His Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown

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.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. Gary Corseri said on May 26th, 2009 at 7:27am #

    I’m glad to see someone taking up the cause of John Brown, reminding us all of what a pivotal figure he has been in American and world history.

    A few years ago, I startled some friends by saying Lincoln got the credit for what John Brown did. Lincoln’s mission was to save the Union and stop the expansion of the plantation system into the new territories. The war was about the new territories (conquered from Mexico), integrating the riches of California into the expanded union, isolating the agrarian aristocracy in the South, expanding the exploitive wage -slave system of the North, funding the railroads for expansion into “Indian” territory, etc. Freeing the slaves was a passionate issue for the abolitionists, those moved by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” etc., but for a hard-nosed politician like Lincoln not one of the major concerns.

    The situation was very different for John Brown. He’d earned his stripes in “Bleeding Kansas” (the pre-Civil War!) in 1856, retaliating against the pro-slaver massacres with a five-man massacre of his own. By 1859, his and the nation’s dye was cast; he’d lose sons and comrades at Harper’s Ferry, get wounded, and pay for his rebellion with a badly stretched neck.

    Speaing of hanging–during the Civil War, Lincoln sanctioned the public hanging of 38 Sioux “Indians” for their role in rebelling against Union authority. It was the greatest mass execution in US history–and it remains a permanent stain on this nation’s silly (Winthrop/Regan/Memorial Day) claims to being a “shining city on a hill”–as, of course, so many other incidents, including the War itself remain so. Lincoln met with Frederick Douglas and others to try to fashion a plan for massive re-settlement of freed slaves in Liberia and other parts of Africa and the Caribbean. (Douglas opposed the idea.) When one investigates, one finds the great “rail-splitter’s” reputation tarnished. (As a candidate he also made much of his participation in the brief “Black Hawk War”–another instance of US land-grabbing imperialism against the native population.) Thoreau and Emerson, the sharpest literary and social critics of their time defended and praised John Brown’s actions. Thoreau was especially bitter about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850–surely one of the chief symbols of Northern politicians’ hypocrisy–their willingness to “compromise” with the plantocracy. Thoreau said that he liked to stand at the end of the Cape Cod peninsula so he could put all of the American nation behind him. (He’d probably put it more colorfully today.)

    In this Age of Hype we hear much from the sanctioned official historians (those who ride the air waves at PBS, NPR, etc.) about the greatness of Lincoln, his wisdom, his courage, etc. Our 44th president is happy to ride the long coat-tails of our 16th. But “harsh truths” (as Abolitionish William Lloyd Garrison put it) must be spoken if we are ever to get past the myths that govern our lives and cause so much waste and destruction. Thanks to Ron Jacobs for reflecting on these vital issues again.