What brought you here, and what did you think of it?
Was John Brown a Hero or a Villain?
--M. Joseph Young
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.

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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.

Why is any of this relevant?

Perhaps there might be some relevance of this history lesson to the matter of racism today.  No one imagines himself a racist, and those who are the most clearly so are frequently the most blind to their own status.  I grew up within a world in which blacks and whites were not different, not more different than whites were from each other, not more different than blacks from other blacks.  I know that there are racists still today, but do not know what impact they still have.  But the relevance of this history lesson to that issue seems to me less important today.  Today there is another issue which prompts me to ask the question of this article:  Was John Brown a hero or a villain?

Consider the question carefully.  We, the people of the United States of America, have both executed and immortalized this man.  He saw, generations ahead of his time, that blacks were people, no less so than whites.  He tried to make a world understand this when that world could not grasp such a thing.  Frustrated with the resistance to the truth he encountered (and I am sure that the vast majority of readers will concur that it is truth), he saw that military strength might be necessary to defend the truth, and then when attacked he retaliated.  He viciously killed five men whom he believed were responsible for a violent attack on his community of abolitionists.  Then he led an armed attack on a U.S. military installation to provide weapons to others to aid in the cause of freeing the oppressed blacks.  His was a violent act--although no one was killed by his takeover--and he was taken by the law, tried and convicted, and executed.  At the same time, his name became a rallying cry for abolitionists.  Although the majority even of the abolitionists did not believe that blacks were human, the martyrdom of John Brown was to galvanize them; and in truth, the violence proved to be inevitable, as the most terrible war in American history was a mere two years away.  So, is he a hero?  or is he a villain?

I ask this because of a modern situation which is in many ways similar to that of the age of John Brown.  In the modern age, there is a group which some say are human and others say are not.  Those that say these are not human have control of the legal climate, so that the law agrees that these victims of society are not protected.  Those who would have us regard these as human and afford them some protection under law see this as a great moral issue in which the government has taken the wrong side.  Once again, as we had with Dred Scot, we have a controversial Supreme Court decision, a landmark case which confirms the position of the state that these oppressed are not human and have no rights.  And once again, those whose voices have been raised in defense of the oppressed have become frustrated with the lack of progress in the matter, and some have turned to violence.  But the stakes are higher this time.  The oppressed group is not enslaved.  They are being systematically executed, routinely and daily, in numbers which have become astronomical.  And the massacre of these innocents is being sugar coated with antiseptic language and slogans of the rights of the oppressors themselves.  The word which is used for what many think should be murder is abortion.

You may think that only a minority of kooks believe that abortion is murder.  You would be mistaken.  Of course, if "murder" is taken in its legal sense--an unlawful killing--abortion is not murder.  Yet the word "murder" also has a moral sense.  Surveys do indicate that the majority of Americans believe that the government should not create laws impinging upon a woman's right to have an abortion, and the abortion supporters cite this to indicate that Americans do not believe it wrong to kill an unborn baby.  But surveys also indicate that the majority of us believe abortion is wrong, that it is morally murder.  It's just that a large segment of those who believe this are also extremely conservative about government, and believe that government makes too many laws, regulates too many things, and should be stopped from interfering in our lives.  They have also been convinced that since the question of whether abortion should be murder in a legal sense is so hotly debated, that their moral opinion should not be enforced on others.  But at a certain level, law is about the moral opinion of the majority being enforced on the whole.  For most of us, the social contract arguments for laws against murder, rape, theft, and other crimes are only part of the picture.  We have a belief that things which are morally wrong in a major and harmful way should also be illegal--not that the morality of individuals should be regulated in detail, but that certain major points of morality should be defended by governments and law enforcers.  Among these are the simple principle that a human life should not be ended by another human without just cause.  And the inconvenience of carrying a child to term is not just cause.

But I am not here arguing that abortion should be illegal.  What I am observing is that abortion is like slavery, a decision that a certain group of apparent humans are not human at all, and therefore not entitled to the rights of humans.  In this case, that deprivation of rights is not liberty nor the pursuit of happiness, but life itself.  I am observing that those who oppose this deprivation of rights, this characterization of the unborn as inhuman, are displaying the early signs of violence.  Of course, the oppressors have even less fear of the oppressed rising up and attacking them than the slaveholders of old did.  But it may be that one of those we prosecute today will be the John Brown of the next generation.

Or it may be that the rights of humans are disappearing from the world, one segment at a time.  If so, do not be surprised when you are in whatever group is declared not human.

See also Professor Robert Lipkin, the Concert Violinist, and Abortion, and articles with the Abortion tag in the mark Joseph "young" web log.
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