"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, August 28, 2011

The "Ethics" of Picking Splinters out of the Other Guy's Eye 

James McClure, the editor of the York Daily Record [York, Pa.] on line, has an interesting article (26 Aug.) in remembrance of Harper’s Ferry raider, Osborne P. Anderson, who escaped capture by Virginia authorities and eventually returned to his home in Chatham, Ontario, Canada.  The article was prompted by a recent lecture at Shippensburg University by history professor, John Quist, who discussed the Harper’s Ferry raid in conjunction with a “Civil War Road Show” that took place last weekend at Penn Park.

Osborne P. Anderson
Anderson, one of Brown’s black raiders, worked in a newspaper office as a printer’s assistant, but was encouraged to join Brown’s effort by black expatriate leaders in Chatham.  Anderson not only survived the tragic failure of Brown’s raid, but also wrote the only first-hand narrative of the epic struggle, A Voice from Harpers Ferry (1861).

McClure points out that Anderson’s escape route included passing through Franklin County in Pennsylvania and stopping in the town of York, where he found temporary refuge in the home of William C. Goodridge, a former slave.  

Justified?

According to McClure, the presentation by Professor Quist ended “with questions about whether Brown's violent actions to destroy slavery were justified.”  According to McClure, the “broader related question” was whether slavery needed to be ended by violence.  “These good questions have swirled around the public square since, well, 1859,” concludes McClure.

As if this weren’t enough, McClure persists along these lines, asking if Goodridge, a “good Samaritan,” was justified in harboring Anderson, “a fugitive who was part of a band that meted out death to innocent” civilians and milita men. “What was the justification to hide a John Brown raider, who[m] the federal government would have hanged for treason and conspiracy to incite insurrection?” McClure asks.

A Non-Parallel Parallel?

To underscore the point, McClure introduces an example that he readily admits is not a parallel, although he persists in forcing into discussion.  The non-parallel example is that of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln and then fled southward.  “If [Booth] had landed in York County, would a Southern sympathizer providing safe haven be exercising justifiable civil disobedience?”  McClure contends that this is not an unrealistic question though theoretical, since Booth attended school in York and knew people in that community.  And since both John Wilkes Booth and Osborne Perry Anderson “both were part of deadly conspiracies that took lives,” was it justifiable to give aid and support to the latter as he fled northward to Canada?

McClure finally concludes that the “Good Samaritan's action in harboring a John Brown conspirator has not been weighed in the local or national public square.”

An Exercise in Insinuation

My response to this “thoughtful” piece is that it is an exercise in insinuation on McClure’s part.  I do not know if the point is McClure’s alone, or if he is simply echoing what Professor Quist of Shippensburg stated in his lecture.  Regardless, it not only is NOT parallel as McClure states, but it is the kind of question that suggests a Pharisaic mind and reasoning.  By this I mean Pharisaic in the sense of someone posing as righteous in intent, but one who is actually, as the African American expression goes, “signifying.”

First, McClure himself admits that the illustration of Booth is not a historical parallel.  Then why use it?Forcing the comparison to Booth only beclouds the question that he really wants to raise, which is whether it was justifiable to assistant Osborne Anderson to escape.  I doubt he'd say supporting Booth in flight was justifiable, so it's clear that the real attack here pertains to Brown's raider Anderson.

Second, although McClure says the Booth-Anderson case is not a parallel, he is dishonest in presenting them as if they are parallel in an ethical sense, particularly by pointing out that Booth’s conspiratorial effort and Brown’s raid resulted in the deaths of people.  Why didn’t McClure use another case that had similar ethical circumstances although not entirely similar?  For instance, McClure (or Quist) might have used the 1851 Christiana  incident, when a Maryland slaveholder tracked his runaway slave to a home in southern Pennsylvania in making an attempt to re-enslave him (according to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850).  However, the black man fought back and killed the slave master, and then fled to Canada, thus eluding capture by authorities.  Like Anderson, the fugitive from slavery reached Canada with assistance from the underground railroad, just like Osborne Anderson.  The point is that using the Christiana incident makes for a better “discussion” without being a complete historical parallel because it is ethically similar nonetheless.  Unlike the use of the Booth case, it is not an ethical sleight-of-hand to discuss how assisting both black men in their flight toward Canada might be understood.  Both cases involved people seeking liberation, both cases ended in violent deaths, and both necessitated flight with assistance.

Finally, while he seems to be pursuing truth, McClure is not really interested in reflecting upon the ethics of helping Osborne Anderson escape.  In fact, the nature of his presentation shows that he is insinuating that it was unethical to do so.  The insinuation, superficially premised on the fact that “innocent” people died, is a merely a rhetorical facade.   "Innocent" people can die in almost any kind of action involving the use of physical force in struggle, whether conducted by heroic citizens, lawmen, or criminals.  What McClure seems to miss is that using the Booth example is illicit because Booth specifically designed to kill Lincoln and others; assassination was his only objective.  Quite in contrast, Brown’s intention was to liberate people from human bondage, using force if necessary, and only fighting in self-defense.  Although people died as a result of his attempt, these killings were not premeditated; some were blunders and others were done in self-defense.  Certainly, many more people would have died outright had Brown shown up at Harper’s Ferry with the kind of agenda that John Wilkes Booth had when he and his conspirators attacked in April 1865.

How can McClure pretend this is a reasonable discussion?

Evidently, neither McClure nor Prof. Quist get the point of liberating enslaved people.  The fact that he has to reiterate the question of the ethical sufficiency of helping Anderson escape, and whether the use of violence can be justified to end oppression, is not really a discussion for clear heads.   This is the discourse of bigotry.  Furthermore, I suspect that McClure or Quist would never ask such questions if their loved ones were enslaved, and then someone used violence to liberate them--or at least tried to liberate them. 

McClure and anyone else who raises this kind of “discussion” must necessarily seat himself alongside the Pharisees of history.  The Pharisee in the time of Christ was an expert at picking a "splinter" out of one man’s eye while being thoroughly blinded by the "log" in his own eye.  McClure has provided us a splinter of a discussion fit only for people similarly blinded by that old log of prejudice.  [revised 8/29--LD]

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