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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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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Brown Biographer David Reynolds Interviewed in Esquire; Some After Thoughts

David Reynolds is a fine scholar and his 2005 biography of Brown has probably done more to bring the subject to the front burner of historical recognition than any other work in the last quarter of a century. I have my differences with his work on certain points, but his book is a milestone effort, and Reynolds himself has caught a lot of heat because his reading of Brown is far more generous than is admitted by his apparent willingness to class Brown as a "terrorist."

This is apparent in a June 16th interview in Esquire magazine by John H. Richardson. My own comments follow the text of the interview, which is reproduced entirely as follows:

The recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller by a "pro-life" activist got me thinking about John Brown, the abolitionist whose bloody raid on Harper's Ferry is widely credited for sparking the Civil War. Since anti-abortionists often compare abortion to slavery, I searched around to refresh my dim memory and was surprised to find a CUNY Graduate Center professor named David S. Reynolds — a National Book Award finalist for Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography — calling Brown "a deeply religious, flawed, yet ultimately noble reformer."

Noble? He hacked people to death with swords.

I called Reynolds for clarification.

"John Brown, in a sense, took the law into his own hands to start a war of terror that would dislodge slavery," he admitted. "But to me, slavery is qualitatively different from abortion."

Some of Reynolds's reasons, and I quote:

1. This was an absolutely vital national issue. As the Civil War proved, tens of thousands of Americans were willing to take up arms — 620,000 Americans died, more than all other wars. Abortion doesn't seem to be that nationally divisive.

2. Abortion was an issue in the nineteenth century, when abortion techniques were much worse than now, and Native Americans were horribly killed by thousands. But John Brown only took up arms against slavery. And even pacifist types like Henry David Thoreau supported him.

3. Brown looked forward to being hanged because he wanted to die for the millions of black people who were enslaved at that time. When he was in prison, he wasn't thinking of himself — all of his letters were filled with comments about the poor slaves.

4. There was a certain democracy to his vision. Even though he was devoutly Christian, and in some ways extremely conservative, some of his followers were atheists, deists, skeptics. It wasn't just the Christian right versus Leftism — he had a deeply American and democratic form of terrorism, if you want to call it that.

Of course, you could say much of the above about Osama Bin Laden, and people have — like the distinguished Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who once wondered what would have happened to America if John Brown had access to airplanes? Reynolds's answer, when I pit the same choice to him, was either a classic academic hedge or painfully honest humility. Take your pick:

"Everything is, to some degree, subjective — I think Nazism, slavery, what Pol Pot did, what Mussolini did — I mean, slavery was the murder and rape and torture of adult people as well of children. To me, personally, from my subjective standpoint, that's qualitatively different than killing a fetus. But I know that for other people, that's not true."

And Bin Laden also believes he is fighting a justified war against an imperial power that kills adult and children.

"Bin Laden wants to ban Christianity, atheism, and Judaism and create a Muslim theocracy," Reynolds continued. "That seems to me so incredibly radically different than what John Brown believed in, which is a nation in which people of all races and creeds and both genders are given the exact same social rights. So from my perspective, people like Paul Hill and George Tiller seem too narrow."

I'm giving Reynolds a hard time, but his argument is one that most Americans consciously or unconsciously accept. In fact, every time you sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is a slightly altered version of "John Brown's Body," you are praising an act of domestic terrorism:

He captured Harper's Ferry with his nineteen men so true
He frightened old Virginia till she trembled
through and through
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew
His soul is marching on..."

And therein lies the problem. His soul is marching on. And marching and marching and marching. "Was it worth it?" I asked Reynolds, hoping that two congenitally waffling Whitman lovers like ourselves could find a way out of this endless nightmare. "Was ending slavery was worth 620,000 lives?"

"Yeah, I think it was," he told me. "It's a horrible thing to say."

Even though the first person Brown killed at Harper's Ferry was a free black man?

"Yes," he said. "It's a tragedy."
First, I would point out interviewer Richardson's sense of horror over the few people killed by John Brown's actions, as well as the loss of over one-half million Civil War soldiers (most of whom were white) is not counter-balanced by an apparent sense of horror over the realities of slavery. Reynolds appreciates the extent of wickedness that slavery represents in our history, but Richardson seems indifferent, which is why he has the audacity to ask: "Was ending slavery worth 620,000 lives?" Give or take a number of thousands of black soldiers and war victims, what Richardson actually seems to be asking is: "Was ending the enslavement of black people worth a half-million white people's lives?" This should tell the reader something immediately about the perspective of the interviewer vis-a-vis John Brown.

Of course I do not agree that Brown was a "terrorist," not in Richardson's hostile sense of the word, or in Reynolds' much friendlier use of the term. Brown is a counter-terrorist by all standards and anyone who denies this simply has not read his story correctly. By 1858 he was a law-breaker and a wanted man to be sure; but considering that the U.S.A. in the mid-19th century was a flagrantly racist, white supremacist, and unjust and violent nation in its treatment of blacks and Indians, I find it hard to be so scandalized by Brown's brand of "criminality." Those who condemn Brown by holding "law" over his head as if it were the ultimate standard of righteousness are off-balance and typically insensitive to the realities of this nation's history. In 1859, the law of the land declared that black people had no rights that whites were bound to respect; the law declared that black people were slave masters' property any where in the nation; and the law mandated that anti-slavery whites had to assist slave hunters in arresting black people in the North so that they could be forcibly "returned" to the South in chains. If you hold that kind of law over John Brown's head, you're no better than slave master and a tyrant yourself.

As to abortion, I really do believe that if John Brown were transported into the era of Roe v. Wade he would be absolutely "mortified" (to use one of his favorite terms) by the contemporary secular notion of democracy that reigns supreme, as well as the vast numbers of abortions that have taken place in the name of "choice." My liberal and leftist friends who admire John Brown likely would prefer not to talk about these matters because it makes them feel uncomfortable to think that their hero was a conservative Christian as well as a radical abolitionist and militant egalitarian. Indeed, David Reynolds was understating things when he told Richardson that Brown "was devoutly Christian, and in some ways extremely conservative." John Brown was an evangelical, a Westminster Confession Calvinist, and a believer in the Bible as the inspired word of God. His views on contemporary issues like choice and gay rights would most certainly be no different from the typical contemporary evangelical viewpoint today. To be sure, Brown was not as culturally narrow-minded or racist as most evangelicals then and now, but his "progressive" orientation stopped at race and class issues.

But would John Brown shoot an abortion professional or blow up an abortion service site? Although many people, liberals and conservatives alike, assume that he would do so, I disagree. Based on what I have observed of Brown's life and beliefs, I do not think he would take any violent action against abortion professionals or abortion service sites unless (1) the anti-abortion side had exhausted every legal and democratic measure in the effort to abolish abortion and (2) pro-abortion people were forcing their practice upon anti-abortion people. In the absence of both dilemmas, Brown would probably advocate using every possible democratic measure, as well as educational, religious, and social means of discouraging women from resorting to abortion. This is not mere speculation. A careful reading of Brown's life shows that he fairly well followed the same standards in opposing slavery and its advocates.

Reynolds points out that abortion is not as divisive an issue today as slavery was in 1859. That's true in many respects. Many conservatives, including evangelical Christians who denounce abortion, have apparently come to a grudging acceptance of the status quo. Beyond voting for the ostensible "anti-abortion" Republican candidate, evangelicals characteristically have not taken on the anti-abortion struggle with the same determination that their forebears did in fighting slavery. This is largely because abortion is more complex and difficult to address as a social and cultural issue. Even women with anti-abortion convictions have had abortions and the church must minister to these women with a greater degree of sympathy and compassion. And this is the point: if abortion and slavery are parallel wrongs, then who is the actual counterpart to the slave master--the abortion professional or the woman who chooses to have an abortion? Either way, critics of Brown should remember that he never killed a slave master (except in a pitched gun battle) in Kansas or Harper's Ferry. Brown did not advocate the murder of slave masters as a measure of ending slavery per se; why do people think that he would necessarily gun down an abortion professional?

Finally, assuming that Brown opposed abortion on the basis of personal religion and spirituality, he might simply throw up his hands and conclude that a nation that promotes abortion in the name of democracy deserves whatever moral and social degeneration that befalls it. He once repeated the words of Euripedes in silencing a smart-mouthed Virginian, saying: "'Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,' and you are mad." It might be that having made careful examination of his beloved America in the 21st century, John Brown might simply leave it at that.

1 comment:

The History Enthusiast said...

Thank you for sharing this. I too believe that Brown's actions are often mis-characterized and that he was not a terrorist by our modern definition.