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John Brown’s Antislavery Crusade

John Brown: a historic figure, terrorist, or martyr. Depending on one’s perspective he is all of these things and more. Shown by the way he lived his life, John Brown was a martyr. His cause: the abolition of slavery. John Brown was a key figure in the early stages of the abolitionist movement. Without the heroic efforts of John Brown, the world would be a very different place today. John Brown was a martyr for the abolition of slavery, willing to do everything in his power to see slavery extinct.

As a young boy of just twelve years, John Brown was entrusted by his father to drive their cattle more than 100 miles to Michigan. There, while staying with a slaveholding landlord, he witnessed an event so shocking that it scarred him for life, eventually transforming him into a leader of anti-slavery crusades. Brown witnessed the landlord beating his young male slave with a shovel. John Brown later wrote, “The beating transformed him into ‘a most determined Abolitionist’ from that point forward, leading him to declare an ‘eternal war’ with slavery.” He could not believe what cruelty he witnessed. For not this small event in history happening, the world would be a different place today.

A second event that really sparked Brown’s fury towards proslavery men was the illegal actions of Missourians coming into Kansas to elect a proslavery legislature. This legislature, which was not even legally voted upon, then passed extremely proslavery laws. It “Outlawed antislavery action, thought, and speech…only proslavery men would be allowed to hold office and serve on juries and outlined severe punishments for speaking out against slavery, helping runaway slaves escape, and possessing books about slave rebellion or fomenting insurrection.” Brown, along with his Free-State men, created an alternate antislavery constitution for Kansas. Proslavery and antislavery men fought hard over Kansas. There were many attempts at a compromise for the two sides: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Compromise of 1850, and the Missouri Compromise. However, none of these were effective. Brown saw Kansas as a very important state, one that could potentially tilt the balance of slave states vs. free states in favor of the free states if won, or slave states if lost, so he worked diligently in his race to acquire Kansas as a free state. With the legislature full of proslavery men, Brown saw that his actions were desperately required. Terrorism is only bad for those being terrorized. John Brown felt that his actions were necessary in order to progress the anti-slavery crusade. His actions were legitimate; in order to truly be heard blood had to be spilt. He said, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” Words can only be used for so long until they are not taken seriously, once people start to die, they pay attention. It is unfortunate that many widows and children lost important men in their lives. These people would claim that John Brown was undoubtedly a terrorist, yet from John Brown’s perspective he was not. His actions were legitimate and motivated by his devotion towards following a higher law.

The testimony of Mrs. Wilkinson is heart wrenching, “I begged them to let Mr. Wilkinson stay with me, saying that I was sick and helpless, and could not stay by myself. The old man, who seemed to be in command…replied, ‘You have neighbors’…They then took my husband away.” John Brown would not leave the proslavery man with his sick wife. The man did not even own any slaves. He was taken away and killed. His wife was terribly sick and needed his care, yet they took him anyway. Another widow, Mrs. Doyle, said this, “I saw the body of Drury (her son). Fear [for] myself and the remaining children induced me to leave the home where we had been living.” Mrs. Doyle had not only lost her husband but two of her sons that night. She too had a proslavery husband who did not even own slaves. The point was to show the proslavery men that their time has ended. It is no longer acceptable to be proslavery. The time of the Free-State man has commenced.

The Free-State men succeeded. John Brown said in a letter home to his wife and children, “He (Governor Shannon) gave up all pretension of further attempt to enforce the enactments of the bogus Legislature, and retired, subject to the derision of scoffs of the Free-State men (into whose hands he had committed the welfare and protection of Kansas), and to the pity of some and the curses of others of the invading force.” The Missourians finally returned home and Kansas became free.

Henry David Thoreau and Governor Wise shared differing views of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement. One of Brown’s loyalist defenders was Thoreau, who was a Transcendentalist that emphasized individualism. Thoreau and Brown both shared “A hatred of slavery and of the federal government’s defense of it.” Thoreau defended Brown’s actions even though this was not popular opinion of the time. “Henry David Thoreau…described Brown not as a madman and vigilante but as a hero.” Thoreau spoke very highly of Brown and idolized him and his actions. He supported Brown’s cause and wished others would join it. Whereas Governor Wise was a Southerner who held Brown’s fate in his hands, he chose to make Brown a martyr and have him hung for his actions rather than life in prison or declared insane. Wise saw Brown’s actions as an invasion upon slaveholders for their property, slaves. He saw for years that “Social and sectional differences have been growing up, unhappily, between the states of our Union and their people. An evil spirit of fanaticism has seized upon Negro slavery as the one object of social reform, and the one idea of its abolition has seemed to madden whole masses of one entire section of the country.” Wise saw antislavery crusades enter into every part of life for parts of the country. Wise said, “We cannot stand such insults and outrages as those of Harpers Ferry without suffering worse than the death of citizens: without suffering dishonor, the death of a state…” Wise felt that slavery could not continue or else it would have to be defended by force. These two men have differing opinions on John Brown and his cause but they both agree that Brown was not insane and that more events were inevitable.

Liberation theology, “A school of theology, especially prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, that finds in the Gospel a call to free people from political, social, and material oppression.” It is a way of thinking clearly about the inequalities in life and a way of helping those who are underprivileged and oppressed. Not only by compassionate acts but also by changing the political and social structure that keeps them oppressed. This concept is central to John Brown’s purpose in life and the cause to many of his actions. Brown drew inspiration for his crusades from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Brown considered the movement, “The greatest service man can render to God…I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God.” This was a religious movement to help those who could not help themselves. Brown’s intention was to free the slaves, “That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.” Brown would have done it peacefully if it could have happened that way.

Brown formed and led a United States League of Gileadites, which consisted of forty-four black men and women, to act against the encroachment of slavery. Brown said that “The desired end may be effectually secured by the means proposed; namely, the enjoyment of our inalienable rights.” Brown gave the Gileadites advice to succeed in obtaining their freedom. Brown did not kill unnecessarily and he advised others to do the same. Prior to the raid on Harpers Ferry Brown emphasized the point of how dear life was, he said, “Do not, therefore, take the life of any one, if you can possibly avoid it; but if it is necessary to take life in order to save your own, then make sure work of it.” He committed acts of bloodshed but not unnecessarily, it was to further the cause. It was necessary bloodshed in order to accomplish something larger than each of those individuals who participated in Harpers Ferry, the end of slavery. Brown did commit repeated acts of theft of slaveholder’s property, the slaves. However, it was fully justified. The slaves wanted to be free. Brown’s interpretation of Christianity was legitimate. No person has the right to enslave another. Brown tended to look to the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. No man wants to be a slave. Brown was helping those who desperately needed him. The liberation theology was the cause of the raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown knew what needed to be done in order to make God proud and right an evil in the world.

Brown’s liberation theology and the black liberation theology in the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement are similar but have some differences. The driving force of both is the advancement of black’s rights. Brown drew inspiration for his crusades from the Jewish faith, whereas blacks in the twentieth century turned towards the Islamic faith. Blacks associated Christianity with slavery due to the segregation along with its emphasis on individualism. They tended to focus not on the after world, but on the present world. In the twentieth century blacks believed that “This idea that one's view of the gospel is shaped by one's location in life has taken firm root in certain groups in the United States, and specifically among blacks and women.” They felt that one’s view of God depends on where one lives and their experiences in life. They wanted to practice daily the teachings of their religion, not just go to church one day a week and be sinful the other six like they felt Christianity was preaching.

However, many blacks identified with Christ. They felt their struggles for liberation were the same struggles that Christ experienced, and therefore since he is now alive he would be on their side, fighting for their injustices. Some remained hopeful. Brown risked his life to advance the antislavery cause. In the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement many others risked their life for the same advancement of blacks. It seemed that “Whoever fights for the poor, fights for God; whoever risks his life for the helpless and unwanted, risks his life for God.” Both movements had a religious thread woven into them. God was seen as just, fair, and in support of the liberation theologies. The raid on Harpers Ferry helped to accelerate the coming of the Civil War. “John Brown’s raid, trial, and execution promoted a sense of crisis and panic in both sections of the country.” The south gathered committees and military forces to prepare for expected abolitionist uprisings. They began attacking northerners. The south was “Eager for secession and cited the raid as proof that abolitionists would stop at nothing to destroy their property and civilization.” The south was very fearful of what the future would bring and wanted out of the Union. “The attempted insurrection struck fear into the hearts of outraged Southerners, who had long warned that abolitionists would attempt to incite a massive slave rebellion in their midst.” Succession was near.

Many in the north sympathized with Brown and believed he should not be executed, but many took to distance themselves from Brown’s violence. The extreme northern abolitionists “Were busy turning Brown into the most prominent antislavery martyr.” The north wanted to idealize Brown as a selfless hero to the slaves. “For many Northern soldiers…Brown’s final prophecy was proof that slavery would end only with sacrificial violence and the spilling of blood. Southerners continued to revile his with almost unparalleled intensity as a braggart, a horse thief, a murderer, and an inciter of rebellion.” The north and south were already divided. The events at Harpers Ferry helped to give the movement that much needed push into a Civil War. This would begin six months later which would finally destroy American slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln, an election won without one Southern electoral vote, was the final straw. War commenced.

John Brown was a great martyr for the abolition of slavery. He led a raid on Harpers Ferry where he intended to free the slaves on a larger scale than he had done in the past. He was not a terrorist; his actions were fully justified by the cause behind his actions. At that time, there were fewer options when it came to influencing public opinion. People back then were also more closed minded than people of today. Today, people cannot get away with what John Brown did many years ago. It would not be seen as a selfless cause but an act of terrorism. They cannot legitimately disobey the law to obey a higher law. They will be imprisoned or killed, just as Brown was killed for his actions. The ends do not always justify the means. Today, we live in a society that is more open minded, technology driven, communicative, and progressive. There are more options available to have your voice be heard: television, movies, internet, radio, etc. People can voice their opposition to abortions and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but they should not kill in order to make their point. Killing is an old fashioned way to voice opinion now that there are so many more advanced ways. People can learn from the past and stand up for their beliefs, but there is no need to repeat the brutality of the past in order to prove a point. Society has evolved; today there are far better options.

References

Dictionary.com. “Liberation Theology.” Dictionary.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/liberation+theology (accessed June 29, 2010).

Earle, Jonathan. John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents.

Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2008.

Liberation Theology, online resource center and bookstore. “Introduction and Overview.”

Welcome. http://www.liberationtheology.org/#intro (accessed June 29, 2010).

Wake Forest University. “A Black Theology of Liberation.” Lecture 26.

http://www.wfu.edu/~matthetl/perspectives/twentyseven.html (accessed June 29, 2010).

History


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