"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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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Former West Virginia Mayor Calls for a Two-State Pardon for John Brown

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.”

Brown an "Idealist"

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.”

Pardon Him

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 
For these reasons,” Hammond further states, John Brown “should be pardoned posthumously by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia.” Not only would Brown’s trial have failed to “pass muster as a fair trial today,” he concludes, but also “we should at least honor his vision of an America where all human beings are free.” Citing Frederick Douglass’ laudatory remarks regarding Brown’s contributions to the freedom struggle, Hammond finally opines that such posthumous pardons from Virginia and West Virginia “would be a good way to begin observing Black History Month in the two Virginias.”

Yes, But . . .

Should Virginia's Present Governor
Bob McDonnell pardon Brown?
Hammond’s remarks are both notable and commendable. But I still have serious reservations about calling for a posthumous pardon. Yet I must admit that a pardon from the State of Virginia strikes a certain chord of validity, more than did last year’s well-meaning appeal for a presidential pardon for John Brown. It remains my conviction that the essential force and meaning inherent in the deaths of prophets and martyrs is bound up with their condemnation though innocent, as well as their rightness over against the wrongness of their more powerful executioners.  It is one thing for African American organizations, for example, to honor John Brown, since their basis for formation and evaluation is in struggle against the status quo of racism. When Brown is honored by the people of Haiti, or remembered warmly by revolutionary leaders abroad, there is a sensibility and consistency in such salutation. But the idea that governments, whether federal or state, would issue a posthumous pardon to John Brown without having ever officially issued a reparatory apology to the black population of this country strikes me as missing the point of his death, the meaning of his contribution to the struggle for justice, and the true manner in which he made his “gallows glorious like the cross,” in the words of Emerson.

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)

1 comment:

R. Test said...

A pardon from Virginia is a minimalist response.


Pardons are totally discretionary and carry a hint of arbitrariness.

I would be prefer a formal court hearing, with evidence presented by qualified historians, resulting in the original convictions of John Brown and his followers vacated or overturned.