An Agitator, Leader, and Jazz pianist.(BOOKS)(BIOGRAPHY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

An Agitator, Leader, and Jazz pianist.(BOOKS)(BIOGRAPHY)


Byline: William F. Gavin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Merrill D. Peterson's John Brown: The Legend Revisited (University of Virginia Press, $23.95, 192 pages, illus.) is an admirably brief, yet richly informative study of the reputation of John Brown (1800-1859), the militant abolitionist and agitator. The author, professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia, has written what he calls ". . . an extended meditation on the life of John Brown and his place in American thought and imagination from the time of his death in 1859 to the near present."

Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 made him nationally famous or infamous depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line one was standing. The raid, the ostensible purpose of which to provide arms so that freed slaves would be able to defend themselves, was, in purely military terms, a disaster. Brown was captured, quickly put on trial and died on the gallows. In death, as in life, he generated strong passions, both for and against his "direct action" approach to the problem of slavery.

In the 143 years since his death scholars, novelists, playwrights, painters, poets (e.g., Stephen Vincent Benet), polemicists, states righters, leftist ideologues, and black militants (e.g., Malcolm X) have tried to use Brown for their own purposes. Mr. Peterson appears to have read every word, seen every painting, and listened to every argument.

Generally speaking black Americans and leftists have portrayed Brown as a noble patriarchal figure, transcendentally virtuous, whose willingness to die - and to kill if necessary - for the cause of black freedom transformed his faults into virtues. Southerners and scholars less convinced of Brown's moral rectitude focused on his responsibility for the Harpers Ferry raid and "the Pottawatomie Massacre," a particularly gruesome murder of five pro-slavery southerners in Kansas.

Although Mr. Peterson's style and approach are the very model of scholarly clarity and objectivity, it is clear (to me at least) that he sympathizes with those who, in balance, see Brown as admirable rather than despicable.In summing up, the author writes: "[Brown's] creed, moral, political, and otherwise came down to two tenets: the biblical Golden Rule and the 'all men are created equal'" of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could be more American than that.

Perhaps. But I wonder if the same words would be written by a distinguished historian about an anti-abortion militant who, after directing the murder of five abortion supporters in Kansas, drives to Virginia, forcibly occupies an abortion clinic, engages the police in a gunfight in which many are killed, and, as he goes to his death, states that abortion has made the United States a "guilty land" and that the crime of abortion must be purged away with "blood." Would a judicious, prudent, scholar conclude that the murderous pro-lifer's "creed" consisted of following the Golden Rule and believing in the Declaration of Independence?

I think not, and I certainly hope not, for such violence should be condemned. Yet what is the morally relevant difference between what Brown did in Kansas and Harpers Ferry and what the pro-lifer did in the hypothetical case I have presented?

* * *

Is there anything exciting or fresh or even interesting left to be said about Winston Churchill? For more than 60 years he has been idolized for his oratorical skills and his irreplaceable leadership in 1940, criticized for his strategic blind spots, made into a demigod by an Anglo-American Churchill cult, and, in recent decades, sniped at (and, for the most part, missed), by pesky revisionists. Above all, he is still quoted. As a congressional aide, I heard so many Churchill quotations on the floor of the House that I winced every time a congressman, seeking to gain dignity-by-association, arose and said, "As Winston Churchill once put it . …

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