Anniversary Post: Harpers Ferry Raid

John BrownOn this day in 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry occurred. I’ll be honest: I’ve never known what to think of it and I still don’t know what to think about it. Can it be justified? Well, given the magnitude of the sin of American slavery, I think a case can be made. But it does have rather too much in common with people today who think that abortion represents another Holocaust and that it justifies killing doctors.

I do think there many distinctions here. To begin with, abortion is an issue that only recently came on the radar of protestants. And they aren’t at all consistent. The vast majority who believe abortion is wrong have no problem with the death penalty. This is equivalent to the case where John Brown killed people to free black slaves but was completely okay with having Native American slaves.

Another issue is that John Brown was trying to start an uprising that would destroy the institution of slavery itself. As I discussed some time ago, Brown thought that he could do this with very little bloodshed. Before he died, he realized that he was wrong; and the country soon learned it too. What is it that someone like Scott Roeder was trying to accomplish? Did he think that the murder of George Tiller would be the end of abortion in America? I suspect not. I suspect that “thinking” wasn’t really involved with what he was doing.

There is also the issue that an act done in the name of what is right is more justified than an act done in the name of what is wrong. No, ends do not justify means. But motive matters. I understand that anti-abortion activists believe that they are right. That doesn’t make them so, however. In particular, they are mostly unwilling to do anything at all to reduce abortion other than to make it illegal. In fact, as a movement, it has been all in favor of banning birth control. If your concern were really about unborn “babies,” wouldn’t you do everything you could to prevent them? Wouldn’t that even including taxing people more to help out poor mothers?

What’s more, John Brown’s goal was attainable: the end of slavery. Abortions will never be wiped out, because the vast majority of them happen naturally. Miscarriages are spontaneous abortions. And once again, we come back to the almost total disinterest of anti-choice crusaders. Better prenatal care would prevent far more abortions than any laws. But again: that would require something of the anti-choice activists, and so is not considered.

I still don’t know if John Brown was right. In general, I don’t believe in violence. But I think a case can be made for what he did. There is no case that can be made for those against abortion who turn to violence.

58 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Harpers Ferry Raid

  1. Abortions will not stop, even if Roe was overturned tomorrow. However the self righteous ones who actually do believe that the ends justify the means will be smugly happy that this means that women are punished for the criminal act of having unauthorized sex. It is why they did not blink an eye when it was completely clear that Planned Parenthood did nothing wrong in those videos that were doctored to look like they did.

    Abolitionists were trying to save the already here, the already suffering. Anti-choicers are in it to punish women for sex. Which is why so many women are now being charged under chemical endangerment laws even when they are on lawfully prescribed prescription drugs. It is terrifying to consider pregnancy in a large part of this country.

    If the raid accomplished anything, it might have some point, but I don’t think it did much to speed things along. It might have been better to simply do a daring raid to free a large plantation’s slave holdings.

    • I agree with everything you said about abortion. As for the raid, I think it might have hastened the Civil War. It made landed southerners really itchy. I’d like to think that slavery would have died without the war. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. There was too much money at stake for too small a group in the south. There was going to be blood.

      • I think it cut the peculiar institution short by about 150 to 200 years. At least that is what one of my history professors taught us. Sometimes war does more than just hasten the development of medicine.

          • I would have to do more research into the subject before I could say for certain I agreed with the idea.
            Since keeping slavery was not solely based on cold market calculation (if it was indeed becoming unprofitable), it is equally likely that it would have taken a fight to get slaver holders to give up their slaves based on the behavior of the South after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Humans are irrational after all and do not make purely logical decisions in business despite all of the nonsense claimed by the press.

            • I did find this on the issue. And it says that while the trend was towards natural emancipation, the racism and other factors would have kept it going much much longer than it should have if it would have ever stopped.
              I think the source is legit since I have not heard of the National Bureau of Economic Research being particularly partisan or sloppy in their work.

              • And I should make myself clear — of course we’ve had slavery for rich people, kings, emperors, whatever. We’ve had it forever. But capitalism took this age-old process and rewarded the innovators who refined it into a great business model. Then we replaced outright slavery with “you have no other choice” wage slavery, another brilliant invention. Then found how advertising could publicize this as Globalization For Good Of All and got pop stars like Bono to bless it with their imprimatur, quite creative.

                “Doctor Who” is quite often a silly program, but there’s one line I remember being quite astounding, I think in “Planet of The Ood.” The space travelers visit a slave planet. The Earthling says, oh, how ooky, a slave planet, we don’t have slaves. The Doctor replies, “who do you think makes your clothes?”

                  • I have been on internet forums since I was a teenager-I think the first one was at age 15. So it is easy to follow along for the most part.

                    Capitalism does seem to devolve into making the individual take all the risk onto themselves so it makes sense that slavery would not be something it would like. However since humans are not rational creatures and as Frank points out with the poor whites, even if they could figure out that capitalism is trying to make their lives miserable, it is okay because they have someone else to look down on.

                    It is like why a person who is totally broke will continue to pay on a bad debt like a house they don’t want and can’t afford-they have been convinced by our society that they should not take the sensible business decision and walk away. They feel guilty and wrong for doing something that is a sensible decision.

                    • Ahh — I was on BBS threads when I was 15 for awhile. Then I was off computer communication until I was 26 and used the Internet for awhile. Then I was off computer communication until I was 36. Lots has changed, I get things mixed up at times.

                      What you say about people not being rational is quite true. It’s socialization, I believe; everybody convincing everybody that 2+2=5 because that’s the right way to think, and you just aren’t cool if you don’t.

                      I’m working out something in my head. One phase of capitalism being Columbus, the Dutch East India Company and others discovering, hey free slaves! It feels different in my head than classical Roman Empire stuff. Or it all might be the same. I dunno, I’m pondering it.

                      In my tentative model, colonialism is Phase Two; you don’t have to pay a dime for barbed-wire fences, you just devastate local economies so people have no other choice.

                      And then media, Phase Three. You use propaganda to convince people they should accept how things are done to others, and to themselves.

                      This is all fluid and I’m never going to put it all together. Sometimes you don’t make your brain identify patterns to see The Truth, you just make your brain identify patterns to see where your previous pattern recognition was wrong. Ben Franklin, who I admire in many ways and was a patron of Tom Paine, probably wrote most of that “Poor Richard” garbage which inspired “poor people are lazy” writing ever since.

                    • American slavery did change from the classic Roman model-it used to be that a slave could save up (in theory) and purchase their freedom. We got rid of that as a nation and I think it made things exponentially worse. Based on the article I linked and other things I have read, the South made a lot of effort to make manumission incredibly difficult as time went on. There was no economic reason for it so it was all socialization.

                    • I believe that some American slaves were able to do that — but it was very rare. The bigger problem is that slavery was “race” based, and so even if a black man was free, that didn’t stop him from being kidnapped and put back into slavery. As far as I know, American slavery was what caused the idea of race to be invented. Before that, there were peoples of different areas, but not races in the way that we think of them.

                    • Pretty much-it would also explain why manumission became more and more difficult. No one wanted to determine who was a slave by looking at documents, they just wanted to be able to assume someone was a slave by their skin color.

                    • I know, but I thought that was in reference to a new comment thread. I don’t know what’s going on. I have a special interface. It’s great, but it makes some things harder. Like this.

                    • Yeah, these epic threeway conversations almost need their own format.
                      I like them, they are forcing me to stop being so intellectually lazy. But as always, once I start being annoying without realising it, tell me to shut up. :)

                    • When you start calling me a communist, I might have to cut you off.

                    • If I did it would be a joke and probably in person so you could hear it in my voice.

                      Then again, I don’t think being called a communist is an insult. I missed that era of American nuttery.

                    • I wouldn’t mind if people knew what it meant. As it is, it is the equivalent of “poo-poo-head.” I’d rather be called that.

                    • Heh, reminds me of the time I got blocked on Facebook for pointing out a colleague’s minor in economics should mean he should know what socialism is and why his use of it was improper.

                      I favor using creative insults, it makes things more interesting when the person cannot come up with a retort because they are too busy trying to figure out how you insulted them.

                    • When I was a libertarian, I first noticed that the only people who really seemed to understand capitalism were Marxists. Now I read actual economists, so that isn’t so much true. But among lay people, supporters of capitalism just take it for granted.

            • I don’t know that it was becoming unprofitable. But it might have been eventually. In a major way forcing workers to do what you want for low wages and not feeding, housing, clothing them is quite cheaper than owning them and keeping them somewhat alive for breeding purposes.

              If you take, say, the Indian farmers now killing themselves in horrifying numbers, well, the big ag companies are getting the best of all worlds. You decimate the local economy, so people have no choice but work for you. But you don’t have to pay them enough to survive. You don’t have to pay supervisors to keep them from escaping or forcing them to work harder.

              This is way more efficient than slavery. And it was already getting its beta test trial run at the time of the Civil War. British cotton workers were getting too uppity; British cotton companies moved many of their sweatshops to nifty new colonial possession Egypt and farmers/laborers there basically had to shift Egyptian agriculture from food to cotton or starve.

              Early capitalism pioneered mass slavery as a source of forced labor, but it took capitalism a few hundred years to realize impoverishing people into working for you is cheaper than keeping them physically captive. It’s arguable that, outside of refining advertisements to keep up with social changes and new technologies, capitalism has really come up with any new ideas since.

            • There’s also the poor white side of things. The institution provided them with meaning: their lives might suck but at least they weren’t slaves. It is normally the case that people who make just over the minimum wage are against raising the minimum wage, even if it would increase their wages. Same thing. But I am speculating about the necessity of war. It just seems reasonable.

  2. Here’s a hypothetical. Brown and anti-abortion activists today are given an offer by angels. You can have part of your wish granted today, but no promise of total victory even after 150 years and counting. Or, wait 100 years with no change, then all your wishes come true forever.

    So, for anti-abortion activists, this means abortion is banned now, but women get free birth control for 150 years if not longer. Or no ban on women’s rights, but complete control in 100 years. They’d wait 100 years. Easy! After all, the poor aborted babies do go to Heaven. If women still had reproductive rights, even in the slightest, 150 years from now, with no end in sight? Unacceptable!

    Imagine Brown’s response. He’d never take the 100-year promise of complete racial equality if it meant slavery continued that long. I’m sure he believed slaves went to Heaven. That didn’t matter. He wanted their suffering ended. On Earth. He’d be mad that racism endured for at least 150 years, but he’d have faith that persons of goodwill would eventually stop it.

    That, to me, is the difference.

    • That’s quite an involved hypothetical. I’ll have to give it some thought. I accept it. But I’ll need more sleep before I decide if it is a fundamental issue.

      • Badly written, I fear. And I don’t know if it’s fundamental either. Or even valid. Brown was very passionate about equality, and if you told him we could have equality in 1940 instead of our prison system in 2015, he might well have agreed to sacrifice 75 more years of people in slavery.

        But the bottom line was Brown did want suffering reduced on Earth. Anti-abortion activists want sin reduced on Earth. Brown was willing to commit violence he saw as a necessary evil in order to stop human pain. Once we had equality, he hoped the violence and pain would stop. Anti-abortionists want to cause pain to women, forever. They never want it to stop. That’s more fundamental, probably.

        • That’s a good argument. I definitely accept that one. There was nothing wrong with your other argument. I’m just exhausted. I would have gone to bed, but I’m waiting for some processes to end so I can check on the results.

          • GO THE F**K TO SLEEP. I’m gonna edit a bit and look at the page preview in HTML. Not that I’ll get any of it, but beecause now I know how! Thanks, sensei!

          • Hey, leave the staying up all night to us hyperactive young ones who have no reason to go to sleep since we are not working tomorrow!

            • Yes, yes. I just had some work that had to finish and I wanted to see the results. I was in bed by 12:10…

              • I managed to get to sleep around 1. I am spending the day reading your favorite book and trying to obtain bacon.

  3. Reply thread fail per my Firefox browser and ancient dying laptop . . .

    OK, Elizabeth/Frank, you’ve helped my brain get exactly where it was itching to get. Slavery’s been around since forever. It’s capitalist slavery that possibly invented “race.” Indentured servants in early America had every skin tone. Different Greeks enslaved every other Greeks and so on. But it seems that capitalist colonialism made that into a mantra, so much so that our Supreme Court decided one skin tone was forever subhuman. Athenians who enslaved Spartans (or whatever, I dunno) didn’t think of them as subhumans. Just, you lost, we won, tough shit for you.

    Same with being an indentured servant here back in the day. Of course you were inferior and God Hated You because you were poor, but gimme seven years of free labor, and OK, you’ve proved your worthiness. Skin pigment had nothing to do with it at first.

    A strange topic worth looking into is piracy. I know nothing about it, but I’ve heard off-hand that 18th-century pirate ships were often mixes of escapees from plantations and military naval vessels both. Just a curious thought.

    • If you want to be depressed, remember it probably was due to authorities wanting to be lazy. It is much easier to say “x is a slave” based on something on the surface.

    • I don’t know. I think that is roughly correct. Traditionally, slaves were the results of wars. But I don’t know that much about the slave trade. What I’ve read is that the poor had this nasty habit of binding toward and rebelling. So the rich came up with what they always come up with: a divide and conquer strategy. As for pirates, I really know nothing. But I am a wealth of knowledge about Jack Sparrow.

      • Yeah . . . it’s hard to pigeonhole capitalism and say “it did everything worse!” as much as I want to. And I’ll keep trying to. It probably just incentivized innovation in doing things worse. But I’ll keep trying!

        • I just saw that Cato has some study out claiming that kids in Scandinavia are getting lazy. I haven’t read it, but I assume what we are really seeing is austerity. There aren’t jobs for young people. But to conservatives, who believe in Say’s Law (which is a known fallacy), there are always jobs because “supply creates its own demand.”

          • Of course the kids are getting lazy-they are not working 90 hour weeks in sweatshops for nothing more than a “good job.” Add in the belief that kids these days are so much more worse than the kids the authors were. And finalize with “get off my lawn” syndrome.

            That is me being rude, it could be that these youngsters are spending all of their time staring at walls doing literally nothing which would be a waste of time.

            • I’m sure they aren’t being lazy, but I often wonder: why not be lazy? In Europe, increased productivity over the last many decades has been partitioned between higher standard of live and more leisure time. It’s only in America where working a large number of hours makes you a hero. We could use more time sipping lemonade on the porch.

              • I don’t think of any thing outside of what I described as being lazy though. Even if they are playing video games on YouTube all day they are still doing something. And having tried to use my Xbox back when I had one, it takes a lot more effort than one would think to coordinate between the keys on the controller. So the teens and young adults in Scandinavia not working at a job is not necessarily wasting time.

                But I do know that older generations are often down on young people these days because they are different. Such as when teens were pictured at a museum staring at a screen in their laps-that had an app describing the art they were looking at.

                • There’s a lot of moralizing about work in this country. Actually, I get some of it, because writing isn’t “real” work and because I enjoy it. People don’t say as much when I’m making decent money than when I’m not, but it is the same kind of thing. Speaking of which, I’ve been working on a project about businesses’ use of “gamification.” I think it is all kind of pathetic. But there are people who are interested in making work more fun. By and large technology should be making work more interesting. People still live in the past.

                  • That businesses are merely using games or that because gaming has become such a big deal business is doing what it always does in a dorky nebbish way and trying to appropriate it for use to keep the workers happy without giving them money?

                    Work should be more interesting overall-there is no reason why it can’t be a non-miserable experience for eight hours a day but not so interesting you never get anything done.

                    • There has been a lot of research that shows if you make work more fun, workers are more productive. It makes sense, but there are a lot of employers who are more interested in their employees being miserable. In fact, I’ve generally enjoyed working most with immigrants, who are focused on getting things done. Americans are much more caught up in busy work. They think they are paying for the time rather than the production. So the use of gamification is a good thing. But I think there is a more fundamental issue here of making work meaningful.

        • Probably because capitalism doesn’t do these things-capitalists do them. They are always in favor of whatever makes them more money because greed is one of the few things I agree with the Catholic Church about prohibiting in man.

  4. I want to buy Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack through your Amazon link but if I do a search it does not appear you will get credit. Do you happen to know how to change over the entity I give credit to? I tried doing a search but I could not find “Frankly Curious” in the list of organizations.

    • Amazon tracks it internally from then on. I wondered about that myself, but it really does work. Just click the banner at the top of the page and they will manage the rest. Thank you!

        • My problems with Amazon are only with how the government has allowed it to run so long without paying sales taxes. That was unfair to other book stores. But Amazon has done some good. I actually side with them over the prices of ebooks. The publishers were trying to use the new technology to gouge readers — just as record companies did to listeners when the CD came out.

          • Why its almost like businesses want to use their power for evil!

            I think the Amazon not paying sales taxes was politicians not really understanding new technology and Amazon taking full advantage. But I don’t know that much about it.

            • It was proposed as a way to help a new industry. I’m not sure it should have applied to the internet, since it isn’t an industry but simply a sales mechanism. But even if it should, it shouldn’t have applied to things like Amazon and And it most certainly shouldn’t have lasted so long. I’m sure if Amazon hadn’t gotten that 5%-10% subsidy, a lot of traditional bookstores would still be in business.

              • I don’t think they would have survived even if Amazon never got any assistance. People generally do not go to bookstores much. It ruins the fun of thinking they know stuff without actually knowing anything.

                • People still go to bookstores that offer something special. Science fiction bookstores have generally done okay. But I don’t know: 5%-10% really is the kind of margins that bookstores run on. So I wonder. I think the brick-and-mortar ecosystem would be much better today without it — still badly wounded, but better.

                  • True, the most pretentious bookstore in my town has a lot of authors come to do book signings and readings so it keeps being popular even though the prices are usually higher than Barnes and Noble.

                    If it had been half that-2 to 5 percent, maybe the bookstores would have done more to innovate to get people through their doors? Who knows now unless someone invents a device to look across the multiverse.

                    • Pretentious is a strong word. The book and video stores that have survived are the ones that offer something different. Movie Madness up in Portland is my favorite example. The video stores that just offered the new releases have rightly been put out of business by machines.

                    • The word fits for the bookstore I am thinking of. It wants to be Powell’s from Portland but does not have the charm that the store up there has.
                      I am not saying it does not provide something different-it is the main stopping point for all the mega authors that come through like Jimmy Carter. It just tries too hard.

                    • Yeah, a lot of them are pretentious. Dig, dig, dig! The second great reason to live in Portland!

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