John Brown was born on this day in 1800. He was not a crazy man. He was not like the people today who think that abortion is such a terrible thing that they must murder doctors and others in the name of their cause. For one thing, these people rarely have much of clue what they believe. Other than being told by other believers, they have no idea why they believe that a 16-cell zygote is a human being. As I note all the time, Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe that. If a man of his great brilliance and erudition came to a different conclusion, it can’t be that obvious.
Brown thought about the issue of slavery carefully. And his idea was never to murder all the slave owners. His attack on Harpers Ferry was strategic. He thought that he could make a quick strike, cause a slave rebellion, and that slavery would quickly be ended. He was wrong about that—and deeply naive. But it was a reasonable thing to think at that time. While awaiting his death, 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.”
On that point, he nailed it. American slavery was a very well designed system. It didn’t start out as racist. The problem that the ownership class had was that the working, indentured, and slave classes had this nasty habit of binding together and demanding things like money and dignity. So the ownership class invented racism. Thus, they made sure that whites would not get together with the blacks. It’s brilliant, because the whites were not getting anything. But by taking freedom away from the blacks, it made the whites feel like did get something. It’s like that great line from Mississippi Burning, “If you ain’t any better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”
You see from this that “What’s the matter with Kansas?” is not new. The rich have always been able to divide the poor. In fact, that’s what they had to do. Otherwise, the people would never put up with something like royalty or, as we call them in this country, “job creators.” See all the jobs that the slave owners created?! That’s what capitalists want today. But they don’t want to call it slavery. But I don’t see much difference between slavery and someone working three jobs who also has to worry about the authorities arresting him (for any of thousands of laws that are not normally enforced) just because he steps out of line. With the way that many state prisons are now run, you can’t even say that at least we don’t torture the poor today.
Brown was right that it would take a lot of blood to wash away the sin of slavery. There are still apologists today who argue that it didn’t need to be that way. They say that slavery was a dying institution. But that’s not true. As soon as it could, the southern states enacted Jim Crow. It was less horrible than slavery, but only marginally so. And the truth is that if the federal government hadn’t stopped them, after the Civil War, they would have reinstituted slavery. Too much money was involved. The only thing that might have finally killed off slavery is if other countries stopped buying cotton from slavery states.
Today, John Brown is thought to have caused the Civil War to come about earlier than it would have because his raid on Harpers Ferry made the southern states paranoid. So his work was not in vain. But let’s never forget what slavery was all about: profits for a tiny slice of the people. And today, poor people are being held down, and in some cases even being tortured in jail, in the name of profits for another tiny slice of the people. Yet we people of the poorer classes go at each other, allowing the rich to gobble up more and more of our shared resources.
Happy birthday John Brown!
Check out this great segment by Sarah Vowell from This American Life about John Brown and the song: