union song claims, "goes marching on," where has it ended up, and what does John Brown's life and legend signify?

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The anachronistic explanation of his career is that indeed he was a proto-terrorist, the model for all those jihadists over the years who have argued that the ends justify the means. Not even his many apologists have quite been able to explain away what was described as the Pottawatomie massacre--the murder by Brown and his followers of five pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, none of whom, as it turned out, actually owned slaves or had committed acts of violence against the "free soil" settlers. Brown himself didn't feel obliged to defend his actions. As far as he was concerned, war had already been declared by the "pukes," the Missouri Border Ruffians who had murdered free soilers and sacked the town of Lawrence, stronghold of the western abolitionist movement. There could be no accommodation with those "thieves and murderers," said he. The abolitionists must strike back. "What is needed," he declared, "is action, action." The heated rhetoric in Congress further aggravated the tensions that were convulsing the republic. In a two-day address, Senator Charles Sumner described what he called "The Crime Against Kansas," in which "Murderous robbers from Missouri ... hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization had committed a rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery."

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Before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the anti-slavery movement had been largely pacifist. Pioneered by the Quakers and then taken up by the New England Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, the Underground Railroad was already a fact of American life in the 1830s. Like its twentieth-century Civil Rights counterpart, it was very much an interracial movement. Former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman found common cause with individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Unitarian minister and future patron of Emily Dickinson.

By and large the anti-slavery movement was centred in New England, and the fiercest resistance to the federal marshals and bounty hunters who tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act occurred in Boston and the state of Vermont which, next to Canada, was the safest haven for runaways. With the passage of the act, which permitted the seizure of escapees even in the free states, the whole tenor of the movement changed. Frederick Douglass, editor, lecturer, and the most prominent black abolitionist, had hitherto believed in moral force. …