October 17, 2008

John Brown

I wouldn't be able to add much to this brief and well-written remembrance of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. I still see Brown as an ambiguous figure -- an idealist who saw a need to take on a great evil in his homeland, but one whose sense of right and wrong warped him into an act of violent treason. Brown was executed before the beginning of the civil war which he helped incite. He would obviously have welcomed it, though he surely knew its cost would be high.

On the eve of the election of a black man to the Presidency, one wonders what Brown would have thought of that. Indeed, one wonders what President Lincoln would have thought of it. For people of that age, abolition was one thing, actual equality another.

Even today, there are still people with apprehensions about this. Smart people I work with have expressed fears that electing Obama will only get him assassinated. Seems to me, though, that President Obama will be at no significantly greater risk of that than President Bush has been before him, and President Clinton before him. America has always had its share of John Browns, of people whose sense of right and wrong impels them to radical acts, sometimes slipping over the threshold to violence.

But I should hope that our democracy has demonstrated itself healthy enough to accomplish significant political change without the need of violence. Those who do not like President Obama either personally or for the policies he pursues should see that our system of self-government is flexible enough to produce results palatable to them, too, if they can rally sufficient numbers of Americans to their cause by the moral force of their arguments.

History has vindicated John Brown's cause and indeed it demonstrated that not only acts of violence but a four-year long war, easily the most destructive and bloody period in our nation's history, was necessary to free slaves. His ambiguity makes him a difficult subject for study and even contemplation. Brown was quite obviously a traitor and a domestic terrorist. But he also was, in some ways, a hero, for his cause was right and just.

Let there be no more John Browns.

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