150 years ago this week, John Brown was executed and his body was returned to the Adirondacks. Had Brown escaped from Harpers Ferry rather than been captured he might well today be just a footnote, one of the tens of thousands that struggled to undermine the institution of slavery in America before the Civil War. It’s often said that just one thing secured Brown’s place in the hearts of millions of Americans that came after him – his execution and martyrdom. There is another equally important reason Americans will celebrate the life of John Brown this week however – he was right slavery would end at a heavy price.
Whatever your politics, no single cause in the history of the United States of America has directly affected the status of the fundamental civil and human rights this country was founded on like the issue of American slavery. In its essence, and although even America’s founders little understood it, the cause of slavery is exactly the cause for which some American colonists launched violent attacks on their own despotic British government. They said so directly in the second paragraph of their Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Just thirty years after that declaration it became apparent that a large number of Americans would contravene the basic human and civil rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those Americans, who made their living off the labor of the physically and violently enslaved, or whose material and social economies depended on that “peculiar institution,” were mostly (though by no means exclusively) clustered in the South.
On the other side stood men and women like John Brown, who was born in 1800 and raised at a time when Northern states were meeting the promise of the Declaration of Independence and outlawing slavery forever (albeit slowly). They were among the first generation of Americans to recognize, incontrovertibly, that the majority of slave holders would not live up to the basic civil rights for which the American Revolution was fought.
Bit by bit the slave holders’ refusals to accept the civil and human rights provided in the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution it inspired became clear. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 led to prison for men and women who defended the rights of other Americans to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Then in 1857 Dred Scott was declared by the Supreme Court to be outside the protection of the American constitution.
No matter your political beliefs, if you believe that the American Revolution was fought to protect our “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then you must also agree that when John Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, he was defending exactly the same principles as those who attacked British troops at Lexington and Concord. Not coincidentally both battles were over stored military arms and supplies.
If you doubt that John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal was a defense of the Declaration of Independence, consider the preamble to a Provisional Constitution Brown wrote before the raid:
Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion – the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination – in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence:
You might consider all violence anathema, but if you defend the right of the American colonists at Lexington and Concord, at Saratoga, at Kings Mountain, or Yorktown, then you should also defend the right of John Brown at Harpers Ferry.
If John Brown was a terrorist, then so were the founders of America. In constrast, if any could be called terrorists it was those who would move from executing John Brown to attacking Fort Sumter, withdrawing from the union, and raising armies to attack the United States. The chief capturers and public prosecutors of John Brown were later among the fiercest opponents of the United States: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Virginia Governor Henry Wise (who was a General with Lee at his surrender), and J.E.B. Stuart.
It should be no surprise then, that in 1859 as John Brown was led to the scaffold, John Wilkes Booth – the killer of the man who would ultimately end slavery, vanquish the slave owners, and hold together the United States of America under the principles of July 4, 1776 – was watching in anticipation.
Brown’s last words, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood,” were written on a note that he handed to a guard just before he was hung.
Victor Hugo wrote about Brown execution at the time: “Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”