[My friend Tony Horwitz has penned a guest kit to mark this 152nd anniversary of the hanging of John Brown in Charles Town, W.Va. Tony is the author of the new book on Brown, Midnight Rising, and I think some of the power of the book comes from the way the radicalism of Brown prefigures today’s political debates. This guy was no compromiser, no deal-maker. He did not want to nibble away at the institution of slavery, nor did he think it could be slowly reformed. Our sins would only be purged with blood, he famously declared.
Tony’s offering comes at an interesting moment for me, since I’ve been following Ron Paul around. I won’t compare him to Brown, since the issues, personalities and historical framework are just so different, but let’s note that Dr. Paul’s ability to inspire his followers to fervent devotion comes in part from his complete disinterest in the middle ground, his disdain for compromise, and the radicalism of his solutions. He doesn’t want reform, he wants a revolution. So do the Tea Partiers. So do, I think (remain fuzzy on this), the Occupy protesters. More and more people have lost faith with the system of governance and with Washington’s ability to solve problems through business as usual. And so these are boom times for radicals.]
By Tony Horwitz
In troubled times, change bubbles up from the extremes. Compromise fails, the center cannot hold. A frightened and frustrated public embraces blunt and visceral remedies. This is happening now, with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and it happened 152 years ago when John Brown’s hanging closed a turbulent decade and propelled the nation towards civil war.
The U.S. today isn’t a mirror of the 1850s, but there are striking parallels. Then, as now, the government seemed incapable of bridging a deep rift in the country or dealing effectively with crises. The Northern Democrat in the White House, President James Buchanan, was seen as passive and ineffectual and derided as a “doughface”--half-baked and malleable in the hands of Southerners. A critical election loomed, in a combustible atmosphere stoked by harsh rhetoric and a nakedly partisan press.
Pro-slavery “fire-eaters”--the talk-show radio hosts of their day--sought to not only extend slavery to new Western territories but also to annex Cuba and Central America. “I would spread slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth,” Mississippi Senator Albert Brown declared. New York Senator and presidential hopeful, William Seward, conjured an “irrepressible conflict” between North and South that would make the nation all slaveholding or all free. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, crying, “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”
Garrison, however, was a staunch pacifist who had battled slavery for decades with fiery words. This came to seem inadequate in the face of rising Southern violence and aggression. In May 1856, when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner denounced slavery in Congress, a South Carolina representative replied by caning Sumner almost to death on the floor of the Senate--and was promptly lionized in the South for having “lashed into submission” a vocal abolitionist. That same week, pro-slavery forces in Kansas pillaged the free-state capital of Lawrence, heeding the cry of Missouri Senator David Atchison, who urged Southerners “never to slacken or stop until every spark of free-state, free-speech, free-niggers, or free in any shape is quenched out of Kansas!”
With a doughface in the White House, conservative Southerners controlling the Supreme Court, and Congress bitterly divided, there seemed little promise of political redress. Antislavery Northerners felt beaten up and bullied by an extremist minority--much the way many liberals feel today. This created an opening for a charismatic individual offering bold and muscular resistance. John Brown, a failed businessman and fervent Calvinist, believed it was his God-given destiny to eradicate the sin of slavery. He dismissed talkers and writers like Garrison as “milk and water” abolitionists, condemned politicians as “Leeches,” and regarded slavery as a state of war that must be met in kind.
Brown first did so in Kansas, which in the 1850s formed the front line in the conflict over slavery’s extension. Just days after Sumner’s caning and Lawrence’s sacking, Brown led a night raid that resulted in the slaughter of five pro-slavery settlers. He then battled Southern forces in open combat, and his exploits—trumpeted by the abolitionist press—had a very bracing effect. As one of Brown’s sons wrote after his father’s brave stand at the town of Osawatomie: “This has proven most unmistakably that Yankees will fight.”
Brown used his Kansas fame to raise money and guns from genteel New Englanders, who were intoxicated by this roughhewn crusader arriving from the frontier. “I think him about the manliest man I have ever seen,” gushed the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. Brown was feted at lecture halls and salons, dined with Emerson and Thoreau, and garnered contributions for his cause, though few donors knew what exactly he intended. They found out in October 1859, when Brown led a biracial guerrilla band in attacking the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to free and arm slaves and launch a campaign of liberation across the South.
Brown failed in his military mission but triumphed through the power of his words in court and prison. When he went to the gallows on Dec. 2nd, bells tolled across the North and thousands gathered to hail him as a latter-day Christ. This deification also galvanized white Southerners. In the divided and paranoid atmosphere of 1859, all Yankees seemed closet John Browns. Fire-eaters exploited this fear and anger, declaring abolition “a cancer eating into our very vitals” and urging Southerners to militarize and separate from a partner that could no longer be trusted to enforce the Constitutional protections afforded slavery.
“To secure our rights and protect our honor we will dissever the ties that bind us together, even if it rushes us into a sea of blood,” Jefferson Davis told Congress a week after Brown’s hanging. This was, of course, what ultimately happened. Brown, who went to the gallows declaring that only bloodshed could purge the nation of slavery, would have been gratified by the result.
No issue today matches slavery, nor (one hopes) is the nation on the brink of civil war. But there may nonetheless be lessons for us in what happened in 1859. When government fails, firebrands fill the void. Blunt slogans and programs--9-9-9, 99%, moating the border against illegals--draw surprising support. Extremes feed off each other and share a desire for a radical break with the status quo: fire-eaters and militant abolitionists then, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street now. And eruptions that may seem marginal at the time--for instance, crowds camped in city parks, decrying inequality--can have unpredictable consequences.
When Brown launched his doomed raid, in hopes of sparking the great conflict he believed necessary to vanquish slavery, commentators both North and South initially declared him insane. But by the next year, as the nation lurched towards disunion and war, Thoreau sagely observed: “They all called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?”
(Tony Horwitz is the author of “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War”)