Gentle Readers, despite occasional appearances, historians are human. Just like the people we study, we come to the past with our own set of values, inclinations, and biases. None of us can produce an objective history, any more than we can produce the final, complete history of anything. We cannot pretend to neutrality and you ought to take a skeptical look at any recent historian who tries. But we must approach the past as fairly as we can and try to understand the mores, motives, hopes, fears, and cultural backgrounds of the people we study. Perhaps we don’t communicate this well, but history is an exercise in empathy.
That brings us to John Brown. Biographers have painted him as a Christian warrior saint and a deranged madman driven by paranoid obsessions. The most recent work I’m familiar with credits Brown as a vital precursor to civil rights. People love and hate Brown, often intensely. As must surprise no one, I find him intensely admirable. Though not as immune to the white supremacy of his era as one biographer would cast him, he does have a far smaller helping of it than most. He fought slavery, which puts him right up there with a soldier liberating a concentration camp in my book. Brown felt an obligation to black Americans that he cast in cringe-worthy paternalistic terms, but demonstrated a remarkable willingness to let them guide the course of his own life. He believed them ignorant and lacking in necessary discipline, but also saw both traits as situational and cured through good examples and education rather than innate in their race. In that, he differs little from many black leaders of his era. Far more than most white Americans, he treated non-whites as his equals. He would even fight and kill white men for their freedom, something he intended as early as the 1840s and finally consummated, twice, in the last decade of his life.
For the most part, historians don’t debate the facts of Brown’s life. Some have pathologized his antislavery, just as they have that of most whites, as a kind of mental illness. Brown and the rest had an unnatural fixation on slavery, which posed no danger to them. They reacted with intolerable offensiveness and hostility to a harmless, dying institution. Abandoning those ideas, as recent generations have, presents us with newly revised, more generous take. Brown’s violence may still discomfit us, as all violence should, but in the end he proposed killing enslavers to free the enslaved. How can we celebrate George Washington, who put a lot of white, British soldiers into their graves for what we consider, at least in principle, the cause of freedom and damn Brown for the same? If we are consistent and fair, we must count them as similarly heroes for freedom. The fact that Brown might well have killed George Washington for the same cause should say more to us damning of Washington than of Brown.
The idea of the hero abolitionist John Brown drowns in Pottawatomie creek, next to William Sherman’s brains. On that terrible night, Brown killed unresisting men who owned no people. He did it in what he imagined as self-defense and specifically targeted those who worked for an illegitimate and oppressive government. Some of them may have made dire, credible threats or posed a threat to Brown and his family through their connection to the bogus legislature’s courts, but Brown killed them in anticipation. Had the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Sherman come at him armed and dangerous, Brown would have done no worse than anybody else. By taking them at night, ripping them from their beds and their families and ordering them hacked to pieces in the dark, he went beyond any reasonable understanding of self-defense. He acted like an enslaver lynch mob, protecting his community from what he deemed a vile, dangerous element. That we agree with him on slavery, or even farther that proslavery whites themselves count as a serious danger, should not blind us to that.
Furthermore, self-defense does not tell the full story even if we grant it to Brown. James Townsley reported that his motives extended further than the simple murders of threatening elements and, unlike his claim that Brown wanted a general purge of the area, this makes sense in light of all Brown did:
Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free States settlers; that the pro-slavery men party must be terrified
and consequently that
the pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified
Brown valued consistency in most things, following his convictions where they led him, whatever the hazards. We have a word for political violence directed at civilian targets to create fear among the enemy. Let us honor Brown’s values by calling the Pottawatomie murders he, his sons, and a few others committed by their right name: terrorism.
We usually imagine terrorism as something that someone else does, for goals we oppose. Calling Brown a terrorist does not come easily to anyone sympathetic to him. It associates his cause with those which shock our conscience. We might view it as discredited by such methods. But what else can one call a man who pulls people from their beds at night and murders them to set an example for others?
We can make excuses and claim Brown doesn’t qualify if we want, and some have, but this serves us poorly for understanding Brown. The past does not exist to make us comfortable and we are poorer for not confronting the difficult parts. We imagine terrorists, for the obvious reasons, as utterly evil. They do wrong for bad causes, like Nazis. In John Brown, we have a terrorist who may have done wrong for the best of causes. I don’t want to say that; I still admire him. My own convictions are such that I view the murder of an enslaver by the enslaved as inherently just, even praiseworthy, but Brown did not murder an enslaver and so his killing freed no one. Nor did he suffer slavery and so we might grant to him a right to revolutionary violence against his oppressors as a class, unless we recognize his act as one of solidarity with black Americans as well as white and so as an extension of their struggle. Brown would probably have agreed with that but his immediate motives involved protecting white freedom, which puts a hard limit on how far we can take that line of reasoning.
At Pottawatomie, Brown did much the same, on a vastly smaller scale, as the men who flew planes into buildings seventeen years ago. If we take slavery seriously and if we care about understanding the past in all its complications, we must grapple with that. John Brown presents us with a terrorist who feels like one of us. I don’t have a neat answer for that, which resolves all the contradictions and gives us a capsule understanding of Brown that we can put on a shelf and take for granted. Right now, I feel confident that Brown did wrong for a good cause. After I spend some time reading about slavery I tend to feel that everyone involved in enslaving others and defending the business have no rights the rest of us should feel bound to respect. Neither position sits easily with me. Both feel right at the time but not on more distant reflection.
Gentle Readers, please forgive me for the poor form of not ending with a conclusion for all of this; I don’t think there is one.
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