On the New York side of Lake Champlain sits the little town of North Elba. Outside of the town is the homestead of American anti-racist revolutionary John Brown. When I lived in Vermont, I made a trip across the lake one May Day to commemorate the man whose actions against slavery did more than all the words written to force the US to end that diabolical practice. The homestead is a National Historic Landmark now, yet in his heyday Brown was reviled by many of his countrymen, north and south. He was admired and respected by many others. For those few that might be unaware, John Brown’s raid on the Federal Armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia was the spark that lit the raging inferno that became the United States Civil War. If the Civil War is the defining moment in the history of the United States and the historical moment that virtually every major domestic political moment since then hearkens back to, then the Harper’s Ferry raid is that history’s moment of apocalyptic creation. The raid itself failed due to miscommunication and misplaced hopes, but its place in history stands with the battles at Lexington and Concord that began the American colonists’ war for independence from England.
Naturally, volumes have been written about John Brown, his life, dreams, anti-slavery escapades and the culmination of it all–the raid on Harper’s Ferry, his trial and execution for treason. From WEB DuBois’ biography to the fictionalized tome titled Cloudsplitter by US author Russel Banks, the number of words written about Brown rival those written about the man that history knighted to carry the war against slavery to its ultimate end, Abraham Lincoln. One of the best of these works is the recently republished The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry by Truman Nelson. First published in 1973, when elements in the New Left had taken on Brown’s mantle in their attempt to end US imperialism and racism by setting off bombs in buildings and black liberation fighters were being hunted down by the federal government and its allied forces, Nelson’s work focuses solely on the raid in Harper’s Ferry and its aftermath.
It is a riveting story told in a captivating narrative that takes the reader into that small town in the West Virginia mountains. The physical details are here–the planning, recruiting, purchase and smuggling of arms, and the training. So is a discussion of the political philosophy behind Brown’s endeavor. It is a simple philosophy and one still worth striving for–a nation without slavery and with equal opportunity and choice for all. The Old Man describes a nation splitting apart. Anti-slavery legislators attacked in Congress by men whose very lives are bound to the practice of the bondage of other humans. Men who would never consider breaking a law tired of waiting for the political system to end slavery deciding to fund Brown’s insurrection. The Christian churches split between those who would use the Bible to justify slavery and those whose interpretation forces them to conclude that enslaving other humans is the work of Satan. Financial interests looking after their own interests who care little about the morals of slavery but only about the money that can be made by supporting it or ridding the nation of it.
Through it all, John Brown’s terrible swift sword remained true. He saw slavery as the abomination it was and understood the northern capitalists who did not align themselves with the abolitionists to be the opportunists they were. His vision of a post-slavery United States did not see the black man or woman as a lesser being but as a genuine equal. This was something that was even beyond the thought process of many abolitionists. Yet, it mattered not to Brown. Some called this madness, yet it was merely the single mindedness of a man with a just mission. Compromise rarely extended to Brown’s approach and never to his principles. Nelson tells us that he was not unreasonable, just certain of his reason for being on earth.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry was to be the first salvo in the fight to free the slaves. Indeed, in a harbinger of the coming War Between the States, it was future Confederate General Robert E. Lee whose unit was sent to quell the Harper’s Ferry insurrection. Despite the arrest of Brown and most of his co-conspirators and their hanging, that raid served its purpose. The foul institution of slavery was wiped from the United States. We continue to deal with its legacy. As the recent refusal by a federal appeals court in Georgia to commute Troy Davis’ death sentence and the ongoing mockery of justice known as the trial of the San Francisco 8 continues in California make clear, the bonds of slavery have been removed, but the forces that represent the slavers’ legacy have not disappeared. As for the meaning of John Brown’s armed attempt to free slaves in Harper’s Ferry, it continues to prove its meaning to the oppressed in the United States.