One hundred and fifty-three years ago they hanged John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia. On that morning before his execution, he wrote, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” As ambivalent as I am regarding Brown’s actions, no truer words have ever been written.
I used to think that the Civil War was not inevitable. It’s clear that the institution of slavery was holding the south back. My thinking was that eventually southern whites would see this. There was no doubt that I was wrong. The problem is at the core of how slavery was implemented. In the early days of western settlement of America, slavery was not race based. This caused a problem for the ownership class: the lower classes had a nasty habit of joining together and demanding things the rich don’t like to provide for anyone but themselves: rights and pay. Although there were doubtless many and varied reasons for race-based slavery, one was to solve this problem. By making slavery apply only to blacks, they cut any solidarity between poor whites and blacks. And it made poor whites feel better: at least they weren’t slaves.
This always reminds me of this story that Anderson tells in Mississippi Burning:
“If you ain’t any better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”
I think that the vested interests of rich white profits and poor white self-respect would have kept slavery alive in the south until its end was forced. And look at the effect of emancipation. It led to Jim Crow. When it was ended, we had the racist “drug war”—a term that first shows up only a few years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So I think that John Brown simply had a clearer view on the problem than just about anyone else.
I highly recommend that you listen to Sarah Vowell’s exceptional history of the song John Brown’s Body. It is live and very funny.