John Brown: One Terrorist Who Deserved Hanging

This is the 150th anniversary of the hanging of John Brown. When he attacked Harper’s Ferry with a handful of followers, the butcher of Kansas helped sow the seeds of the Civil War. Few things would have made Brown happier than the thought of hundreds of thousands of people dying for his own Scorched Earth method of moral salvation.

The New York Times op-ed page has a piece today touting Brown as an American hero. It seeks to vindicate him:

He was held in high esteem by many great men of his day. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution.

The fact that Emerson and Thoreau turned into cheerleaders for John Brown was among the worst failings for each of them. Both Emerson and Thoreau started out denouncing politics as a snare and a fraud. And both fell for Brown and his vision of progress via slaughtering innocent people.

Brown’s attempt to create a bloody uprising in Virginia helped close the final door to compromise between the North and the South. His name should be as odious today as those of other people whose violence sparked mass killing. +++

Update 12/03: There have been some excellent revisionist histories in the last 20 years on how the Civil War could have been averted and how slavery would have been phased out without a national bloodbath. While some of the deep South states saw slavery as their essence, upper South states like Virginia were not so mindlessly attached to the odious institution.

Those who believe that a war was necessary to end slavery often fail to realize that much of the dire plight of freed slaves was the result of northern armies relying on Scorched Earth tactics in the final year of the war. When almost everything has been destroyed, it is difficult for anyone (except Carpetbaggers) to survive.

UPDATE #2: I also posted this comment on the website here where it is evoking lots of denunciations and also some controversy.


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18 Responses to John Brown: One Terrorist Who Deserved Hanging

  1. Peter Smith December 3, 2009 at 2:34 am #

    yes, because it was one man that caused the civil war. it had nothing to do with the terrorism that was day-to-day slavery — that was OK by Jim Bovard’s standards. and the raid of the free state that preceded John Brown’s raid/massacre, which itself included at least one brutal beating, was totally justified and could not have had anything to do with why Brown and his peeps did work. it’s all easy-peasy from over here — no whippings means life is pretty easy — clickity-clacking away on a keyboard somewhere.

    violence always has to be justified. that includes the violence of slavery, and the free state beat-down that compelled Brown to act. i would never advocate non-violence in the face of violence unless i myself was willing to maintain that stance.

  2. Black Bloke December 4, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    I agree with Peter Smith. Moreover, Spooner, Emerson, Thoreau, Hugo, Douglass, Garrison, and Gerrit Smith, agree with Peter Smith and I.

  3. Jim December 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    I was not advocating non-violence. Brown’s action is justifiable only if war was the only possible means of freeing the slaves.

    If there was some other way to free the slaves, then a Scorched Earth war would almost certainly be the worst solution.

    The history of almost every place else in the world in the 19th century shows that slavery and serfdom could be phased out without horrendous bloodbaths.

  4. americaintifada December 5, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    John Brown’s body lies a mouldrin’ in the grave, his truth is marchin’ on. The problem here is with the selective and invisible histories that allow the treacherous to be considered heroes. Perhaps we should lionize J.W. Booth as well. These heroes should be pardoned when the racist slave owner and master planner of the Seminole genocide Old Hickory’s picture is removed from the 20 dollar bill.

    • Jake May 13, 2013 at 1:19 am #

      If J.W. Booth corrected The Dictator as late as one month earlier things could been significantly different. It was not until after the defeat of The Army of North Virginia that any of the Secret Service or any other spies could set foot in Virginia without immediate arrest and likely hanging. All of the land pirates involved in the ‘man hunt’ of The Saint would have been captured as spies.

      Abraham did not free any slaves. None of them in territory controlled by The Union were not freed until after the war was declared over.

      So, would you opt to murder your master so that you may serve John Brown as your (benevolent) dictator?

  5. W. M. December 5, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    What are the “excellent revisionist histories” that deal with the avoidability of the Civil War that you allude to? Please send a reply to my email address. Thanks.

    By the way, isn’t “carpetbaggers” a term of opprobrium which applies to all sorts of former Northerners, including people who came to the South to further racial equality?

  6. Jim December 5, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    Jeffrey Hummel has done excellent stuff on this – he is the author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago: Open Court, 1996).

    Tom DiLorenzo’s books on Abraham Lincoln also offer perspectives and facts rarely encountered among contemporary Lincoln scholars.

  7. Chris Baker December 6, 2009 at 12:59 am #

    Let’s keep in mind that government also terrorized peaceful people who aided runaway slaves. The Northern states should have nullified the fugitive slave laws. I read one story that Massachusetts actually freed a slave in colonial times because he had been brought to Massachusetts. The Constitution enshrined, established, and perpetuated the institution of slavery. Garrison was right to burn it.

    • Jake May 13, 2013 at 1:26 am #

      The government also terrorized people that stole horses and committed other property crimes.

  8. CBrinton December 6, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Bovard states that “here have been some excellent revisionist histories in the last 20 years on how the Civil War could have been averted and how slavery would have been phased out without a national bloodbath.”

    Might he name them? All I have come across are works by people like Jeffrey Hummel and Thomas Dilorenzo, who simply assert that slavery would soon have ended peacefully in an independent CSA, but who come nowhere near proving it.

    It is only by making some extremely bizarre assumptions (bizarre to liberarians, that is) that one can conclude slavery would be more precarious in an independent CSA than it was in the antebellum USA.

  9. Ryan December 6, 2009 at 11:15 pm #

    “Perhaps we should lionize J.W. Booth as well.”

    why not? I do. Too bad he couldn’t have done it four years earlier.

    I hold Lincoln responsible for the death of a lot of people on both sides as well as being responsible to the needless destruction of property. All of this plus making the 9th and 10th amendments dead letters are good for starters.

  10. Thomas Fleming December 7, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    I never thought I would ever agree with James Bovard, but he is absolutely right on this one. John Brown was a cold-blooded murderer and a thief as well. His actions in Missouri, in slaughtering and robbing unarmed men who did not own slaves simply for the crime of being Southern deserved the death penalty. His attack on Harper’s Ferry in which the first victim was a free black was a piece of sublime political strategy on par with Charles Manson’s “Helter-Skelter” murders. (lLet’s kill innocent people to start a war in which over half a million will die. Marvelous!) One does not have to be either a libertarian or a Southerner to object to murder and robbery. Emerson and Thoreau showed their true humanitarian colors in lauding this killer. The American character is always seen at its lowest in our high-minded defense of unjustifiable killing, so long as we can invent a bogus justification, fighting wars to end all wars, defending democracy and freedom, liberating women from Islamic tradition or freeing the slaves. No matter that the survivors are almost always worse off than they had been. The untold story of the Civil War is how many Southern black women were raped by Union troops and how many blacks of both sexes were killed or died in the course of the war and the grinding poverty that followed. Glory, glory, halleluja!

  11. Jsmith December 20, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    Brown and his band of ruffians were a gang of cold-blooded murderers. I hope they all rot in hell.

  12. max ryan February 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    if you say that jhon brown was a terrorist, i do not denie it but he was fighting for a just cause. if it was a cause that was only solved by war and you believed in it wouldent you fight too? shame on you for disgracing such a lawful man. dont you think that you would sacrifice for your anti war efforts. i think he was a great man. i hope you rot in hell!

    • Jake May 13, 2013 at 1:22 am #

      His plan was for the African Americans to serve him in his own ‘country’.

  13. pkennedy March 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    John Brown is a terroist because he killed innocent civilians for his own selfish beliefs.

  14. Jake May 13, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    John Brown’s intention was copied by Charles Manson. John Brown thought that he could establish his own country in the mountains of Northern Virginia (West Virginia today) while Charles Manson believed that he would be able to take over the entire Earth. Both of them believed that the African Americans needed their leadership and would all want to serve them.

    John Brown habitually murdered free men for being ‘in league’ with the South. Charles Manson on the other hand did not kill any African Americans. Charles Manson murdered one man with a sword. John brown murdered many men women and children with a sword. The majority of his victims did not themselves own any slaves, but where merely “from the South”.

    To honor John Brown, one would need to be ignorant of the monster that he was or maybe have a Bill Clinton level of circular (can) logic.


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