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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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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why I Don't Think John Brown Should be Pardoned

I have recently read on a blog called Sweet Muse, an article discussing the new effort to get John Brown pardoned by the President of the United States. According to the blog Sweet Muse, my brother biographer of Brown, David S. Reynolds, the author of the notable work, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (Knopf), is urging people to petition President Obama to pardon our man Brown posthumously. I understand that Dr. Reynolds is also calling for the Governor of Virginia to do the same.

According to Sweet Muse, Dr. Reynolds expressed his views at a recent presentation in Springfield, Massachusetts, saying: "There are compelling reasons for the pardon. Far from the actions of a misled fanatic, his plan made sense. He knew that in the West Indies mountain-based groups of blacks had driven major European powers from their islands. Similarly, he wanted to use Appalachian hideouts as attack bases for destabilizing Southern slavery."

Dr. Reynolds has added his name and comments to a sprouting list of petitioners who agree. The petition, "Pardon Abolitionist John Brown," is on-line with under fifty signatures as of this writing. "I urgereaders to Google ‘Pardon John Brown' and add their names to the on line petition demanding a pardon of the man who willingly gave his life for the emancipation of four million enslaved blacks," he concluded.

Although I respect David Reynolds immensely and applaud his positive and powerful contribution to the literature on John Brown, I find myself inclined now--almost on the eve of the sesquicentennial of his execution--to disagree. I do not think that Brown should be pardoned for a number of reasons.

First, the reason and purpose for which Brown died was the struggle for black freedom and justice for the disenfranchised, oppressed slave. Those who would seek a pardon for John Brown are putting the cart before the horse, as the saying goes. John Brown would not want to be pardoned if the African people of the United States were still owed both an apology and/or some form of reparations from both the federal government as well as individual states that sustained slavery, and then the descendants of slave holders whose family estates were enriched by stolen black labor.

It would be a mere and feeble gesture of sentimentalism to pardon John Brown when the United States government has never even issued an apology to the black people of this nation, whose ancestors were treated like animals and property by law of the land. As long as black people are fundamentally insulted by this nation, as long as the majority population pretends that slavery was an unfortunate parenthesis of ill-mannered behavior in an otherwise praiseworthy democracy, I doubt John Brown would want that government or its people to "pardon" him. Like Daniel the ancient Hebrew prophet and seer, Brown would say to the President, "Keep your pardon or give it to someone else."

This nation owes black people, if nothing else, a flagrant, official, and definitive apology. Until the U.S. government acknowledges its terrible guilt and crime against humanity in terms of the so-called "peculiar institution" as well as the suppression and extermination of Native Americans and other territorial abuses based on the lust of slave holder expansionism, then I say John Brown can wait. His soul is marching on and he's never asked for a pardon.

Secondly, there is something inherently problematic about looking to the federal or state government of Virginia to pardon John Brown when both are historically complicit in crimes against humanity. Who are Uncle Sam and the Old Dominion to be dispensing pardons to freedom-fighters like John Brown anyway? Given the fact that slavery was part of the U.S. constitution and that this government and its supreme court passed repressive, fascist laws pertaining to fugitive slaves and the Dred Scott Decision, asking federal and state governments to pardon Brown actually seems ludicrous. Indeed, the U.S. government and the State of Virginia should be petitioning to be pardoned by popular vote of African Americans. It would only be symbolic, but it would be more meaningful than if John Brown were pardoned by these governments.

Thirdly, I would not put President Obama on the spot by asking him to pardon John Brown. The man is deeply hated and despised by ultra-conservatives, some of whom are the descendants of slave masters, and some of whom are doubtless racists who loathe the idea of having a black man in the "White" House. President Obama had enough trouble running for the presidency without being badgered because of associations he had with so-called radical folks, black and white. Why do this to the poor man? I don't think anyone doubts that Barack Obama probably holds John Brown, privately speaking, in high regard. But asking him to take such a step would unnecessarily draw him under fire, and he's got enough challenges dealing with the inherent racism of so much (not all!) of the anti-Obama movement in this country without getting bogged down in a battle over a symbolic and fairly meaningless effort on behalf of John Brown. The poor guy couldn't even address the problem of constabulary racism this year without having white conservatives jumping up and down in a rage. This is our first black president. Be nice to him.

Lastly, to pardon John Brown would rob him of the moral-historical context of his self-sacrifice. To put it by way of illustration, I would no more want John Brown to be pardoned by Uncle Sam or the State of Virginia than I would have wanted Constantine to pardon St. Paul, who was beheaded by that pig Nero. The force and integrity of St. Paul's martyrdom was his quintessential innocence over against the guilt and perversion of the emperor who ordered his execution. The same applies to John Brown and 19th century U.S. politics. To pardon him today would be like cutting him away from the moral-historical fabric in which his life and death had meaning. There is a sense in which John Brown is only John Brown as a man found guilty and condemned by what he called "this slave nation."

John Brown was not bothered by the fact of dying at the hands of a guilty government. He did not care for the judgment of the nation or Virginia, only the judgment of God. As a believer in the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the evangelical and Reformed faith, John Brown had all the pardon he wanted from the Great Judgment Seat of Eternity. John Brown's legacy is bigger than the U.S. government's legacy, which is only political and self-serving to the rich and powerful of this land, something that Brown himself declared in his final statement to the court. Brown's legacy is likewise bigger than that of the Old Dominion, which is filled with the bones of slaves and the fools who would rather have their sons die to keep slavery than set their slaves free. John Brown is an internationally loved and regarded revolutionary freedom figure. John Brown is loved today and has been loved down through the years, and he will be embraced by oppressed people and freedom fighters as long as this fallen world continues to produce oppressors and oppression.

John Brown does not need a pardon. He is more than pardoned by the people who love freedom and hate oppression. What activist Yuri Kochiyama once wrote about Malcolm X can likewise be said of John Brown: he is both epic and epoch in person. His single life and sacrifice defies stone monuments and memorials; if he had a postage stamp or a great stone temple in Washington, D.C., it would likely mean he was little more than a political compromiser and creature of the wealthy (by the way, Malcolm X's postage stamp was not only poorly done, but it illustrates the very point I'm making here: he would hardly have cared if the U.S. Post Office put him on a stamp anyway, and in putting him on a stamp, he was "mainstreamed" and deprived of his revolutionary political identity). The fact that Brown's greatest memorial is a humble farmhouse nearly on the northern border of the U.S.A. (Lake Placid, N.Y.], overlooked and disregarded by most, marks him as an authentically epic figure in human history. The fact that he lived and died fighting slavery in the context of a nation that was flagrantly racist and unjust makes him the standard-bearer of slavery's antithesis in his era.

Leave him to live and die in that era. Let him hang, despised and condemned, on that Virginia gallows. Pardon him and you will strip him of his victory. Take away his "guilt" by means of a governmental pardon and you will make him no better, no more valid, no more appreciated. The bigots, racists, and snobs who hate him will not suddenly embrace him. We who love him will not love him any more for Uncle Sam's pardon.

Do not pardon John Brown, nor seek to have him pardoned. Let him be, ever and always, a martyr--a witness for the oppressed! His Soul Goes Marching On!

Notable Response, Greg Artzner, Nov. 30, 2009

Lou, I absolutely agree with you.

The way I see it, if the larger truth were told Brown was convicted
and condemned not for treason and murder but for interference. If he
had actually done something for which he should have been convicted
and executed, a pardon would seem appropriate. But since what he did
was, in my humble opinion, the only thing he COULD do and something
that desperately needed doing–as he said, "not wrong, but right,"–a
pardon is the wrong thing to do.

I would be surprised given his political savvy and the current
political climate if Obama would do it or even consider it. He needs
those southern Democrats too much, the ones who use John Brown as a
cuss word.

But for the larger moral and philosophical reasons I hope he doesn't.

I'm with you.


Unknown said...

This was a very profound post. My automatic kneejerk reaction was "YES! PARDON HIM! ARE YOU KIDDING?" But, I see exactly where you are coming from and I fully agree with everything you said.I love this blog so much and I hope it continues.

Unknown said...


Rock on. So to speak, we have bigger priorities than to pardon John Brown. To merely pardon John Brown is a meaningless symbolic gesture without the greater work of racial reconciliation, equalization, and reparation in our country.

John Hendrix said...

I think you make a strong case. Brown's wishes in the matter shouldn't be irrelevant. It happens in art history too. The question "What did the artist intend" is replaced by "what does it mean" - to the exclusion of real understanding in some pieces.

Unknown said...

RE: This is our first black president. Be nice to him.


The blood of children in the Middle East is still red regardless of what the president looks like.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Dear Irradiatedkitty

I agree with you. My remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek; my point was simply that asking Pres. Obama to involve himself in this matter would only create more opportunities for right-wingers to rant and rave against for no good reason. I am not suggesting that because he's our first black president he should not be criticized for legitimate reasons, and I personally believe that his policy regarding the Middle East vis-a-vis the Palestinians reflects no positive "change," indeed no change at all. Your concern is valid, but jumping on my comment was a bit opportunistic on your part.--LD