The Huntingtonnews.com, the website of the same named newspaper in Huntington, West Virginia, currently features an op-ed by Craig Hammond, former mayor of Bluefield, West Virginia, a leading Republican state figure, and the host of a talk show that is broadcast in Virginia on radio stations WHIS (Bluefield) and WTZE (Tazewell).
In his op-ed, Hammond points out that last year’s sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid had created “a wide swath of Americans who are intrigued by Brown, his mission, and his significance in American history.” Indeed, Hammond concludes that there is a “new appreciation growing for Brown's ideals, if not his precise approach towards achieving them.” Hammond speaks of the opportunity likewise afforded us “to understand Brown,” and he asks how “a devoted Christian and family man could arrive at a point in his life when he wanted to arm the slaves of the south, enabling them to escape to freedom in the Appalachian Mountains?” He also leaves open the question as to whether Brown really was serious in his later claim that it was not his intention to launch a movement that resulted in the “mass killings of white southern citizens.”
Hammond briefly sketches Brown as an idealist, a man driven by such convictions as to pursue the course of abolitionism, working the underground railroad, finally liberating enslaved people at gunpoint in Missouri and escorting them hundreds of miles across country and into Canadian freedom. “That's commitment,” Hammond says, “and this commitment to his ideals made him look for peaceful means to achieve his abolitionist goals. Yet over the passing of years, Brown saw there was “no progress made by the U.S. government on the issue of slavery.” Hammond points out that antebellum presidents like Pierce and Buchanan actually “bent over backwards to give southern slaveholders anything they wanted.”
Hammond holds on to some neutrality, at least in his conclusion that one may not want to agree with Brown’s use of armed force, just as he suggests one may not believe that Brown’s agenda purely entailed self-defense for his men and his liberated enlistees. “But he did draw up a provisional constitution for the new free slave area in the mountains, and his treatment of his captives at Harpers Ferry suggests that he wasn't bloodthirsty,” Hammond concludes.
|Governor Henry Wise led|
Virginia's Effort to Execute John Brown
Yes, But . . .
|Should Virginia's Present Governor|
Bob McDonnell pardon Brown?
On the Other Hand. . .
On the other hand, no single figure in the history of the United States is more hated, misrepresented, and maligned than John Brown. No traitor to this nation, from Benedict Arnold to Robert E. Lee, is more disdained in popular culture and academic reflection than John Brown. Time and time again, we see that every violent white cuckoo that rears his ugly head in this nation is invariably compared to Brown, now considered by many as the template of “American terrorism” and mental illness among political fanatics. Many people are so steeped in this dysfunctional reading of Brown that they presume the worst diagnosis even from looking at his picture. Despite the real history of the man and his solid contribution to human rights struggle, there is a large number of popularly oriented whites (and a few people of color too) who would more likely class John Brown with the likes of assassin John Wilkes Booth, or terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Ladin, than even with glorified, stylized “American heroes” like Jesse James (who was actually a racist thug and a criminal).
In this light, then, should I reconsider my view of a posthumous pardon, particularly if it comes from the State of Virginia? One thing for sure, West Virginia need not issue such a pardon, even though the site of Brown’s raid, imprisonment, and execution were subsequently subsumed within its state borders when President Lincoln authorized the creation of West Virginia in 1863. John Brown was not hanged by West Virginia but by the Old Dominion and its pro-slavery leaders. So if there is any efficacy in a posthumous pardon, the onus is upon Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the same governor who recently proposed some sort of Confederate history remembrance.
Still, John Brown’s legacy is its own reward to those who study his life and uphold his legacy. We who study and salute him in our lives and work do not lean upon such a weak reed as to hope for a posthumous pardon. Naturally we hope that a greater degree of knowledge and sensitivity will prevail in matters of racial justice, since an increase in such light and vision will inevitably bring a broader, happier, and truer assessment of John Brown in popular culture and historical narratives. Nevertheless, we applaud Mr. Hammond’s courage and thoughtfulness.
The Old Man himself once acknowledged that it was “an invariable rule” for him “not to do anything while I do not know what to do.” Perhaps this rule would best serve publishing any opinion regarding the question at hand. We will neither support nor oppose Mr. Hammond’s noble declaration. History will answer him soon enough.
To read further, see Craig Hammond, “Commentary: It's Time for a John Brown Pardon.” Huntingtonnews.net (18 January 2011)