Monday, December 20, 2010

John Brown's Raid

"I just feel like marching, always, when that tune is played." 
-President Abraham Lincoln
John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid was a watershed moment in defining the limitations of inalienable rights after the American Revolution. While the cultural, religious, and economic differences heighten tensions in the relationships between the North and South, Brown's raid becomes an exemplary embodiment of the ideological and regional struggle. Brown's martyrdom represents the realization of the hopes of the North and the fears of South. Brown's paradoxical “patriotic treason” highlights a cognitive dissonance between the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Brown's raid highlights the ideological inconsistency in both regions' irrational response of violence, which heightens the distrust that brings about the American Civil War.
"When I hear music, I fear no danger.
I am invulnerable. I see no foe.
I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest."
-Henry David Thoreau
While Northerners had condemned slavery, declaring it a threat to Union and a sin against humanity, John Brown's armed insurrection declared black liberation as an inalienable right. Brown argued he was compelled by the law of God to eliminate the sin of slavery. While many abolitionists saw slavery's extinction as necessary, they could not envision the means to achieve this goal without infringing upon state sovereignty protected by the Constitution.
"I do not think this army could survive without music."
-General Robert E. Lee
John Brown's vision of a utopian society provides a clear foil to Northern ambivalence towards the question of slavery. His constitution reflects his individual interpretation of the role government ought to play in society. His Provisional Constitution for the state of Virginia ambitiously asserts the priority of individual and human rights over state sovereignty. Brown asserts the ability to confiscate property from slaveholders and enforce religious doctrines. He envisioned an ideal society where all property is held common between those he deems qualified for membership (68).
"I know only two tunes. 
One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn't." 
-General Ulysses S. Grant
In the pursuit of these religious and moral ideals, John Brown was adamant about his right to self defense in response to the violent forces that maintain slavery. He argued that he did not wish to overthrow the United States government violently but was asserting his right to bear arms in order to protect the inalienable rights of the slaves he sought to free. Brown objected to the argument that the struggle against slavery was a struggle against the United States. He claims he sought the nation's salvation, not its destruction. Slaveholders were traitors, not freedom fighters. Brown argues only through armed resistance will “the desired end may be effectually secured by the means proposed; namely, the enjoyment of our inalienable rights”(22).
"Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees..." 
-General Stonewall Jackson
The raid revealed divisions within the North over these violent means to eliminate slavery in the South. The Democratic New Hampshire Patriot argued that the raid “shall serve to recall the public mind from prejudice and excitement to a clear and honest consideration of the dangerous tendencies of pernicious doctrines.” The paper questioned whether the violence at Harper's Ferry was a “fair and natural consequence” of black republicans' rhetoric in response to the events in Kansas. They attacked William Seward's assertion that the economies of the North and South were incompatible because they were dictated by a “doctrine of 'irrepressible conflict'” as the most troubling “sum and substance of their political faith” (107). John Brown's massive business failures and family fatalities could arguably be attributed to the effect slavery had on free labor. Seward's Republican nomination opponent, Abraham Lincoln, later argued that the effects slavery had in stoking problems in interstate commerce and domestic tranquility that required the use of force, fulfilling the promise of the Declaration without subverting the Constitution.
"To be interested in the public good we must be disinterested, that is, not interested in goods in which our personal selves are wrapped up."  
- General George Meade
The Albany, New York, Evening Journal article “From the Philadelphia Press, argues that “whatever sympathy the fate of John Brown awakens, will be occasioned by his bearing through an ordeal so trying, rather than any complicity of feeling in his lawless enterprise” (109). While the majority of the North is unwilling to endorse Brown's methods, Henry David Thoreau argues Brown's “commitment to justice and equality” forced him to use civil disobedience to act upon his own conscience (111). He criticizes newspaper editors that characterize Brown as “insane” or acting out of “revenge” against the South. Thoreau pleas not for Brown's life but rather his “immortal soul,” arguing that the North will not have their revenge until slavery is no more.

Arguing against the insanity defense, Brown cites the Golden Rule as justification for his actions at trial. He cites the Bible stating “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them,” even if he must forfeit his life to “mingle my blood...of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicket, cruel, and unjust enactments (87). Brown's prophecies affirmed the South's greatest fear: bloody conflict.

Southern fears of revenge weighed heavily on Governor Henry Wise's decision to approve the Virginia jury's conviction Brown of treason, murder and inciting a slave insurrection against Virginia, sentencing Brown to death. Having earned respect for Brown's eloquent defense, he was left with the decision of either declaring Brown insane and commuting Brown's sentence or going forward with Brown's execution, making him a martyr.
"I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.  
War is hell."
-General William Tecumseh Sherman 
Arguments about state sovereignty rang hollow to Northerners who watched slave owners willingly invade free states, calling on the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. The federal government's relinquishing of power in the Brown trial, despite the fact that the raid was on a federal armory and was enforced by the Marines, undermined states rights arguments from the South. The Mason Report investigating the suppliers of money, guns, and ammunition attempted to use federal powers to implicate Republicans.
"I have always thought 'Dixie' one of the best tunes I have ever heard. That tune is now federal property and it is good to show the rebels that with us in power, they will be free to hear it again."
-President Abraham Lincoln
The Petersburg (Virginia) Express called the raid “The Harper's Ferry Conspiracy” and implicated Republicans with sowing seeds of rebellion against the South through their thefts of slave property. Security and Southern state sovereignty became a call to arms in prevention of an abolitionist invasion (108). These pressures force a conviction for Wise because despite “general appeal of sympathizers with the crimes” he could not pardon Brown's acts “without exciting bad men to action of rescue or revenge”(129).
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau condemned popular sovereignty as the judgment of sanity. 
He asked, 
“How then can they print truth? If we do not say pleasant things, they argue, nobody will attend to us. And so they do like some traveling auctioneers, who sing an obscene song in order to draw a crowd around them”(116). 
Like music, in the triad of inalienable rights—life, liberty, and property—we can determine the quality of relationships as major or minor according to what we consider “home” but everyone only needs to hear that one inconsistent note for Americans to feel the dissonance.

"The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or habitual fondness is in some degree a slave..."

-President George Washington, Farewell Address

Works Cited
John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry: A Brief History with Documents- Jonathan Earle

No comments:

Post a Comment