Why John Brown? Why Now?

Dan Beltaigne

150 years after the U.S. Civil War, how does John Brown’s stand at Harpers Ferry  look after the rise of identity politics, multiculturalism and cultural relativism in an  increasingly globalized world? — Editors

Comprehending does not consist, as Hegel imagines, in recognizing the features of the logical concept everywhere, but in grasping the specific logic of the specific subject.

–Karl Marx1

Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?

–W.E.B. Du Bois2

The first half of this decade represents the sesquicentennial of that still unfinished revolution, the American Civil War. There have already been a number of academic conferences and new books out on the subject.3 Of special note are the books on John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry (three new biographies have come out on Brown in the last seven years).4  So, why does John Brown continue to haunt? Well, to begin with, all history is contemporary. Out of necessity, we, the living, can only look at history through the eyes of today. And for the living, history cannot be just the past or even the present, but must also be the future as well; for it is we, the living, who must have meaning in our lives—not the dead.

Brown was unique among Abolitionists for several reasons. For one, while he was not the first or the only Abolitionist to advocate the use of violence as the means to end slavery, he was the first to use it before the Civil War. For another, John Brown and his family crossed that color line that was unheard of in his day, and unlike many Abolitionists of his day, John Brown was not condescending to African-Americans. African-Americans, who were guests of the Brown household, were treated as equals…with respect. The women were addressed as “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Ma’am;” the men as “Mr.” or “Sir.” And as guests in the Brown household, they were received “expectantly, familiarly, naturally, as if the occasion of a black dinner companion and lodger were a matter of great interest to everyone in the family but of no particular novelty or social awkwardness to anyone.”

“Virtually alone among nineteenth century white Americans, John Brown managed to not only free himself of the pervasive and supposedly scientifically respectable  white supremacism of his time but also to develop personal relationships with black people that were sustained, intimate, trusting, and egalitarian. In these relations, he was joined by every member of his family—from his wife, Mary, to the children of both his marriages, and even to his son—and daughter-in-law. No white family before the Civil War ever lived in such communion and solidarity with African-Americans—at work, at worship, at meals, at war—as did the Browns. None would pay a higher price or pay it more willingly for their commitment to black people’s freedom.”5

John Brown was unique among Abolitionists, not only with respect to his personal dealings, but also with respect to the political positions he took on the anti-slavery issue.  Abolitionists, we must remember, were not of one mind. Many Abolitionists, who, at the same time wanted to free the slaves also wanted return those same, but now former slaves, back to Africa, because, according to these Abolitionists, free former slaves, not being equal as human beings, could not live among free whites. Other Abolitionists called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves or, barring that, the North secedes from the Union. Almost all Abolitionists based their arguments against slavery on moral grounds. Many advocated moral argumentation and persuasion as the sole means to end slavery. Like most Abolitionists, John Brown fought slavery on moral grounds.

Unlike almost all other Abolitionists, John Brown, in addition to fighting slavery on moral grounds, fought slavery on the grounds that slavery truncated the slave’s ability to become psychologically and spiritually a full human being. Unlike almost all other Abolitionists, John Brown not only advocated political equality between black and white Americans, but social and economic equality, as well. Unlike many Abolitionists, John Brown was completely against any separation between the North and South, and advocated for the immediate and complete abolition of slavery in all the states and territories—and without compensation to the slave owners. Also unlike most other Abolitionists, John Brown was not primarily interested in appealing to white Americans and their indignation to slavery. Rather, Brown was almost exclusively interested in appealing to African-Americans and their need to be free. In time, Brown took an increasingly militant position as to the means by which slavery should be ended.

To Brown, white Americans of the northern free states had learned to compromise too much and too long on the issue of slavery and thereby lost the moral fortitude to be able to initiate any move to abolish slavery. For Brown, therefore, what was needed to reset the nation’s moral compass right was to create some galvanizing shock. It is this that John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was to become.

Now, 150 years after the Civil War in this increasingly globalized world where there has been a rise of identity politics, multiculturalism and cultural relativism, why does this character, John Brown, still confront us? While the politics of cultural relativism has led, in part, to a greater understanding and tolerance among all peoples throughout the world, it has also, in part, led to a belief that all political, social and economic practices have equal merit, and to that extent renders meaningless such dimensions of human endeavor as justice, freedom and solidarity. Although there is no absolute and automatic connection between cultural relativism and the mistaken and cynical conclusion that “there are as many truths and moralities as there are identity groups, and that human beings from different groups are capable of no deep and broad consensus about what they obligated to believe or to do;” John Brown’s Biblical injunction: “To remember them that are in bonds as bound with them,” is still to many academic historians, many of whom are predisposed  to the notion that the engines of history are to found in the complex intersections of political, economic and social conditions, terribly and intolerably inconvenient. Only for those whose embrace of democratic principles are incomplete is John Brown a historical aberrancy, a “madman” or an “incompetent revolutionary.” Truth and freedom were for John Brown not just ideas, abstractions, but were objective and to be defended and fought for. For many academic historians the Battle of Bunker Hill—although a defeat—is the birthplace of Liberty. To this day many still consider the salvo opened by the belligerents to freedom—the Confederates—at Fort Sumter to be the beginning of the Civil War—the war that ended slavery. But, as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, Karl Marx wrote that the “fresh rising of slaves in Missouri…started by the death of John Brown… (to be)…the biggest thing…happening in the world today.”6

If history is not to be seen as mere chronicling of human events framed into some preconceived framework or purpose, then history must be seen for what it is: the unfolding of human dimensions heretofore suppressed. If we are to see John Brown for who he was, it will not serve us to try to fit him into some sort of model or anti-model; separating him from the historical context to which he is organically connected. This, of course, does not or should not preclude us from finding the meaning of the events surrounding the life of John Brown. And do that we must if we are not to be mere objects of history, but its very subject, as well.

[This essay is a revision of an oral presentation given on October 7, 2011 at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.]



  1. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 91).
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown (Philadelphia, George W. Jacobs & Co., 1909), 374.
  3. Edward L. Ayers and Carolyn R. Martin, eds., America on the Eve of the Civil War (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2010). This book is the product of such a conference; one that was sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. There is in this book a chapter—chapter 3, “Making Sense of John Brown’s Raid.” With one of the editors of this book, Edward L. Ayers, moderating, this chapter consists of a question and answer and dialogue format between the following four historians: David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, and Clarence Walker.
  4. David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). Evan Carton, Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (New York, Free Press, 2006). Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (New York, Henry Holt & Co., 2011). Out of these three books I found Evan Carton’s the most sensitive to the notion that John Brown could only be what he was to become because of the movement for freedom of African-Americans, slave and free.
  5. Evan Carton, Patriotic Treason, 343.
  6. Karl Marx, Letter to Engels, January 11, 1860.


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1 Comment

  1. Marjorie Murphy

    Thank you for pulling together all of these recent readings on John Brown. We can sympathize with the moral struggle the family faced on the question of violence and the difficulty of reconciling that with their own moral compass. Something that revolutionaries rarely have a moment to reflect upon, but yet contains the truth of the struggle itself.