History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Get Your History Straight: A Reply to Coach Thompson of Fort Thomas, Kentucky

I do not usually post responses to letters published in newspapers about Brown, but I read one today on the website, Cincinnati.com, that merits a firm rejoinder. The letter, written by Mr. Keith Thompson, apparently a gymnastic coach in Fort Thompson, Kentucky, was intended to argue against President Obama's determination to hold the "9/11" trials in a civilian court in New York City. Thompson wishes to argue that such legal proceedings will actually give the alleged murderers a "world stage" to justify their crimes.

While I do not necessarily agree with Coach Thompson, what drew my attention to his letter was the shabby connection he makes to the case of John Brown in Virginia as an illustration to prove his "point." The Kentucky coach thus writes:

"In 1859, a similar show trial took place in Virginia because southerners were convinced the trial would reveal John Brown as the murderous religious fanatic he, in fact, was. The South didn’t seem to understand that there were a lot of people outside the South who, though they may have deplored Brown’s violent tactics, nonetheless felt sympathy for his abolitionist cause. The trial gave a voice to anti-Southern sentiment in the North and was one of the main causes of the Civil War."

If my memory serves me correctly, high school coaches usually made the worst social studies and U.S. history teachers, so I suppose Coach Thompson's "history lesson" is confirmation of the fact. Perhaps he needs to learn a few things, as follows:

1. First, despite the North's general sympathy for Brown once he fell into the hands of the South, the truth is that most northerners DID NOT feel sympathy for the abolitionist cause. Mr. Thompson does not understand U.S. history or culture in the 19th century. Most northerners disliked abolitionists and viewed them as trouble-makers. Most northerners were for free labor and disliked slavery, but they disdained black people as inferiors and did not want to live near them or have them take jobs from white laborers. Abolitionists were a hated minority because their views were considered radical, especially in major cities like New York and Philadelphia, but certainly in most places in the North, with some exceptions (northeastern Ohio, for one).

Secondly, Coach Thompson, what Brown's trial triggered was a kind of "last straw" effect with the North because they were tired of the extent to which southern politicians had bullied the North, while northern politicians like the moderate Lincoln bent over backwards to beg the South not to secede. I recommend Mr. Thompson to read the diary of New Yorker George Templeton Strong, who was no admirer of Brown; but he expressed the opinion that northerners were tired of begging the South on their knees. People like Mr. Thompson have forgotten that the South really dominated and bullied this nation throughout most of the first half of the 19th century and pretty much got their way (Missouri Compromise, then Fugitive Slave Law, then Dred Scott, then Popular Sovereignty), and most of the presidents prior to Lincoln were slaveholders. How do you think northerners felt when a southern politician had the audacity to literally beat a northern politician nearly to death in the Senate chamber? The South was out of control and determined to have its way, and despite the North's genuine mediocrity toward racial justice, and Lincoln's willingness even to let the South keep its slaves if they stayed in the Union, southerners still imagined that the North was an entire region of John Browns--something far from the truth. Basically the South's leadership and propagandists were paranoid and beyond compromising. They had secession fever and John Brown gave them good enough reason to jump out of the Union window and be done with it.

There are two reasons for northern sympathy for Brown. The first, as I've suggested, was based on the way Brown's treatment by Virginia fairly reflected the way the South dealt with any political effort that disagreed with their agenda: they cried murder, threw a fit, and then did whatever they pleased, like some spoiled child. After the way the State of Virginia rushed Brown to the gallows, no wonder the North wanted to stick it to the South. Secondly, Brown's court room testimony and the publication of his letters revealed him as a man of exceptional character, a loving husband and father, a witness of great religious substance, and one with an authentic witness, even to the point of dying for his anti-slavery convictions. Neither Muslim terrorist nor "home-grown" U.S. terrorists have ever manifested such an expansive range of moral, spiritual, social, and political wisdom in the body of their words and writings, nor have they been able to adequately demonstrate, as did John Brown, how one's life and death may link the Christian religion at its best with the anti-slavery cause. Muslims as a rule have no significant anti-slavery movement to speak of; their most extreme and aberrant fanatics, turning to terrorism as "witness," do so with the intention of earning a bloody ticket to paradise. Some darkened minds might find them equally inspiring, but clearly their ruthless actions have not had the same depth and breadth of positive influence in their world or our own. In contrast, Brown's letters shut the mouths of pro-slavery northerners and overwhelmed moderate Republicans. The flock of freedom around the world heard the shepherd's voice in John Brown's words and they saluted him as a result. Back in the U.S.A., all of candidate Abraham Lincoln's eloquent force in 1860 could not hold back the tidal wave of John Brown's holistic witness from overwhelming the North and washing over the South like acid truth. Neither the North nor the South heard the voice of God in John Brown's words the way a child "hears" the sound of the ocean by pressing a seashell to her ear. To the contrary: John Brown brought northerners and southerners to the very coastline where every nation's moral landscape must inevitably lead--and like a prophet he showed them the coming storm. That the selfish leadership of the South preferred the storm's deadly outcome to surrendering their slaves is a reflection of their own selfish and hard-hearted nature, not that of John Brown.

John Brown was not a murderer nor a religious fanatic. To be sure, he led in the killing of five pro-slavery thugs in Kansas in May 1856, and the reason he did so was because they were conspiring with pro-slavery terrorists to kill or drive out the Browns and other anti-slavery neighbors with violence. What Brown did was arguably counter-terrorism. Besides, the Kansas territory was already inflamed by pro-slavery thugs and there was no territorial or federal police to protect free state people who were being terrorized by pro-slavery thugs. Most of the free state settlers welcomed Brown's bloody strike because he was the only one with enough courage to stand up to terrorism and "give it" as hard as free state people were "getting it."

It amazes me that some people insist on seeing Brown as a terrorist, when living in this era, one might rather expect sensible people to make the logical connection with Brown as a counter-terrorist. He and the others who supported him were men simply protecting their families and freedoms in the absence of real democracy and the actual injustice or impotency of lawmen. Besides, the entire system of slavery itself was based on terror--imagine a system that allowed slave masters even to kill their "property" without any penalty; imagine a system that declared human beings sub-standard because of their "race." Imagine a society whose courts sanctioned hunting human beings down, tearing them from their loved ones, forcing them to work for free, and even controlling their bodies. What kind of a barbaric society was that? Not Nazi Germany. No, it was called the good old U.S.A. in the antebellum era, for the entire nation supported this wickedness by its laws, and it was practiced with lust and passion by the slave holders of the South. In light of the fact that these atrocities were committed in Coach Thompson's own state of Kentucky, perhaps by some of his own ancestors, or the ancestors of some of his countrymen, it strikes me somewhat empty to hear him calling John Brown a "murderer."

Finally, Coach Thompson, John Brown was not a "religious fanatic." In fact, his theology and biblical understanding were pretty much the same as that famously glorified traitor, Thomas "Stonewall"Jackson, who was an evangelical Calvinist like Brown. Brown and Jackson were pretty similar in their theological outlook, yet I doubt the Kentucky Coach would call General Jackson a religious fanatic, even though he used his Bible to justify betraying his government, defend a system of rape and stolen labor, and lead vast numbers of men to their deaths in a war for flesh disguised as a war for freedom. "States' rights"? Gimme a break. That's about as impressive as Jefferson Davis in a dress (which is how he was attired when he was apprehended when his "independence movement" was finally put down by Mr. Lincoln's army).

John Brown was a heroic figure and to compare him to serial-killing, anti-Christian "religious" fanatics who have no conception of the Golden Rule, nor any regard for democracy is outrageously ill-studied. Maybe the Kentucky Coach needs a little coaching in the history section of the local library.

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