Mr. Coates, an excellent author and senior editor for The Atlantic, has recently (Apr. 14) addressed the argument of another writer who contends that the Confederate General Robert E. Lee can be seen as a fine man, "warts and all," particularly in his capacity as a military leader in the cause of Southern secession. Coates responds:
I certainly agree. However, if Mr. Coates does not sanction the means of John Brown, I can only hope that he will read more closely on the Subject. Certain of Brown's actions may have been extreme, but he did nothing except in defense of his family and in the cause of the slave, over against racist, terrorist, and violent foes. In his Kansas career fighting racist thugs, Brown put five greasy villains in their graves, yet he is excoriated by professional historians as if he were a deranged serial killer. In contrast, on the basis of something as hollow as statesman's loyalty, Lee commanded multiple thousands in treason against this nation, and through his illicit command did such great harm against his own nation that he virtually sowed a myriad corpses like bloody seed across the landscape of this nation. Was he really a humble, noble, and salutary figure? If he was, then God save us from such "good" people!
I think the key problem here is the point that Lee's "great legacy is his defense of the system, through force of arms at a horrific cost." That system being a kind of all-encompassing white supremacy--a system of consumption--that did not just indict slave-owners, but poor whites and yeoman farmers that owned no slaves.
The question, though, is one of means versus ends. Can you admire the way someone lived, even if you deplore that which they were willing to give their life for? I don't know. I have deep-seated questions about the means employed by some people who I have, at various times, included in my pantheon. I question John Brown's means, but not his moral ends. I question Nat Turner's means, but not his moral ends. I'm hard pressed to come up with people admire despite deploring the great cause of their life.