A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia

By Craig M. Simpson | Go to book overview

Chapter 11 Two Men at Harpers Ferry

No event in Henry A. Wise's life commands the significance of Harpers Ferry. With the exception of Andrew Jackson, no one he ever met exercised greater influence or illuminated his own fond hopes and desires more clearly than John Brown. For many historians, Wise's name and reputation intersect with the historical record and take on meaning exclusively from his encounter with Brown. Allegedly irreconcilable enemies met at Harpers Ferry-- peerless representatives, as many believed, of civilizations fated to claw away mercilessly at one another.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harpers Ferry incident, however, is that neither Brown nor Wise was altogether comfortable with his role, which may explain why they admired and respected each other, even though in the end one man hanged the other. Instead of behaving like a fully committed revolutionary, confident in his righteousness and impervious to the sufferings his actions produced, Brown at Harpers Ferry experienced anxieties about the morality of his action. His ambivalences fatally inhibited him from extricating himself and his followers from the Ferry before their position grew untenable. The Virginia governor, though regarded by many as a fiery proslavery extremist, harbored real doubts about the propriety of owning slaves, had acted on these feelings in the past, and genuinely admired Brown's moral courage. Wise's encounter with Brown called his own values into question, forced him however briefly to reconsider them, and gave him a perspective on Harpers Ferry that historians have largely ignored. Wise's perspective is valuable in addressing the issues of Brown's rationality and the very real though slim chance his movement had for success. It may also aid in focusing on a number of issues obscured to date by the contrasting political and ethical sensibilities of historians, who seem unable to resist judgments about the rightness or wrongness of Brown's actions.

The spectacle of a seemingly self-possessed revolutionary who avowed the destruction of an entire social system as the only rational choice available to America riveted Wise's attention and

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