God's Terrible Avenger: John Brown and Liberty
Bell, Fraser, Queen's Quarterly
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.
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?
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."
Before the passage of the …
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Publication information: Article title: God's Terrible Avenger: John Brown and Liberty. Contributors: Bell, Fraser - Author. Magazine title: Queen's Quarterly. Volume: 112. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2005. Page number: 340+. © 1998 Queen's Quarterly. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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