A few months back we explained that there were problems with the M. J. Young Net website which meant that certain older articles were sporadically unavailable, and that to remedy that situation those would be reproduced, in serialized format, here at The Examiner, beginning with the index. The first of those, Why Should Cable Television Carriers Pay to Deliver Local Broadcast TV?, ran in five parts a couple months back, followed by a longer series on ten Internet laws proposed by C-Net, and our semi-annual updated index, and this is the beginning of the third recovered article. It originally appeared in or about 1998.
Because The Examiner prefers shorter articles and past articles tended to be rather long, this is the first of two weekly parts, outlining the history concerning John Brown. The second part will apply the lessons insipient here to a modern situation.
John Brown’s body lies a’moulderin’ in the grave, but his truth goes marching on.
As a schoolboy, I sang this song, little knowing what it meant. I thought it a parody of The Battle Hymn of the Republic; in truth, it is the earlier version. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written and published as a poem, and sung to several themes before becoming attached to the music of this previous rallying cry of the Civil War. The original words are shallow, carrying little meaning. But the very existence of the song tells volumes about the civil war and the people who fought it; and I think it challenges us to consider certain realities in our own social conflicts today. So come back with me to another century, another mind set, another world, another problem, which may enlighten us in the problems and thinking of our own time.
Born in 1800 in Connecticut, Brown was an abolitionist. In an age in which the vast majority of whites believed that blacks were not truly human, but were an inferior form of life with more in common to primates than to men, Brown saw them as an oppressed segment of humanity. He was a very religious man who came to find the very existence of slavery an affront to humanity and to God. By our standards, he might have been a fanatic, a religious nut, and a failure; he was never able to adequately support his family. But he became obsessed with the idea of freeing the blacks.
In 1855, his activities took an ominous turn. He delivered guns to the anti-slavery groups trying to control Kansas, and became involved with them. In 1856, the town in which they were based was attacked by pro-slavery forces. Three days later, Brown brutally killed five men connected to the raid. His name became a source of fear among slavery apologists.
In 1858, Brown was in Canada, and convened a convention of black and white delegates to oppose slavery. They created and adopted a new constitution for the United States, and elected Brown commander in chief of it. He now had the support of a number of rich and prominent Boston abolitionists. But he is most remembered for the events of 1859.
John Brown, along with 16 whites and 5 blacks, set up a base of operations in a rented farmhouse in Maryland, across the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry. On the night of October 16, they captured the federal arsenal there, taking the armory, rounding up 60 prominent men of the community for hostages, and settling in for a seige. He expected that slaves in the area, many of whose masters were his prisoners, would come to his aid, creating an “Army of Emancipation”, to move across the land freeing slaves along the way. However, for the night and a day that they held their ground no slaves arrived to reinforce them, and on the morning of October 18 the United States Marines broke through, killing ten of the abolitionists including two of Brown’s sons, and wounding Brown himself, who surrendered. It is said that the commander of the United States forces for this operation, Robert E. Lee, foresaw a severe conflict looming in the near future, since the insurrection on behalf of the blacks was led by a white man.
On December 12, 1859, John Brown was hanged. The charges against him were murder, slave insurrection, and treason against the state. However, the trial was covered in detail, and the high moral tone of his defense immortalized him as a martyr in the cause of freedom among the anti-slavery movement.
Two years later, in 1861, the United States Civil War broke out. It was not precisely about slavery; President Abraham Lincoln had said several times during the campaign that although the abolition of slavery was part of the Republican party platform, he would not seek to abolish slavery during his first term in office. But several southern states had declared that the election of anyone from the abolitionist Republican party would be cause for them to withdraw from the union of states, and they kept their word. The Civil War was fought over the question of whether states had the right to withdraw from the union or ignore the federal government if they did not like the laws of that union or that government. Yet in the popular mind even then, the war was about slavery, about the desire of many in the south to keep those institutions and of many in the north to abolish them.
Even in the north, blacks were not regarded as truly human. Very few blacks fought for the Union army; none fought for the Confederacy. One Confederate general observed in his writings why this was: if the blacks could actually be soldiers, then they were actually human, and the south would lose on principle. No one, north or south, would condone the enslavement of human beings. The enslavement of blacks was accepted only because whites had convinced themselves that because blacks were different from whites, the blacks were not human. Even with the emancipation of the slaves, blacks were not accepted as human for perhaps generations.
This article is the first of two parts; next week it will conclude with an application to a contemporary situation.