Once a month I ride the Capitol Limited between Washington and Cumberland 140 miles to the west at the foot of the Allegheny mountains as a volunteer lecturer. The railroad follows the sinuous Potomac river and the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal that run beside it. My job is to talk to passengers about the history of what they are seeing from the observation car.
Half way along the route we come to Harper’s Ferry where the Potomac is joined from the south by the Shenandoah and passes through the Blue Ridge. The view, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783, is “one of the most stupendous in nature”. The town itself, in its heydey, was less picturesque. “An abominable little village,” an English tourist called it in 1836. “Here is the Government Manufactory of Firearms; and the smell of coal smoke and the clanking of hammers…prevent one’s enjoyment from being unmixed.”
As we approach Harper’s Ferry, I generally ask my audience what, if anything, the name John Brown means to them. I am referring to the radical abolitionist who, in October 1859, tried to seize the armoury and ignite a slave uprising that would blaze down the Shenandoah valley and into the deep South. Most of Brown’s 19-man raiding party were killed. Brown himself was captured, hastily tried and hanged that December.
A century and a half on, it is still best to have a sense of who you’re talking to when discussing Brown or the civil war between the slaveholding South and the free North it helped trigger. Donald Trump’s dog whistles have given a sense of license to diehard Confederate flag-flyers and other fans of the Lost Cause.
“John Brown’s effort was peculiar,” said Abraham Lincoln in early 1860, the year he would be elected president. “It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves in which slaves themselves refused to participate.” He saw Brown as “an enthusiast” who “broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution.”
That was the carefully measured judgement of a statesman hoping save a deeply divided nation from fracture. It has lived on as the safe view up to the present day. When in doubt, it’s what I can confidently get away with on the train, placing Brown somewhere on the fruitcake spectrum between Don Quixote and Tad Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
But it’s also a distortion.
Yes, Brown committed acts of what many would classify as terrorism. As supporters of slavery fought with anti-slavery “free soilers” in the 1850’s for control of what would become Kansas, he and his men rousted two families out of their beds at the dead of night and slaughtered five of their menfolk with broadswords. The victims had all been involved in murderous attacks on free soilers. Brown openly intended his vengeance to terrorise.
And yes, you might even see parallels between Brown’s crusade and jihadism. Like the jihadis Graeme Wood interviewed for his masterful book, “The Way of Strangers — Encounters with the Islamic State”, Brown took his marching orders from an uncompromising reading of scripture. But is extremism in the name of God always wrong? As Evan Carton writes in “Patriotic Treason — John Brown and the Soul of America”, the best recent biography:
“The Christianity that is invoked in our national halls of power has nothing in common with the teachings that Brown understood to be at the heart of the faith: Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. Do unto others that others should do unto you. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and towering abolitionist orator of whom Trump recently said “(he’s) done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice”, counselled his friend Brown against the Harper’s Ferry raid. He had to leave the country for a spell after it failed. But his admiration never waned.
“Like the great and good of all ages, the men whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of reform,” he would later say, “this our noblest American hero must wait the polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more manifest, his worth more generally acknowledged.”
There are signs, Trumpism notwithstanding, that the polishing wheels are getting closer. Most obvious is the courageous decision by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, to take down the city’s statues of Robert E Lee and two other Confederate generals. “These statues”, he said in a speech that has caused some to see him as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.” And which Brown stood all but alone against.