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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Carnegie Mellon University Forum on John Brown’s Relevance to the Contemporary Struggle for Justice Featured by the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center

On October 2, 2006, the Activities Board of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa., featured a forum entitled, "In the Shadow of John Brown: Toward a Renewed Interracial Radicalism." The free presentation was held at 8 p.m., at Baker Hall on campus and featured appearances by long-time activist Staughton Lynd, and the recorded presentation of the renowned deathrow journalist and social critic, Mumia Abu-Jamal. In addition, veteran civil rights activist and scholar, Vincent Harding, made impromptu remarks. The program was introduced and moderated by Prof. Johanna Fernandez, Visiting Professor of History at CMU and co-director of the Oral History Project of Black Pittsburgh. According to the Indepdent Media Center’s website, the event "was well-attended by a racially diverse, multi-generational crowd of college and high school students, local activists, and other Pittsburgh community members."

Not Quite Right, Professor

Fernandez, who identified herself as a professor of 20th century history specializing in the civil rights era, made substantial introductory remarks with respect to Brown, although she made the standard academic error of portraying the abolitionist as intent on launching a slave insurrection –something that Brown categorically denied and which he firmly avoided in his planning of his movement. Fernandez likewise erred in following the conventional notion that Brown did not properly inform the enslaved community of his efforts. Despite her sympathetic reading of Brown’s story, Fernandez’s errors reflect how the “objective” record of John Brown, and the history of the Harper’s Ferry raid in particular, have been heavily influenced by long-standing bias and error. (Having consulted Osborne Anderson’s narrative of the raid, Mumia did not make the same mistakes in his presentation.)

Brown, Not an Insurrectionist

Brown believed that some measure of force would be necessary to undermine slavery, but he could not condone insurrection or uprisings because they invariably resulted in wholesale fighting and slaughter, such as took place in the Nat Turner revolt a generation before the Harper’s Ferry raid. While Brown argued that slavery was a state of war and black people had a right to fight for their self-defense, he never extended that right beyond the point of arming fugitives in their effort to escape and to aid others from escaping from slavery as well. At no time did Brown prescribe or design an insurrectionary movement in which enslaved people would rise up and kill masters and heirs (many of the slave masters killed by Turner’s men were children, at least one was an infant). His goal was to syphon slaves from plantations and farms, drawing increasing numbers of them into a geographically expansive maroon movement with the goal of creating economic instability--not armed insurrection--in the South.

A Voice from the Civil Rights Era

The primary speaker making a live presentation was Staughton Lynd, from Youngstown, Ohio, noted as "a lifelong activist who directed the Mississippi Freedom Schools Project for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964; organized against the Vietnam war; acted as a legal advocate for workers, and has written extensively on community organizing, labor issues, and pacifism." Lynd’s remarks vis-a-vis the Civil Rights movement were interesting, particularly in noting that in both the Harper’s Ferry Raid of 1859 and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, white and blacks struggled and died together for the cause of black freedom. Lynd’s focus was largely philosophical, his main concern being what implications history has for the future of any movement for justice.

His opening premise was that blacks and whites had become polarized in the 1960s as a result of the Black Power movement, the idea being that whites and blacks should work in their respective communities until they were better prepared to cooperate in equality-based alliances. However, Lynd reminded the audience, that was a now over forty years ago, and activists working for justice have yet to figure out how to reintegrate into a single movement across lines of color. (Of course, this assumes that white liberals are by and large socially mature enough to collaborate with blacks on equal terms, just as it assumes that blacks trust whites enough to collaborate with them in any significant measure.)

Lynd: Another Villard Finds Fault with Brown

With respect to John Brown, Lynd contended that, despite his redeeming qualities as an ally of black struggle, Brown is not a good model for future justice movements because of his use of violence in Kansas in 1856. It is no surprise that Lynd would raise the theme of the Pottawatomie killings. The role of the Browns in killing five pro-slavery terrorists is usually the "fly in the ointment" for Brown’s legacy, particularly among white critics, many of whom just cannot seem to contextualize, let alone forgive, the Browns’ motivation for the killings. Clearly this is true of activists like Lynd, who has a long and admirable history of devotion to non-violent activism. Like Brown’s cynical 20th century biographer Oswald Garrison Villard, those who advocate pacifist/non-violent political action are inevitably condescending in judgment of Brown for his do-or-die violence in Kansas. We cannot help but imagine that the liberal Villards and Lynds of this world would prefer that Brown, his sons, and their families would have allowed themselves to be murdered in their own beds rather than engage in a strategic preemptive strike.

No Need to Go There, Sir

Lynd also discussed the problem of building movements around charismatic leadership and, like Prof. Fernandez, represented Brown as lacking in democratic qualities because he was so focused on his divine calling as leader of his movement. This was also probably overdone as criticisms go. After all, Brown was not acting as the leader of a civil rights organization in peace time. He was acting as a military leader in a dangerous and volatile situation. As history shows, he could neither trust nor rely on very many people, and his reticence was to some larger measure necessary, especially given the long history of black liberation efforts undermined by loose lips. With all due respect to Mr. Lynd, his use of Brown as a negative example for contemporary activist strategy was largely self-serving and gratuitous. John Brown never joined the 19th century version of the civil rights movement because he was increasingly weary of noble people like Lynd, who believed that injustice can be preached, schooled, or journalized to death. There was an army of well-organized, democratically driven abolitionists like Lynd in the 19th century, but as biographer David Reynolds has observed, none of them managed to kill slavery as did John Brown.

Death Row Defender of John Brown

As the IMC website says, “Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther currently on death Row at SCI-Greene prison in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Evidence suggests he is falsely imprisoned for his political beliefs.” Mumia writes and prepares radio commentaries on justice issues, and his comments on Brown–in response to Lynd’s presentation, were pre-recorded for the event. Mumia questioned the trendy notion largely among white intellectuals) of John Brown as a terrorist, arguing that violent acts perpetrated on behalf of the state or some powerful private interest have always been condoned by society, and even characterized in patriotic and heroic terms. In illustration , Mumia pointed out that there is a statue of the Confederate murderer and Klan terrorist, Nathan Bedford Forrest, in Washington, D.C., although there is no statue of John Brown. With our nation’s heroic pantheon so full of killers and slave masters, Mumia reasoned, it is unjust that violent acts perpetrated by justice-seekers are condemned as terrorism.

Not A Fair Contrast, Mumia

Of course, Mumia’s pro-Brown treatment notwithstanding, the issue of violence in Brown’s case still begs closer examination. The Pottawatomie killings of 1856 were an unfortunate exception in Brown’s life, and were indicative of an extremely unusual, volatile, and treacherous political dilemma that necessitated extreme action in a vacuum of lawlessness and lack of police protection. At Harper’s Ferry, Brown shied away from violence and bloodshed and virtually ruined himself by his own human sympathies in waiting upon and negotiating with his prisoners, especially the slave masters.

He Walked the Line

Mumia meant well, but he should never put Brown up as the counterpart to the homicidal racist, Nathan Bedford Forrest. On his worst day, John Brown was not even a Clint Eastwood-type of character, fighting for black liberation. He was a radical Christian reformer who tried to walk a thin, moral line between impotent pacifist activism and insurrectionary/revolutionary bloodletting. When he failed, he was pleased to give his life on the gallows like a true Christian witness (which is the origin of the word "martyr.") Still, to Mumia’s great credit, he actually did his homework and quoted extensively from A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, the narrative of Osborne Anderson (one of the few surviving John Brown raiders), written two years after the raid. In the end, it was Anderson’s words–mediated a century-and-a-half later in the resonant tones of Mumia’s voice–that brought the most light to the story of John Brown the man who lived.

By way of historical footnote, Vincent Harding, who was not scheduled to speak but fortuitously happened to be in town for the event, did offer comments and led questions-and-answers with the audience. However the IMC's recording has Harding making no remarks about Brown. This is disappointing, especially since he handled Brown as a historian in his classic study of 19th century black history, There is a River. Harding handled him a bit roughly, I should add, since he portrayed Brown as racially condescending--an unfair and reactionary interpretation that he has hopefully reconsidered over the past two decades.

Audio segments of this forum are available on the website of the Independent Media Center at: http://pittsburgh.indymedia.org/news/2006/10/25055.php.">http://pittsburgh.indymedia.org/news/2006/10/25055.php. The text of Mumia’s presentation can also be found on line at Prison Radio,

Friday, October 27, 2006

History & Real Estate: Captain John Brown's Home in Canton, Conn.

This past June, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Avon, Conn., announced the sale of the newly renovated home of abolitionist John Brown's grandfather, Captain John Brown, in Canton, Conn. According to the CB website, the original house was built circa 1755. Of course the property has undergone extensive improvements over a five-year effort including the home being moved on its lot to connect it with the formerly freestanding converted barn. The Browns would doubtless be awestruck by the 21st century version of their homestead, which features more than 5600 square feet of living space, 4-5 bedrooms, 4 full and one half baths, and "various upscale accoutrements including a Woodmode kitchen, solid core countertops, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, two Asko dishwashers, GE Monogram stainless steel dual fuel oven with 4 burners, griddle and grill, and more." It also includes a 2+ car garage and extensive land. Happily, the old wide board floors remain, and there are ample fireplaces to recall its early American legacy. Get this John Brown enthusiasts--it was listed for over $1 million.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Abe Lincoln's 1860 John Brown Rhetoric; Hartford Speech Notes for Sale by Christies
Despite the tendency of old school Republicans to couple John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as partners in liberation, and notwithstanding Lincoln's many and varied defenders and apologists, it is a matter of record that the 16th President of the United States was never the friend of the black man that has been portrayed. Just as we can trace the rise of anti-Brown propaganda with the fall of Reconstruction and the reversal of civil rights gains later in the 19th century, we can also trace the canonization of Abraham Lincoln as a race savior in the Reconstruction era. Lincoln's apotheosis, based on the propaganda of abolitionists and the shock following his unprecedented assassination, enshrined him in this nation's memory as a kind of Christ figure for the black community even though black leaders knew that the real Lincoln was a mediocre ally at best. Like John F. Kennedy (who was hardly a civil rights hero), Lincoln's ratings in the black community shot up wonderfully after he took a bullet to the head in 1865. As the eminent historian Leon Litwack writes:
Despite the disappointment over Lincoln's lenient amnesty program [toward Confederates], his misplaced confidence in southern Unionists, and his "moderate" experiments in state reconstruction, the assassination of the President silenced his black critics and threw a stunned black community into deep mourning, as though it had lost its only white friend and protector. The President's initial doubts about the wisdom of emancipation and the enlistment of blacks were now forgotten, his equivocations on civil rights ignored, his schemes of colonization, expatriation, and reconstruction forgiven. Even the cold language and forced nature of his Emancipation Proclamation no longer seemed relevant, giving way to the legend of the Great Emancipator.1

To be sure, Lincoln nearly "came around" to sound thinking in the later years of the Civil War, and his ultimate commitment to emancipation is not to be doubted. He never liked slavery and thought it inappropriate to the great republic. But he also thought its black presence an unfortunate reality as well, and there is little doubt that his ideal vision of the nation entailed the end of slavery and the removal of blacks, or at least their social separation from whites. Notwithstanding his other great qualities, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1876, "in his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices . . . [Abraham Lincoln] was a white man. He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men . . . . We are at best only his step-children."2

To be sure, David Reynolds shows that Lincoln apparently came to appreciate some aspects of Brown's strategy once he found himself leading the army of the Union. In late 1861, when he was anticipating the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the New York Herald reported that Lincoln had said that "Emancipation would be equivalent to a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale."3 But this hardly proves Lincoln an advocate of black liberation and equality. As Douglass well knew, Lincoln's priorities were vested in the interests and agenda of the great white republic as he envisioned it.

Despite the good he ultimately accomplished for the slave, Lincoln essentially stumbled his way into the path of light that Brown had followed quite consistently throughout his days. Lerone Bennett rightly entitles his Lincoln book Forced into Glory precisely for this reason--for he had set out only to save the union, contain slavery, and preserve the status quo of white superiority in the United States. But a stormy Providence forced him to walk where politicians feared to tread, and in the end he suffered assassination for it.

In 1860, however, the man who would be president was certain that the Union could be saved without destroying slavery. In the wake of the Harper's Ferry raid, with the South accusing the Republicans of being an abolitionist movement (something laughably incorrect), Lincoln repeatedly sprang to the defense of his party. His condemnation of John Brown at New York City's Cooper Union was only the most famous of his 1860 renunciations. There was a similar disavowal of Brown made in Kansas, and also at Harford, Connecticut. On March 5, 1860, speaking at the Hartford City Hall, Lincoln accused southern leaders of engaging in "another species of bushwhacking . . . in their treatment of the John Brown and Harper's Ferry affair." Lincoln explained that pro-slavery leaders insisted that "the Republican party incites insurrections," although every "Republican knew that the charge that his party had incited the insurrection was, so far as he was concerned, a slander upon him."4

In 1860, with hopes of entering the White House, Lincoln's job was to disassociate himself and his party from John Brown by any means necessary. Liberation was hardly the watchword of the party, and as the premiere spokesman for the Republicans showed, it was all about disowning John Brown.

This is context for the announcement by Christie's, a leading auction house, concerning the sale of Lincoln documents from the The Forbes Collection of American Historical Documents,Part V. As Christie's website description reports, among them are the

Autograph speech notes, prepared by Lincoln and used when delivering his address at Hartford, Connecticut, 5 March 1860. 2 pages, 8vo (6 x 4½ in.), comprising some 80 words, the first four lines boldly penned in ink (minor dampstains, slightly affecting ink), the rest of the notes added (slightly later?) in pencil (one line slighty shaved in binding). The sheet of Lincoln's notes neatly inlaid to a larger, protective sheet; preceded by a manuscript titlepage reading "Notes used by Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, in a Speech at City Hall, Hartford, Conn. On the evening of March 5th 1860. Left on the Table by Him and preserved by Jesse H. Lord, Reporter of the Hartford Daily Times"; a 4 May 1923 letter from Robert Todd Lincoln to John O. H. Pitney tipped in. Bound in dark green morocco gilt, gilt borders and spine, gilt inner turn-ins, watered silk endleaves, by H. Zucker.5

The auctioner's description further states that this document represents an "exceptionally rare speech outline attacking 'Southern bushwhackers,' rejecting John Brown, and defending free labor's right to strike." The document was taken from the city hall podium after Lincoln's "mostly impromptu address." I should add that Lincoln gave this speech nearly one year to the day that he was inaugurated as President, March 4, 1861.6

The first page has telegraphic styled notes in Lincoln's hand that read: "Signs of decay--bushwhacking. Irrepressible conflict. John Brown Shoe trade. True or not true. If true, what? Mason. Plasters. If not true, what?" On verso, Lincoln writes: "is the question. We must deal with it. Magnitude of question. What prevents just now? Right--wrong--indifference. Indifference unphilosophical. Because nobody is indifferent. Must be converted to. Can be, or cannot be done. I suppose can not. But if can, what result? Indifference, then must be rejected. And what supported? Sectionalism Conservatism. John Brown. Conclusion."7

Interested collectors are encouraged to check out the Christie's website ASAP. Certainly this was a fascinating and historic speech by President Lincoln. It reminds us that in 1860--like today--John Brown's soul was indeed marching on.


1 Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979), 527.

2 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; written by himself (Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Co., 1881; rptd. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983), 492-93.

3 David S. Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist (New York: Knopf, 2005), 471.

4 Hartford Courant [Conn.] report as quoted on Christie’s website, retrieved October 19, 2006 from <http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/search/LFA.asp?eid=5406496>

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Harper's Ferry Raid vs The Defense of the Alamo
Today [October 16, 2006] is the 147th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia, which was made a state in 1863).

With a small band of men, white and black, Brown seized the federal armory--the only government armory in the South--as well as the arsenal and took prisoners while his men rounded up local enslaved men to assist them on the ground. Much of what has been otherwise said of the raid has been skewed and misrepresented by slavemasters, Democrats and Republicans, and a host of hostile and/or ignorant journalists and historians over the past century-and-a-half.

Here are 7 points about the Harper's Ferry raid you should know:

1. It was well planned and reasonable. Brown did his homework and knew that the armory/arsenal was not guarded by the military and hardly guarded at all. He took both the armory and town of Harper's Ferry completely by surprise by invading late at night on Oct. 16 and held an advantage throughout the night and into the early morning hours. Even Frederick Douglass was wrong when he predicted it was necessarily a "perfect steel trap." Douglass over-estimated the defense and defenders--although he may have had a prophetic sense of Brown's tragic delay, which is really what cost him the raid--and his life.

2. The raid was not an act of terrorism and Brown was not a terrorist. Had it been an act of terrorism, Brown would not have failed, for the reason the raid did not succeed was because he paid too much concern to his hostages, including some whining slave masters, and undermined himself in trying to negotiate with them. Would a terrorist allow his prisoners to go home and see their families under guard and send out for their breakfast? This is also what Brown did while holding Harper's Ferry under his control. Indeed the raid was designed to have symbolic and strategic value, as the jump-start of his planned mountain-based campaign to gather enslaved people from the depths of the South.

3. Brown's actual plan was reasonable. He intended to spread out in small groups of raiders throughout the vast mountain system of the eastern U.S. that stretches from north to south, and make (by stealth) invasions of farms and plantations to lead enslaved people off, thus swelling his forces and de-stabilizing the southern economy. His intention was to fight only in self-defense, not to make deliberate war upon slave masters and their families (insurrection). Brown explicitly and repeatedly denied that he intended an insurrection, yet historians, following the reactionary tenor of slave masters, continue to say this was his purpose. It would have been virtually impossible to stop a movement consisting of small groups of men and women working in the mountain system or to prevent large numbers of people from escaping from slavery to join them. Nor was the U.S. military equipped, trained, or prepared for a guerilla war if it came to such fighting. If initiated, Brown's movement would have at least festered and upset the South in an unprecedented manner.

4. It is NOT true that enslaved people did not support the raid. For the relatively small number of enslaved people in this town and vicinity of the upper south, the evidence is that a good many more enslaved men actually came into town to support John Brown. Slave masters afterward denied this in order to sustain the southern myth of the loyal slave. Since 1859, politicians, journalists, and historians have favored the testimony of southern whites and largely ignored what Brown's own men have said, particularly Osborne Anderson, a black raider who actually wrote a short history of the raid.

5. Strategically, Brown did not want fugitives from slavery to participate in the raid on Harper's Ferry. This puts to rest the hackneyed, erroneous notion that the "slaves did not support Brown." His intention was to rendezvous with them outside of the town after the raid, withdrawing with them to the mountains. There are at least two substantial testimonies and additional supportive evidence that many more fugitives--hundreds, perhaps more, were beginning to gather outside of town. However they had to withdraw because Brown delayed and became caught in a trap that could easily have been avoided had he left town by early morning Oct. 17.

6. Despite a good plan, Brown defeated himself. His overly ponderous nature and worries over the welfare of his captives (perhaps too he was seeking to negotiate the emancipation of their slaves) gave local militia enough time to gather and cut off escape routes. Yet it took another day and the help of the U.S. marines to actually capture John Brown, his raiders, and the surviving enslaved men who supported them. Had he kept to his own plan and schedule, he and his fugitive allies would have almost walked away from Harper's Ferry without facing any significant opposition, and could have easily retreated to the mountains as planned. Contrary to the notion that he was a crazy man and a killer, it seems that John Brown was actually too tender-hearted and still hoped to resolve some of the issue by negotiation. This was his greatest error.

7. Even though Brown failed to initiate his plans and was hanged, historians like Jean Libby and Hannah Geffert have shown that the black community in Jefferson County and surrounding counties were heavily impacted by his presence. The census of 1860 shows that slavemasters lost their "property" in great numbers following the raid--a direct result of black people's determination to make good out of Brown's death. Local enslaved people poisoned the livestock and set fires on the property of slave owners and even some of the jurors in John Brown's trial. Jean Libby has uncovered evidence that local blacks tried to communicate with Brown while he was in jail, and we can even see an imprisoned Brown conversely playing down the extent of their involvement him out of concern for their welfare (southerners historically unleashed violent fury on the enslaved community even when they successfully put down uprisings, etc.). Brown, his men, and the enslaved community were far more networked than conventional historians want to acknowledge.

How Do You "Remember the Alamo"?
In conclusion, the Harper's Ferry Raid is the exact opposite of the famous Alamo incident in Texas, yet the U.S. has largely sanctified and enshrined the latter, while misrepresenting the former as a crazy, hopeless, and desperate attempt by a criminal. The Alamo was about a small group of pro-slavery secessionists and their Mexican allies, trying to break away from an anti-slavery state for reasons of self-interest. Their heroism and nobility can only be measured in terms of 19th century white supremacy, which unfortunately is what has been so often romanticized in cinematic terms. Mexico justly suppressed these proto-Texans at the Alamo, just as the federal government would have to suppress their heirs in the Civil War. Yet in the immediate sense, the Alamo's fall only fueled a stronger movement in the U.S. to fight Mexico--a fight largely supported by pro- slavery interests. (Certainly John Brown did not support the war with Mexico).

In contrast, the Harper's Ferry raid was the effort of a small band which, to a man, involved people with unusually high principles and convictions regarding justice and human liberation. There was no self-interest in the group, except for Dangerfield Newby, who was fighting in the hopes of freeing his enslaved wife and family. The goal of the raid was not to seize territory and extend slavery but to deflate and collapse the slave economy. Brown believed that a civil war was inevitable, even imminent, and hoped to defuse it by undermining the infrastructure of the South with minimal violence. Historians have often "credited" him with the start of the Civil War, although it had been his hope of avoiding it. To suggest (as did some 20th century historians) that the War would have been avoided were it not for Brown, is ridiculous. The problem of slavery had to be dealt with, and to suggest that another half-century of "moderation" was needed is unrealistic with respect to Southern militancy. Too, to suggest that slavery should have been phased out in time is to join with many others who have temporized over doing justice for reasons of prejudice. The Harper's Ferry raid represented the best interests of our nation's founders, many of whom were stymied by their own racism and hypocrisy (like Thomas Jefferson) being both prophets of freedom and slave masters. Brown--not the floundering late-born emancipator Lincoln--represents the prophetic single-minded corrective to Washington and Jefferson's double-mindedness.

John Brown was a "Bible Christian" who acted out of interest in the freedom of an oppressed and victimized people. He believed something had to be done and at least he tried. To impugn him for using "violence" is hypocrisy since our nation used violence in order to subdue, control, and "settle" this land. To condemn him for not allowing the "problem" to be resolved by governmental leadership is also a farce. First, this is precisely what Brown and many other anti-slavery people did throughout the first half of the 19th century. By 1850 things had actually gotten worse for the cause of freedom. The government was in the hands of pro-slavery forces and there was secession (and continued slavery) on the lips of powerful southerners. Furthermore the North was hardly driven by concern for free blacks, let alone enslaved black people in the South. As long as slavery was contained, people like Abe Lincoln would have been contented.

All things considered, the Harper's Ferry raid, failure and all, was exactly what was needed in the long run. There was no other way to deal with slavery except by ending it, and there was no other way to end it than by a program using a measure of violence. Brown tried a program of minimalist bloodshed and happily went to the gallows believing that his death would at least snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. “I failed,” John Brown told one of his Virginia guards, “but it is only delay, for as certain as the sun shines, the negroes will soon be set free.” John Brown was prescient in his vision of slavery's end. Lincoln began his presidency by defaming Brown but ended it by doing a political imitation of him.

How one views the Alamo and Harper's Ferry is not a matter of historical trivia. It is a barometer of one's sense of justice in history and probably in the contemporary sense as well.

L. DeCaro Jr.