Friday, October 16, 2009

This Day in Civil War History (John Brown’s Attack on Harper’s Ferry Fans Sectional Discontent)

October 16, 1859—John Brown—failed businessman, domineering father, scourge of slavery—didn’t come close to succeeding in sparking a slave insurrection with his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.

But he forced North and South to confront their different attitudes on “the peculiar institution,” and he provided a template for direct, violent action that would be copied by the Unabomber, anti-abortion forces targeting doctors, and others who deemed that bloodshed was necessary to stop a heinous wrong.

I first became intrigued by the ongoing controversy surrounding Brown through a class I took nearly 30 years ago at Columbia University with American history professor James Shenton. Virtually every seat was taken in his large lecture hall, because this particular class had a well-deserved reputation as the most dramatic Shenton would give for the entire course.

You would think that the passage of 150 years would settle questions about the longtime New York state resident. Not a chance.

Earlier this week, I received a glimpse of these impressions when I visited the New-York Historical Society. The centerpiece of the museum right now is a major exhibit on Abraham Lincoln and New York (something I’ll comment on at a future date). The Brown exhibit is small by comparison, but it’s worth walking upstairs for a nice complement to the one on Honest Abe (who, in the run-up to the GOP nomination in 1860, was careful to denounce Brown’s raid).

The exhibit focuses most heavily on the 1850s, when Brown not only led his group of 21 armed followers at Harper’s Ferry but also executed several pro-southern settlers in Kansas. (The image accompanying this post was inspired by the latter action.)

You might argue that Brown’s raid preceded Fort Sumter, usually deemed the official beginning of the Civil War, by a year and a half, so the above title is not really accurate. In another sense, though, that headline is completely appropriate. Over the years, debate has raged about whether or not Brown was insane, but nobody excelled him as prognosticator when he predicted just before his execution several weeks after the raid that Americans would have to “purge this land with blood” to rid the nation of slavery.

If you want to consider why opinion divides on Brown even to this day, consider the following two points made at the New-York Historical Society:

* Unusually among abolitionists, Brown believed not only in equality for African-Americans but also in integration; and
* Despite his fierce Calvinist convictions, he was unafraid of the injunction, “Thou shalt not kill.” The exhibit includes a poignant letter from Mahala Doyle, who, in Kansas, had pleaded in vain for Brown to spare the lives of her husband and two of her sons. Brown had “arrested my house at midnight,” Mrs. Doyle wrote after he was captured, “and arrested my husband and two boys, and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearting. You can’t say you done it to free slaves. We had none and never expected to own one.”

Oh, another thing: three major actors in the drama that would unfold following Fort Sumter were featured in the arrest and execution of Brown: Robert E. Lee, who led the federal force that caught him; Jeb Stuart, an aide to Lee; and John Wilkes Booth, a witness to the execution.

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