John Brown struck the match, lighting the fuse on the powder keg of secession and Civil War. Brown defended his violence claiming to be faithful to the Golden Rule. Like most fanatics, he was wrong, and he twisted the Bible like a pretzel to excuse anti-biblical violence. Brown’s life is proof that one’s most sincere passion or zeal does not justify his tactics. Nor does his noble desire justify his violent actions.
However, it is claimed our War for Independence was an act of violence, but that compares apples with apes. Our break with England was a collective decision after many months of negotiation by elected authorities. Brown practiced arbitrary violence against innocent people; our break with England was done after pleading and providing reasons for the break.
Collective efforts with England by delegates from the thirteen American colonies were rebuffed. After England levied excessive taxes without any agreement or representation by the colonies, the colonists were ready to declare independence reluctantly. This led to the violence in 1770, when British soldiers opened fire on a group of Boston colonists, killing five men. The fight for independence was on, and freedom was ahead.
Conversely, Brown’s violence was planned, and innocent people died with repercussions to our day. He promoted himself to initiate the Civil War that did not have to happen. Slavery was dying anyway. It had been illegal to import slaves since January 1, 1808. While slavery was still a blight, the dying institution was not worth the bloody spasms and convulsions of a war that killed over 600,000 men, injured almost 500,000, and made havoc on the South.
Brown was a sincere fool, fanatic, and follower (not of Christ) with wild, apocalyptic visions from another sphere. Shockingly, many impressive, highly placed, and highly respected American leaders such as preachers, poets, pundits, philosophers, and a physician supported and defended him.
He married twice and fathered twenty children, many of whom died with him in his forays against slavery, albeit usually against innocent people. After a life of abolitionist activities, many of them violent, Brown led twenty-one on a raid on Harper’s Ferry in Charles Town, VA (now WV) to procure warehoused guns and ammunition to arm fugitive slaves. His wacky plan was to kick off a rebellion among slaves and start the War that he hoped would free the slaves.
His plan failed, and ironically, the first man killed at Harper’s Ferry was an innocent free black man who worked for the B&O Railroad. After a quick but fair trial, Brown was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
As Brown left the county jail at 11:00 a.m. on December 2, 1859, he rode to the gallows sitting on his coffin in a furniture wagon. He passed through a large but limited crowd of civilians, the local militia, and a hundred U.S. Marines commanded by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, Lt. J.E.B Stuart, and Marine Lt. Israel Greene. Thomas (later Stonewall) Jackson was on temporary duty from his professorship at Virginia Military Institute, providing security at the execution. Lincoln’s future assassin John Wilkes Booth, wanting to be an observer, illegally borrowed a militia uniform for the execution.
Within a year of Brown’s execution, the first state seceded from the Union, and one of the most tragic wars in history began.
Black-owned businesses in the North closed on the day of Brown’s execution, and church bells rang across the North. Huge memorial services took place, guns were fired, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (both famous white leaders), and others joined many Northerners in toadying to Brown’s memory and mission, hoping to justify his madness.
Emerson remarked on Brown’s death sentence, that Brown “will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.” Emerson, like the others, had drunk the Kool-Aid before joining the John Brown Parade.
Radical, transcendental preachers and philosophers in New England made a hero out of a zero.
Brown was the North’s hero and was the most famous American from 1859 until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865! That speaks volumes about the mental acumen of the period. Thoreau spoke to a crowd in Concord, Massachusetts, saying, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature.”
Tell that to the relatives of those he and his sons shot and hacked to death in Kansas.
Even with his violent activities, Brown was funded by some of the most polished, proper, powerful, and prosperous men in New England! On May 9, 1859, Brown delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts, that Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and David Thoreau attended. Brown could not get a more respectable audience than that.
Thoreau equated Brown’s execution to Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate, with whom he compared the American government. He declared those who believe Brown threw away his life and died as a fool are themselves fools.
As Brown began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, he was joined by Harriet Tubman, “General Tubman,” as he called her. She was also called “The Moses of her people.” Tubman, a darling of today’s left, was involved with, and helped Brown.
Shockingly, so many northerners considered Brown (often identified with Christ and Moses) a hero, and Union soldiers marched to a new song John Brown’s Body. The song made a hero out of a heretic and a martyr out of a madman whose “soul is marching on.” The melody was later used by abolitionist Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Innocent people sing that song in our day with gusto, not realizing it was a bloodthirsty marching song asking God to help northern soldiers crush the South.
No doubt, General Sherman whistled and sang that song on his bloody march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Julia was married to Samuel Gridley Howe, a famous physician and abolitionist. Samuel was a member of the Secret Six, a group of influential New England leftists who funded John Brown’s work. The Secret Six also included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. Two of the six were Unitarian preachers. While these famous, well-connected men did not meet as a group, Brown met with them a few times to inform them of his “progress.” And to pick up a check. They gave him money without asking any questions. They, along with William Lloyd Garrison and Amos Adams Lawrence (both influential white leaders), funded Brown’s actions and must bear responsibility for his attack on Harper’s Ferry.
After the fiasco at Harper’s Ferry, the newspapers began to release information about the Secret Six. The handwriting was on the wall: the culpable financiers of terror (that some would call “good” terror) shredded their papers of all incriminating evidence of their treachery and fled the country. Smith stayed home but confined himself to a mental institution saying something like, “John who?” and “Harper’s what?”
A Senate committee looked at the Secret Six activities, but they were careful not to look too closely. They were fearful about finding incriminating evidence of the famous supporters of Brown’s terror, thinking it should remain uncovered. When the committee questioned Samuel Howe and George Stearns, the two men later admitted they were asked questions in such a manner that “permitted them to give honest answers without implicating themselves.” Civil War historian James M. McPherson stated that “A historian reading their testimony, however, will be convinced that they told several falsehoods.”
The Senate closed the hearings and wrote their report while the men responsible for funding Brown went back to their reputable lives in New England. Well, all’s well that ends well. However, the Civil War did not end well. Over 600,000 men died, with 500,000 injured and maimed for life.
Former slave Frederick Douglass secretly met with Brown at a stone quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he wisely refused to be part of the Harper’s Ferry raid. He admitted, “I met him often during this struggle, and all I saw of him gave me a more favorable impression of the man, and inspired me with a higher respect for his character.” However, his hero would soon be executed for treason, inciting a slave insurrection and murder. It was not good public relations to be identified with Brown at that time, so Douglass sailed for England a few weeks before the trapdoor on the gallows snapped open.
Twenty years after the Civil War, Douglass said, “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.” Douglass called him “a brave and glorious old man….History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence.” Of course, Douglass was desperate to justify his support for the unsupportable.
According to her biographer Kate C. Larson, “Harriet Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived.” Tubman helped Brown recruit for the ill-fated raid, but illness kept her from participating. She opined that Brown did more for American blacks than Lincoln did. While she was female, a black, and a do-gooder, having helped hundreds of slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, her likeness should not be on the twenty-dollar bill instead of Jackson’s because of her involvement with Brown’s rebellion.
Had Tubman not been ill, she would have swung from the gallows along with John.
According to W. E. B. Du Bois, in his 1909 biography, “John Brown was right.” However, Du Bois was wrong. Brown was not right, but Du Bois was a brilliant black activist and the first black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Blacks have tended to overlook many serious problems of white men who carry water for the black cause.
John Brown and people like him are still defended and praised for their devotion, deception, and destructive actions. Why will people not make principled decisions regardless of race, money, influence, relationship, political party, or religion? Douglass, Tubman, Du Bois, and other black leaders refused to criticize Brown because he supported abolition.
Men tend to appreciate, accept, and applaud others who support their own positions—right or wrong positions. Democrats support people who are clearly self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and self-promoting, and Republicans do the same. Honest politicians should publicly disavow radicals in their midst.
Radical Blacks promote principle openly but mock it privately. It doesn’t take much intellectual candlepower to see that everyone should stop making heroes out of heretics.
Dr. Don Boys
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