The anniversary of the attack on Harper’s Ferry: October 16
What can today’s fighters learn from John Brown?
BY CHRIS MAHIN
“I think that for once the Sharpe’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.”
Those defiant words were spoken by the writer Henry David Thoreau in 1859, just days after John Brown and a small band of abolitionists attacked the town of Harper’s Ferry.
Because October marks the anniversary of that milestone in the struggle against slavery, it is important that we remember what took place there and examine what lessons it contains for today.
On the night of October 16, 1859, 22 armed men attempted to take control of the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (It was in a region that would become the U.S. state of West Virginia in 1863.) Seventeen were white; five were free African Americans. All were deeply committed opponents of slavery. Their plan was to seize the federal arsenal in the town — which contained more than 100,000 firearms — and use the weapons to spark a slave rebellion. Due to a number of tactical mistakes made by the raiders, their plan failed. The group was quickly surrounded by Virginia militia forces and a contingent of U.S. Marines. Four townspeople and a marine died in the fighting. Ten of the raiders (including two of Brown’s sons) were also killed. After 36 hours, John Brown and several of his comrades were captured.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry was the culmination of decades of struggle against slavery. For almost 30 years, decent people in the North had denounced slavery and appealed to the South to end the practice. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. Opponents of slavery were physically assaulted and even murdered. As the defenders of slavery became more and more arrogant and violent, the movement against slavery began to polarize. Out of the bitter, armed conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas in the 1850s emerged John Brown, a leader who advocated physical resistance to slavery. Brown ultimately came to believe that abolitionists should “take the war to Africa” — that is, arm the slaves.
Brown’s view was a minority position. When news of the violence committed by his band at Harper’s Ferry first reached the North, the raid was condemned even by opponents of slavery. But when the state of Virginia put Brown on trial just one week after the raid — before his wounds had healed or his volunteer attorneys had arrived from Boston — public opinion in the North began to change. As his trial proceeded, even Brown’s enemies had to acknowledge the great dignity, courage, and sincere religious conviction that the anti-slavery fighter displayed in court.
On October 30, 1859, a Virginia jury found Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection. On November 2, Brown defended his conduct, saying that his actions had been in defense of God’s “despised poor,” and were “not wrong, but right.” Then he defiantly told the court: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country … I submit; so let it be done!” Then Judge Richard Parker sentenced him to be hanged.
Public meetings were called all over the North to denounce the sentence. In Boston, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson told a cheering crowd that Brown was “this new saint” whose hanging “would make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”
On December 2, 1859, Brown rode to his execution ground in a wagon, seated on his own
coffin, commenting on the beauty of the countryside. Fifteen hundred soldiers were present to guard the field where Virginia executed this old man, a farmer who faced death with courage and serenity. Church bells rang out throughout the North.
While the attack on Harper’s Ferry was a defeat in the military sense, it achieved its political goal of helping to end slavery. The North’s sympathy for John Brown outraged the defenders of slavery and helped push the South to secede, making the Civil War inevitable.
Today, there is much we can learn from the boldness of those who raided Harper’s Ferry. Those 22 men lived at a time when society was in crisis; so do we. They had a vision: Mobilize the “despised poor.” Obtain weapons and place them in the hands of the victims of a terribly unjust economic system. Have faith in the militancy of the poorest section of society, for when it moves, the very best elements of all of progressive humanity will then be free to move too. Thoreau captured the spirit of the Harper’s Ferry raid with his comment that finally the weapons were to be in the hands of those who could use them.
Today, we live in a world where weapons need to be placed in the hands of the “despised poor” once again. But here we should remember another of Thoreau’s comments about John Brown. Thoreau observed that the Virginia authorities did not gain much when they took Brown’s rifle away from him when they captured him at Harper’s Ferry. After all, Thoreau pointed out, Brown still retained “his faculty of speech, a Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range.” Today, there is an arsenal which needs to be seized by revolutionaries — the arsenal of political science. There is a weapon inside that arsenal that revolutionaries need to grab and distribute to anyone willing to receive it — the weapon of political clarity.
Today, we honor John Brown and his comrades-in-arms best when we use our “Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range” — our “faculty of speech” — to speak and write and agitate against a system where a tiny handful of millionaires rules society and, every day, creates more of the poor that John Brown strove to defend. If we do that, history will truly be able to say that while John Brown’s body is buried in his family plot in North Elba, New York, his soul really does go marching on.
This article originated in the People’s Tribune,Vol. 26 No. 10 /October, 1999; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, http://www.peoplestribune.org.