I recently read “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” by David S. Reynolds. This cultural biography is primarily a book of history which examines Brown’s actions in the context of his times, but it also raises questions of conscience vs. law, the individual vs. government, and violence vs. nonviolence.
Brown’s actions included leading a group in the murder of five pro-slavery Kansans who had threatened anti-slavery settlers, and a raid on the federal armory at
Even Southerners who hated his ideas and actions came to admire Brown’s integrity while he awaited trial and execution. Thoreau, whose essay on civil disobedience was an inspiration of Gandhi’s nonviolence campaign, was an ardent supporter of Brown’s violence in light of the government’s endorsement of slavery. Emerson, in a speech entitled “Courage,” compared Brown to Christ, saying that Brown’s hanging would “make the gallows glorious like the cross.”
I come from a part of the country with a long tradition of individuals breaking laws they considered unjust and I’m proud of it: not only the Transcendentalists, but the Boston Tea Party and ensuing American Revolution, and the Underground Railroad. Obeying an unjust law or government is not the highest good.
The past two presidential elections have had highly questionable results (or Kennedy-Nixon in 1960—I’m not playing the political game) and yet we shrug our shoulders and watch our TV shows. As long as we have new stuff to buy, it’s OK. We might even raise our voices a little as long as it doesn’t threaten our middle-class lifestyles.
People around the world shake their heads at our acceptance of anything. But truthfully, how to resist? How would Brown succeed today in his cross-country fundraising from some of the most famous men of his time? What would be his chances with a plan that involved hiding in the mountains in a time of spy satellites and heat sensors?
More than Brown’s actions, it was his words and demeanor, widely reported in the press while he was in prison, which made his cause famous. That wouldn’t happen under today’s conditions of indefinite incarceration without trial for suspected terrorists. Years before the Patriot Act, the government effectively eliminated the opportunity for serious discussion about our society’s values by not allowing the Unabomber to stage a defense based on his political views. Since I largely agreed with him except for the killing people part, I had hoped his trial would provide a forum for a much needed discussion.
Folks who believe violence is not sometimes necessary to stop violence are living in a wishful fantasy land. I do wish they could talk people out of war and murder, just as I wish I could talk them out of eating that tortured dead animal for dinner.
I’m not trying to urge anyone to violence, but are signs and fiery speeches an appropriate opposition to bombs? If someone truly believes that over a million babies are being killed every year in this country by abortion, is writing a letter of protest enough? And how do I live with myself in a society which sees nothing wrong with killing over 10,000,000,000 (that’s ten billion) animals a year for food, amusement, fashion, and research? Does not committing violence make one a better person than allowing it to happen?
As Reynolds wrote, “