Robert Shetterly: 18 Ways To Consider John Brown

Subject: On Justice, Violence, and Social Change
Themes: 19th Century Civil Rights Religion and Society
Age groups: High School
Resource type: Articles

How shall the soul of a man be larger than the life he has lived?

-- Edgar Lee Masters

The supreme trick of mass insanity is that it persuades you that the only abnormal person is the one who refuses to join the madness of others, the one who vainly tries to resist.

-- Eugene Ionesco

The history of martyrs is the history of people who expanded to their faith. Indeed, men have shaken destiny because they felt they embodied it. Patriotism, the Cause, Humanity, Perfection, Righteousness, Liberty,—all of them large and windy abstractions to outsiders, are more powerful than dynamite to those who feel them.

-- Walter Lippmann

Portrait of John Brown by Robert Shetterly


I've been painting a portrait of John Brown and the process has been deeply challenging, troubling and revelatory for me. As the song says, John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave. And since the meaning of John Brown's life still lies a-moldering in the soul of this country, I needed to disinter him, look him in the eye --- or, rather, dare myself the test of being looked in the eye by him --- and listen to him. Who was this man? What to make of his violence? Why was he so important? Why marginalized as a maniac?

Begin, not in 1800, the year of John Brown's birth, or 1856 and 1857, the period of the battles in Bleeding Kansas, or on October 16, 1859 at Harpers Ferry, but on May 20, 2012 in Chicago at the protests called by Veterans for Peace against the NATO meeting. Some 40 US veterans of Iraq & Afghanistan ripped their war medals, medals awarded for their service in the Global War on Terrorism, off their chests, shouted statements to the huge crowd, and threw those medals down the street toward the building housing the NATO meeting. Here is a sample:

My name is Vince Emanuele, and I served with the United States Marine Corps. First and foremost, this is for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Second of all, this is for our real forefathers. I'm talking about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I'm talking about the Black Panthers. I'm talking about the civil rights movement. I'm talking about unions. I'm talking about our socialist brothers and sisters, our communist brothers and sisters, our anarchist brothers and sisters, and our ecology brothers and sisters. That's who our real forefathers are. And lastly—and lastly and most importantly, our enemies are not 7,000 miles from home. They sit in boardrooms. They are CEOs. They are bankers. They are hedge fund managers. They do not live 7,000 miles from home. Our enemies are right here, and we look at them every day. They are not the men and women who are standing on this police line. They are the millionaires and billionaires who control this planet, and we've had enough of it. So they can take their medals back.

The brave words and act of Vince Emanuele made me think of John Brown because of what he said about our "real forefathers," the people who insisted that we live up to our ideals. Not the people who wrote eloquently about justice, equality & unalienable rights who also owned slaves & refused women the right to vote, and practiced child labor and called indigenous people savages. But the people who identified with & had compassion for the victims of this hypocrisy & dedicated their lives to making those beautiful words beautiful for everyone. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are our forefathers, Emma Goldman and Mother Jones are, Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Rachel Carson. And many of our forefathers are not dead, did not live before us, they are alive today, out in the fore, in front: Wendell Berry and Ralph Nader are our forefathers, Amy Goodman and Kathy Kelly, Diane Wilson and Ann Wright, Van Jones and Grace Lee Boggs, Medea Benjamin and Ray McGovern, Chris Hedges and Cornel West, Sandra Steingraber and Bradley Manning, Bill McKibben and Camilo Mejia --- and so many more --- all living forefathers who call to all of us to be our own necessary forefathers.

And why do we need to be continually breeding more forefathers? Vince Emanuele said our enemies are not 7000 miles away, they are among us, the super rich who control our political system so that it profits them at the expense of the common good. This is the same problem John Brown faced --- an economic and political system that had accommodated itself to slavery, found ways to justify it, so that the profits kept rolling in as reliably as the waves of the Atlantic for the slave owners in the South, the slave traders and textile mill owners in the North. We cannot have too many forefathers because this problem of wealth & power is always before us.


Slavery is an act of war. It is usually referred to as one of the "spoils" of war --- the defeated being captured & exploited as slaves. Paradoxically, the slave trade reversed this process. The European countries and the US did not declare war on West African countries; they skipped the conquest part & simply went and kidnapped prisoners, transported them to the US and the Caribbean (killing millions on the way through sadistic disregard), and then waged terrorist war on them with chains, branding irons, whips and raping, and legalized inferiority, removing their human rights so that they might be another person's property rights. White people built an economy based on the slave labor of millions of African prisoners of war. This was a long war. 250 years. And it would require John Brown to light the fuse of another war to end it. Fire to fight fire.

For many years John Brown was called a lunatic and a terrorist. How many people would say the same of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of equal religious zeal as Brown and a pacifist, who tried to blow up Hitler with a bomb? A terrorist? A traitor? For Brown and Bonhoeffer we're talking about men who attempted to intercede in genocide.


Just as Bonhoeffer, only 85 years after John Brown, lends a kind of context to John Brown's life, it's interesting to go back to 1493 for another sort of context. That year a Papal Bull established the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. After Columbus's first voyage, the Catholic Church and European governments were aware that some issues may come up around explorers "discovering" lands that were already inhabited and "claiming" the resources of these "new" lands. How to see what we would eventually call imperialism as legal and moral? The Pope's Doctrine of Discovery worked just fine. It said "savage," pagan people, because they were not Christian & were therefore a lesser species, could have no legal or moral right to ownership of land or resources. In fact, no matter how many of these natives lived in a place, it was essentially empty, terra nulis. Who could object to colonizing an empty land? Or, for that matter, removing the legally and morally invisible people to be your slaves. The blatant racism and opportunism of this "doctrine" did nothing to deter Western imperialism on three continents. Rather, it enabled the genocide of the indigenous peoples, justified slavery, and was the precursor of another useful doctrine, Manifest Destiny. Its remnants, like the remnants of a vast hurricane, are still creating moral havoc in US legal and foreign policy. Many protesters of the Iraq War in 2003 carried a sign that asked sarcastically: "What's Our Oil Doing Under Their Sand?"

World history, as defined by Western, Christian countries since 1493, has depended on the Doctrine of Discovery. It's the sword of the crusader, the mask of the imperialist, the whip of the slave driver, the justification of the racist, and the truth behind the slogan "Making the world safe for democracy." It is interesting to note that state imperialism which is justified by religious fiat, which makes the ethically obscene both moral & legal, is the perfect marriage of church and state. In what sense then have they ever been separated?


Until the Civil War, slavery was like a poker game the north & south had agreed to play, pretending to be antagonists, but both profiting. A series of "compromises" tweaked the rules now & then, reshuffled the deck, but the game went on. John Brown wanted a hand in this game. He wanted a seat at that table, he wanted to rip the mask of hypocritical rectitude and racism off the players, he wanted to name the crime. How does a poor man, a man in debt who is having trouble supporting his family, will himself into a position of power to effect politics, conscience, policy, and, ultimately, history? He knew the only way to get his seat was by the shedding of blood. Many abolitionists were preaching against slavery, but nothing was changing. It had to be a white man spilling white blood over a crime done to blacks. It had to be a white man exposing white hypocrisy. And he suspected that the only hand he might get that would give him power would be the martyr hand.


Compromises. The US political system makes a fetish of compromise, as though compromise is its highest good --- higher than truth, higher than morality because compromise creates its own morality, higher sometimes than reality. It's the trump card. Today politicians applaud themselves for the compromises they make between those who "believe" that climate change is not real and those who accept the science that it is. "Compromise" between a fantasy and reality between what's false and what's true, is not good, is not moral; it's monstrous.

In the years before the Civil War a number of such "compromises" forced John Brown to act. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. But no other states north of Missouri's southern border could be slave. Part of the game the North & South was playing was to keep an equal number of slave & free states in the Union so neither side could dictate policy. Both sides won; the war on black people continued. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as free state, but the north had to accept the Fugitive Slave Act which criminalized any northerner who helped a slave who had already escaped to the north. Now slaves had to travel the Underground Railroad all the way to Canada to be safely out of the land of the free. For John Brown, one of the great conductors on the Underground Railroad, this law was outrageous and criminal, a compromise with the devil. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise & allowed the people of new states entering the union to vote to be free or slave. One reason for this "compromise" was to enable politicians to avoid the question of whether they were anti-or pro-slavery. Let the people decide! Of course, letting the people decide led to a near civil war in Kansas. And then the Dred Scott Decision in 1857 was the last straw for John Brown. The US Supreme Court ruled in this case that people of African descent --- either slave or free! --- could not be citizens of the US and have any rights under the Constitution because of their inherent inferiority. The court also dictated that slaves were private property and therefore a person owning a slave who happens to move to a free state can continue to own his property. The notion that property rights are superior to human rights plays the same role in our history as arteriosclerosis plays in the health of the heart.


Theodore Roethke's poem In a Dark Time contains these lines:

What's madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!

I know the purity of pure despair.

The problem of a noble soul is that it is always at odds with circumstance. The world does not operate on nobility or purity; both are attributes of martyrdom. The noble soul rejects domestication, refuses to graze in a succulent field while lambs are being slaughtered in the next. It refuses to relax into complicity with atrocity, sigh, and ask, Oh well, what can one person do anyway? The noble soul is uncomfortable with any level of avoidance of responsibility. To be aware is to be responsible, to witness is to feel --- and feel it as the victim does. If language employed to describe injustice is to be fully real, it implies an action needed to confront the injustice. This is what is meant by the word made flesh.

Thomas Merton's startling essay, A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann, considers what society calls sanity. Merton begins by commenting on the fact that before Eichmann stood trial he was examined by psychiatrists and pronounced "perfectly sane." That is, he was conscientious about his work, orderly, respected the system of law & order, was obedient, loyal, he slept well, had a good appetite, and was, incidentally, a mass murderer. Merton goes on to ask about the much touted sanity of the men who make atomic bombs and consider using them --- would use them and consider it sane. Merton explains how moral values, spiritual values, love and compassion, are not part of the equation of sanity --- in effect how a rational approach to defining sanity leads to an acceptance of barbarity & genocide as sane. Or, how insanity is deemed sane. And, inversely, how the people often branded as insane by the dictates of social order, are martyred for their true sanity. Such, then, is the insanity of John Brown, a man so attuned to the suffering of slaves and to the hypocrisy of a system of "justice" that sanctions slavery that he has to act to end it.

So, when Victor Hugo said about the execution of John Brown, "You preserve your shame, but you kill your glory," what he meant was that all the huffery & puffery of Federal & State & Military law & power was concentrated to condemn & kill John Brown so that slavery --- our shame --- could continue. And John Brown, who embodied the glory of two simple ideas, The Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence, was killed.


The vehemence with which John Brown was denounced, north & south, was in direct proportion to how close he cut to the bone of America's hypocrisy. Abraham Lincoln said that John Brown must die because, whatever we think of slavery, violence must not be used to alter the social order. What's interesting about Lincoln is that a year later in his first Inaugural Address he said that as president he would not act to end slavery --- such a course would be counter to the Constitution and State's Rights: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." He said he couldn't act to end slavery if he wanted to. So, in effect, while condemning John Brown for acting with violence outside of the rule of law, Lincoln also believed that there was no non-violent legal appeal to end slavery. Lincoln reiterated his support for the Fugitive Slave Act while washing his hands of it, saying that the law is the law until it is repealed. He is a perfect example of the kind of systemic sanity described by Merton --- the absurdity of not allowing oneself the possibility of moral action because the law forbids it. Conversely, Thoreau said, "The law will never make men free. It is men who must make the law free."

Ironically, four years later, nearly at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural, said:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Lincoln is saying that because slavery is such an immense crime against morality, against God, this war must continue as an act of God's judgment until all the wealth accumulated by slavery is lost and every drop of blood whipped from the backs of slaves is matched by the blood of soldiers from the North & South. An eye for an eye --- not because man's sense of justice demands it, but because God's does. Lincoln, in both inaugural speeches, maintained that powers beyond his control --- first the Constitution, second God's justice --- determined his behavior. John Brown felt that he had to act to heal the moral insanity of those same powers.

On the morning of his execution, as John Brown was led from his cell, December 2, 1859, he passed a note to his jailer. It said: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but by blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Did the dead John Brown write Lincoln's Second Inaugural? Would Lincoln in 1864 still say that John Brown must die? Or, would he simply say we killed the messenger?


An irony: In the summer of 1859, at the same time that John Brown, under an assumed name, had moved his men to a farm in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry to prepare for the attack, a man named Edwin Drake was drilling for oil --- the world's first intentional oil well --- in Titusville, Pennsylvania, not far from Brown's hideout. On August 28th Drake succeeded. Oil's immense energy would make slavery unnecessary, would drive cultivators and tractors, fertilizers and harvesters, reapers, cotton gins, trains and trucks, create an economy in thrall to oil's 300 million year old energy. As John Brown was the lever that tipped the balance of slavery toward freedom, oil was the pivot toward a new kind of freedom, a new kind of slavery, one that we don't know how to throw off now. Where is the oil abolitionist with the courage of John Brown?


The historian Truman Nelson describes John Brown as "the stone in the historians' shoe." We are, as a country, painfully hobbled until we stop, sit down, take off the shoe & examine the source of this pain. Malcolm X said, "You know what John Brown did? He went to war. He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves…And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom --- in the sight of other whites, he's nuts." John Brown will always be the stone in the shoe until we come to terms with what Malcolm X is saying. We don't like our wars started by righteous prophets and martyrs. Wars --- at least, Constitutionally --- are supposed to be declared by Congress. A rational act by rational men. John Brown, in his willingness to shed blood, ripped off the mask of denial and hypocrisy. That mask, not John Brown, is the stone in the shoe of US history. Some people would rather continue hobbling, in fact, be crippled altogether, than contemplate that mask. The mask is difficult to contemplate because it combines racism with profit, Christianity with oppression, idealism with decadence.

The problem of John Brown is not John Brown's problem. His duty was clear and moral. The problem belongs to those who want to focus on anything but the rightness of his cause, focus on his violence, his poor strategy, his ideological certainty, his unwillingness to let time, time the great healer, solve the slave issue. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." The oppressors know this equation better than the oppressed who prefer to think that supplication based on the injustice of their victimhood will soften the hearts of their oppressors. The oppressors are pleased to offer compromises that change nothing.

In a sense John Brown's conscience, or, his obdurate insistence on acting out the demands of that conscience, is the eye of the needle of our history. If we refuse that passage, we refuse our ideals. John Brown's conscience allows no wiggle room for racism and hypocrisy, no exceptions to equality, and only rage at the idea that among a white man's unalienable rights is the right to make a black man his property. John Brown says the words of our Declaration mean what they say or mean nothing. He says, if you can thread those fine words through the eye of my conscience, you can stitch up the integrity of your history.


Strategy. Frederick Douglass argued with John Brown for three days before the attack on Harpers Ferry trying to convince Brown that he was creating a trap for himself. Douglass was right --- as many armchair quarterbacks since have been right. But, it seems to me, there are two issues here. One is that sometimes the effrontery of a foolhardy plan does succeed. For instance, think of Fidel Castro coming ashore in the Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba in 1957 with 12 men, one of whom, Che Guevara, had been shot in the neck. They were shortly out of food and water. Gambling was legal Batista's Cuba; what might have been Castro's odds?

But the success of John Brown did not depend on sparking a slave revolt, even though that's what he said he hoped for. His success depended on the clarity of the statements he was able to make after his capture and before his execution. Those statements clarified his martyrdom and exposed "the crimes of this guilty land." At his sentencing he said:

Had I interfered [at Harpers Ferry] in the manner which I admit … in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right, and every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood farther with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.

John Brown here skewers several masks of our hypocrisy. The first being that the law is fair and just: that is, if he were acting on behalf of the rich and privileged instead of the poor and enslaved it would be unlikely that his head would be in a noose. The second is his reminder to a "Christian" nation of what their religious teachings require of them in terms of the Golden Rule and the necessary allegiance with the enslaved. And lastly, John Brown does not plead for his life, but nobly offers it up in the service of justice, preferring it would seem, to be in the company of the righteous dead than the hypocritical living.

John Brown's military strategy was as naïve as it was flawed. His moral strategy was as brilliant as it was true.


Now, the issue of violence. This is an extremely important and difficult subject because the most severe and horrible violence committed by John Brown was not at Harpers Ferry but at Pottawatomie, Kansas three years earlier in the late spring of 1856. And it is for this violence that he is called a terrorist. Wielding broadswords weighted with mercury, John Brown and four of his sons plus two other men hacked five pro-slavery men to death --- James Doyle, his sons William and Drury, Allen Wilkinson and William Sherman. Late at night Brown and his men entered the houses of their victims, forced them outside at gunpoint, ignored the screams and protestations of children and wives, and began their deadly work.

People who condemn Brown as a terrorist for this act are correct. It was terrorism --- the intentional grisly killing of unarmed people for political effect. However, in contemporary 21st Century terms, the five victims, who were supporters of the proslavery vigilantes and in another country, would have been considered "enemy combatants," and they probably would have been killed by a drone missile, not face to face murder, along with the women & children --- all of them dismembered and burned. Brown's attack achieved the effect that he intended. It sent a bloody message to the proslavery vigilantes who had so far been terrorizing the anti-slavery, Free State, Kansas settlers with impunity. The message was that the anti-slavery people were now going to fight back. As mentioned earlier, the Kansas/ Nebraska Act allowed territories to vote democratically to be free or slave states. Although more free-staters moved to Kansas than pro-slavers, the pro-slave states hired mercenary vigilantes to fix the elections, terrorize the people with several murders, and lay siege to the free state community of Lawrence. Free state people appealed to the state congress, to the governor, and to President Franklin Pierce. Nothing was done because all the people in power were in favor of Kansas becoming a slave state. After the Brown murders, the free state majority stood up to the anti-slavery vigilantes.

Later, Charles Robinson, the first governor of the state of Kansas said, "I had never much doubt that Captain Brown was the author of the blow at Pottawatomie, for the reason that he was the only man who comprehended the situation and saw the absolute necessity of some such blow, and had the nerve to strike it."

Anthony Burgess, in an essay about his book, The Clockwork Orange, said, "It is always evil to kill another human being, even though it is sometimes right to do so." Is this situation with John Brown one of these "sometimes" moments? It's hard to hold in one's mind and conscience the idea of an act being both evil and right at the same time.


But still, how do we weigh this murder? Brown, who, until this event, was not a murderer, justified it by weights and measures. He thought like this: Slavery is an absolute evil. Slavery is institutionalized, racist terrorism that has been going on for over 200 years. The personal and moral cost of slavery is incalculable and an abomination to God while it also mocks our political ideals. If by killing five men guilty of slavery, I can accelerate the process of ending slavery, it will be a necessary and good thing. If there were another method, I would use it. But now the entire legal, military, and congressional weight of this country is determined to support slavery. John Brown was no stranger to such calculations. He had abandoned his wife and youngest children --- whom he loved --- with no money and little food on their cold, isolated farm in the northern Adirondacks because the suffering of three million slaves was of greater magnitude to him than the suffering of his family. Asking his grown sons to take on their souls the weight of these horrible murders was nothing for him compared to weight of not striking a blow to end slavery.

We are rightly appalled at John Brown's terrorism, and right to wish there had been a non-violent solution to slavery, but can we really presume to think that non-violence, could it have been organized amongst a constituency that did not believe in it, would have had any leverage? Remember that the noble justification of the Civil War, in which over 625,000 people died and millions more were physically and mentally wounded, is that it freed the slaves --- John Brown's goal. Many sincere pacifists believe that violence is never justified, that a non-violent way can always be found even if it takes many more years. For instance, maybe secession should have been allowed to proceed, and then slaves could have escaped into the north as a foreign country. No fugitive slave law. But what if the "compromise" of secession had included closed borders? John Brown probably considered the option of waiting, but how many more slaves would be brutalized in the meantime?


Three more ironies:

1.The first person killed at Harpers Ferry by John Brown's men was Hayward Shepherd, a freed black slave, a baggage handler on the B & O Railroad. They had shot Shepherd when he attempted to run away, possibly to alert the town to the attack, when they seized the train.

2. The Federal troops who arrested John Brown were under the command of Robert E. Lee, whose task it was to enforce the law against insurrection against the national government.

3. Harriet Tubman believed in John Brown's raid and would have been among them except that she was ill. What if she had been caught and hung next to John Brown? Would her death there have erased her subsequent halo? Or, would her death have changed the way generations have viewed John Brown?


And remember these lyrics from Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic written as a marching song for the northern armies in the Civil War?

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

What she is not saying overtly, as we rarely do, is that in order for us to die to make men free, we have to engage in the process of killing other people. And call it God's work. The work of church and state.


Bill Ayers, in his memoir, Fugitive Days, of his time in the Weather Underground during the late 1960s and '70s, writes about coming to understand the difference between state sponsored violence --- whether the death penalty, police brutality, or the atomic bomb --- and citizen sponsored violence to promote justice. The former, as in dropping napalm and Agent Orange on civilians in Viet Nam, is acceptable to most Americans. The latter, as in using violence, even violence limited to attacks on property, to oppose illegal and immoral war that drops napalm and Agent Orange on civilians, is seen as criminal. State sponsored terrorism in war is legal; citizen sponsored terrorism to end war is criminal. Why? Thomas Jefferson, who said that we need to have a revolution every twenty years to avoid the inevitable tendency of power to become self-serving, would have seen it differently. John Brown did. He saw that a recently revolutionary society that fought a war to end inequality was now using violence to maintain inequality.

"When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." -- Thomas Jefferson


I was recently in Louisville and had the opportunity to hear Dr. Blaine Hudson, a professor at the University of Louisville and the author of Two Hundred Years of Black Louisville, speak. When describing some of the festering social injustices in his city he said, "The measure of a society is its ability to identify a problem and solve it." What could be simpler as a definition of a successful society and its government?

Prior to the Civil War very few people were identifying slavery as a problem, and most of those who did were trying to find a way to co-exist. Most abolitionists were opposed to slavery while they continued to be racist. They wanted slaves freed to end northern economic competition with free labor and they wanted blacks returned to Africa or settled in the Caribbean. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison decried slavery but were only willing to use moral persuasion to end it. So, the problem was vast, both genocide and a crime against humanity, but for the most part it was not being identified and certainly not being solved. A society which is intrinsically flawed and corrupted by an immoral institution woven into its economy, which is justified by its legal and religious systems, and which can neither identify nor solve its problem, is a failed state. Only Nat Turner and a few other black insurrectionists had attempted a solution. Slavery was a white crime and John Brown stood alone as a white man determined to heal his country. Until his attack, no white person in the United States could claim not to be complicit with this evil.

How should we today attempt to take the measure of our society that refuses to identify the seriousness of the problem of Climate Change and offer no solution? A failed state?


Of course, proponents of non-violence believe in a harder and higher courage, the courage that would have them die to make men free while not killing other people. I've painted many of those people from our history --- Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Kathy Kelly, Dorothy Day, Jim Harney, Philip Berrigan, Father Roy Bourgeois, John Lewis, Murphy Davis, and Colman McCarthy, to name a few. But as you can see, these are people of our modern era. Non-violence as a method of social change, whether as strategy or belief, was not an idea much talked about in John Brown's day except by Quakers, and never employed by groups of people intent on social change. And how could it have been used to end slavery? John Brown was literally all alone in 19th Century America as a white man who took on himself the burden of the un-compromisable crime of slavery and was determined to act to end it. It does us little good to correct or condemn his behavior. He acted from the limits of his own knowledge and imagination, rage and love. When a crime like slavery is so deeply rooted in the economic system, the legal system, and in moral belief, removing it is necessarily cataclysmic. The tumor required surgery, not talk therapy.

After the Civil War Frederick Douglass said of John Brown, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."

Of what use is a state if it does not strive to ensure justice and if it relegates four million people to the status of real estate while not providing a single square foot of real estate on which a just person can stand? Of what use is a state that trumpets the fanfare of prosperity while keeping time with the lash? And what choice does such a state have but to label a person who challenges its hypocrisy as insane, a traitor, and execute that person?

"Most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one's country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former, because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Spanish Convention, 1792.


It seems to me now that John Brown's life --- so circuitous, so difficult, so unlikely, so heroic, and, finally, so impossible --- was not really his at all. It's a rare person so fully endowed with empathetic imagination that he or she must act out the imperatives of another's suffering. In such action, one's life ceases to be one's own and becomes the moral spirit of the time. The man hung was not John Brown, but the spirit of freedom, the spirit of equality, the spirit of love, the spirit that cannot die but will, wounded, set up such a howl that many others in their alarm, concern & shame will come running. That spirit still howls. And when we say Long Live John Brown!, what we mean is long live that spirit that refuses to keep company with systemic evil, refuses hypocritical compromise, refuses the dangerous & totalitarian notion of my country right or wrong, and embraces the lonely obligation to return a country and its people to sanity. How could one person do that?