As the old saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
In 1859, a messianic “violent extremist” struck at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to ignite a massive slave rebellion that would break the backbone of slavery in Virginia and the American South.
Captain John Brown, a veteran of the “Bleeding Kansas” border wars, was an uncompromising fanatic and revolutionary abolitionist in the “anti-slavery movement,” which by that time had spread from a few marginalized agitators like William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s – whose writings were banned in large parts of the country – to become increasingly mainstream in the American North.
Brown was a fanatic who was outraged by the weak response of the timid Free State politicians of his time to the atrocities being committed by pro-slavery forces in Kansas. After the Dred Scott decision, he would not wait on the new Republican Party to end the injustice of slavery.
And so, John Brown went to Kansas where he hacked to death five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie Massacre, and fought pro-slavery Missourians at Osawatomie where he gained fame for his militant stand for anti-slavery principles.
After leaving Kansas, John Brown returned to the North, where he conspired with several of the leading abolitionists in Boston to arm the slaves with weapons captured from the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and launch a revolution in the South.
In 1859, “A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America” was written, but few of its signatories were willing to participate in Brown’s scheme to end slavery.
The famous raid on Harper’s Ferry was a debacle that was quickly put down by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.
Southern Democrats were outraged and condemned the “climate of anti-slavery extremism” in the North. Republican politicians denounced John Brown as a fanatic and distanced themselves from the Harper’s Ferry raid. Abraham Lincoln, who was not yet president, said he was “insane.”
But John Brown got his trial, and he got his chance to say why he took the law into his own hands, and when John Brown was hung as a traitor in Virginia, he was transformed into a martyr in the American North.
It was the trial of the century.
Church bells rung. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau lavishly praised him. Grown men wept.
In the Congressional investigation that followed, Democrats attempted to implicate the Republican Party in the Harper’s Ferry conspiracy, unsuccessfully.
It is impossible to exaggerate just how much terror John Brown struck into the Southern establishment, how much John Brown’s actions polarized America along ideological lines, how much John Brown’s raid forced the issue of slavery to a crisis, and how much that ill fated raid at Harper’s Ferry contributed to bringing about the American Civil War.
Less than five years later, “John Brown’s Body” was a marching song in the Union Army and the long awaited “irrepressible conflict” over slavery was being fought with bullets between two nations.
Here’s an interesting story about Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia and John Brown, mortal enemies from across the political spectrum, but who come to admire each other’s conviction:
“Then the grand pre-Civil War episodes came, and the faltering Wise always rose to the occasion. He had ascended in the midcentury Virginia constitutional convention and in the 1855 Know-Nothing election. He would soar in the secession crisis. He now costarred on John Brown’s stage.
Brown and Wise both displayed emaciated frames, unruly hair, and burning eyes. Each dressed in disheveled homespun. Both strutted the vanity and imperiousness of would-be kings. Each respected the other’s sincerity. Wise dismissed some Southerners’ notion that Brown was insane. This Yankee’s alleged lunacy, was just the conventional antislavery fantacism. Brown dismissed some Virginians’ conviction that Wise was an unprincipled demagogue. The spellbinder’s seductive bombast, thought Brown, was just the conventional proslavery fantacism. Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed that these “enemies became affectionate … If circumstances did not keep them apart, they would fly into each other’s arms.”
Wise reaffirmed his affectionate respect for his enemy in a remarkable postwar incident. In 1865, the prewar governor sought to evict a schoolmarm from his prewar farm. The intruder turned out to be one of John Brown’s daughters, come south to educate the blacks, including Wise’s ex-slaves. When a bystander mocked Wise for falling beneath a contemptible raider’s offspring, the defrocked rebel whirled on his tormentor. “John Brown,” exclaimed Wise, “John Brown was a great man, sir. John Brown was a great man!”
In those days, it was still possible to see through political quarrels and admire the moral convictions of one’s enemies; morality had not yet come to be defined as political positions on issues like gay marriage.
There were fire-eaters who admired the courage and convictions of the abolitionists and vice versa. During the War Between the States, the men who fought the war came to admire the courage of the other side, as in the charge of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg.
This is why the two sides were able to eventually reconcile after the issue of slavery had been settled.