"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Q: What Were John Brown's Beliefs?

The Abolitionist John Brown's "beliefs" is a broad category, but as a biographer and student of the man, I would offer the following: 

1. Religious beliefs. Brown's Christian faith was a central and defining theme of his life. He made a personal commitment to Christian faith at the age of 16 and was a devout believer throughout his 59 years of life (1800-59). John Brown was a Protestant, brought up in the Congregational church, which came out of the Puritan or Calvinist movement in England. He was reared in a Congregationalist/Presbyterian theological context and can properly be spoken of as being evangelical, Calvinist, and theologically conservative. He believed the Bible was the inspired, authoritative word of God and his religious beliefs were doctrinally conservative.

Religiously, he believed in divine predestination and divine providence. He believed that God had called him to give his life (which included the likelihood of dying) in the antislavery cause and for the black man's freedom. He did not have a wacko view of religion. Most people in that era believed in divine providence and "vocation," or calling. Brown believed God had called him to this work and he felt compelled to try to do something and after failing at Harpers Ferry, he happily resigned himself to dying for the cause. If this makes him appear fanatical today, it's probably because we are far more secular overall as a nation, and tend to judge religious people of the past from our psychological, agnostic oriented intellectualism. It is only in recent years that historians have begun to appreciate the extent to which this nation was saturated in evangelical culture and how that shaped people's thinking, from John Brown to Stonewall Jackson. The point is, if John Brown was a religious fanatic, so was most of the North and South.

2. Social beliefs. Despite being a theological conservative, John Brown was socially progressive, particularly when it came to matters of "race" and justice. Most conservative white Christians in his day were racialists or outright racist bigots, and many were pro-slavery. John Brown was not only anti-slavery, but believed that blacks and other non-whites were made in God's image and that all peoples were equals as humans. This is also a religious belief, but it had such a complete impact upon his social and political life that he was seen in his day as "fanatical" because he was among a relatively small segment of whites in the U.S. who actually treated blacks and Native Americans as peers and colleagues. Even Abraham Lincoln, who was anti-slavery, did not function at this level of comfort and commitment when it came to blacks. When John Brown was seen as a "fanatic" by his own generation, it was in this regard; but this says more about the widespread, flagrant racism of white society in the 19th century U.S.

3. Political beliefs. John Brown was in some respects a very fundamental patriot. He admired the American Revolution and felt the Declaration of Independence was second only to the Bible as a document. He was proud of his roots in the Mayflower and American Revolution and believed that the original intention of the nation's founders had been hijacked and distorted by the slave owning faction, which had grown very powerful throughout his life time. This is important to understand since from the time that John Brown was a boy until the time he went to Kansas to fight pro-slavery terrorists in 1855, slavery's power had grown monstrously and threatened to take over the nation. When Brown was young, slavery was thought to be fading out; but the cotton gin was developed and the slave states geared up instead of declining. The North phased out slavery did not phase out its economic interest in slave crops and profits from slavery as a business. By the 1850s, the slave holding interests in this nation was so powerful that legislation and supreme court rulings had virtually placed the entire nation under the sway of slave holding interests.

This leads to another aspect of Brown's beliefs. He gradually (over thirty years) came to the conviction that slavery would not be stopped without the use of some form of militant action. In other words, Brown was not a pacifist and did not believe that slavery could be defeated only by prayers and speeches. Although he was a man of prayer and faith, he did not believe (as taught in the New Testament book of James) that faith had value unless it was acted upon. This set him to pursue some kind of plan to oppose slavery that involved action. Early on, in the 1830s, he had hoped to use reformist measures (e.g., starting a school for black children, buying or somehow getting a slave master to free a slave that could then be adopted and reared). But by the 1850s, it was clear that any hope of working within the system to reverse and undermine slavery's evil progress was hopeless. Brown, along with other abolitionists, concluded that some form of political force had to be used against the slave system.

4. Brown's strategy. While scholars may debate precisely Brown's plans, we do have a certainty that he did not believe in starting a slave "insurrection" because simply arming enslaved people and launching a war would culminate with as vast amount of bloodshed and broadscale killing. He is often mistakenly referred to as an insurrectionist, but in fact he was trying to launch a movement that minimized violence, although he believed that some use of violence was inevitable.

Brown believed that slavery could be undermined without full scale war: his strategy, which was supported by Fred. Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others, was to penetrate the South, lead enslaved people away, arming many of them and withdrawing to the vast depth of the Allegheny mountains. By breaking his movement into small cadres or groups and arming them with weapons and political rule of law (his Provisional Constitution), he hoped to lead off more enslaved people, fight only in self-defense, and spread his movement throughout the South. His hope was not to kill widely, but to traumatize the economic structure of slavery and start a southwide movement that would throw slavery into instability. He believed that he could avoid extensive militaristic bloodshed by destabilizing slavery and the South.

Brown believed that there was a national catastrophe on the horizon that would involve the demands of the slave states and the inevitable conflict of the South and North. Brown believed that anything less than a pro-slavery president being elected in 1860 would result in a divided nation. He believed the leaders of the South were not only anticipating secession but were preparing for it through extensive influence and power within the federal government. When he was hanged by Virginia on Dec. 2, 1859, Brown actually wrote his last statement to the effect that he had hoped that much bloodshed might be avoided. When he died on the gallows, he anticipated that the U.S. would face a terrible consequence. History has vindicated his belief that compromise could no longer work to assuage slave holders, and that the South would not rest until it either usurped the nation completely or abandoned the Union in order to pursue its agenda of slavery's expansion. His belief that slavery was premised on sheer violence, cruelty, greed, and racial prejudice has also been vindicated by history.

5. As to "terrorism." There is a lot of popular talk about Brown being an "American terrorist," even the "father of domestic terrorism." First, in the 19th century the modern concept of terrorism did not exist, so the term was never used, although Brown sought to create a measure of fear or "terror" by upsetting the South's stability. Still, he opposed any notion of deliberate, intentional violence targeting innocent people.  Second, Brown believed that the real terrorism of his era was slavery, the real victims of terror primarily were black people, first the enslaved, then the free black community which lived in constant fear and trauma in the North; then anti-slavery people who were also targeted by contempt and even hostility from pro-slavery people, which was the case in the Kansas territory.

Brown did not believe in political murder for the sake of making a political statement. His activities in Kansas, much misrepresented, involved both political action as well as actual counter-terrorism in the midst of a society torn by civil war and providing no rule of law or protection. The handful of people killed under Brown's supervision were not "innocents," but "American terrorists" plotting to violently assault anti-slavery people, particularly the Browns. Had there been a governmental authority in Kansas or another law agency to which he could appeal, Brown would not have killed anyone. Today we would say that he was merely fighting for survival in practical terms, and fighting for freedom in political terms. It is unfortunate that so many people have skewed Brown as the "terrorist," when the use of terrorism was against his religious, political, and ethical views.

Brown was not an orator or a politician, most certainly not a compromiser. He believed in Christianity and the vocation of the United States as the inheritance of the "city on a hill" vision of the early Puritans. He believed that a republic was fundamentally incompatible with chattel slavery and racial prejudice. He believed that black people, if given freedom and power, would function as well as whites because we all come, in the words of St. Paul, from "one blood." Notwithstanding his humanity, errors, and failures, Brown believed in freedom, equality, and human rights for all people when many of the "greatest" leaders in this nation either were outright racists or were conflicted, hypocritical, and inconsistent advocates of "liberty." While his beliefs have become more fashionable in our world, the degree of contempt and resentment directed at John Brown today may suggest that many people have yet to fully own the principles of freedom which they claim for their nation. If and when John Brown is ever recognized as one of this nation's greatest figures by an overwhelming majority, it may suggest that our nation has finally attained that level of greatness that Brown himself desired for his land and people. But only time will tell.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D., biographer of John Brown the Abolitionist

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