Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Black and White and Brown

The comments on Cicero's post on the other site veered off into John Brown. Mea culpa. But he's among the Americans who won't stay buried. They come back and stalk the fields again in times of crisis, when we edge a little closer to our collective reflexes. He's a warning and a disturber of peaces.

Much of what was said in defense of Oswatomie Brown in 1859 has uncomfortable resonances — for all sides — today. Thoreau, for instance:

He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher-principled than any that I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself when she was in the wrong.

… We talk about a representative government; but what a monster of a government is that where the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole heart, are not represented!

He wrote that only those “who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder,” but that such people “will be more shocked by his life than by his death.”

I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. … I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. …

I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharp’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.

The first victim of Brown’s raid, of course, was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man.