AMERICANS are in another of those periodic upheavals during which it is deemed prudent to offer disclaimers and denunciations when discussing such thuggish, murderous characters as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein before discussing them.
Consider them disclaimed and denounced. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) found herself under criticism after committing the sin of free speech without the usual disclaimers and denunciations.
She had offered some thoughtful comments about the war against terrorism and the impending war against Iraq. She pointed to the fact that America was built on a revolutionary concept, although the Founding Fathers were hardly what we would call blood-spattered terrorists. Some of them were rabble-rousers, at least in the view of conservative contemporaries.
Rather, many were substantial men of property, planters, traders, businessmen, and the like. They were fed up with a remote, reactionary government in London that paid little heed to their concerns.
Yet, as historian Michael Eric Dyson once noted of the American Revolution, “America was founded on breaking the law.”
Let's look instead at another figure of American history, an agitator, an abolitionist, a “blood-spattered terrorist” if you want to call him that - John Brown or “Osawatomie” Brown. An Ohio-reared failed farmer and businessman, he and his followers on May 24, 1856, dragged five pro-slavery settlers out of their beds along the Pottawatomie Creek in “Bleeding Kansas” and killed them in retaliation for a similar outrage committed against Free-Soil settlers in Lawrence, Kan. The slain men in that settlement of Osawatomie had not participated in the attack on Lawrence.
In the words of a song of that period, “John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” Ironically, the song was written about another John Brown, a young Scotsman in the Massachusetts volunteer militia who took the ribbing with good grace. But with slightly different lyrics, it became a Union Army marching song identified with Osawatomie John Brown. Julia Ward Howe turned the tune into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
On Oct. 19, 1859, John Brown, goaded by what he regarded as a slaveocratic government, and hoping to incite slaves to revolt, led a poorly executed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va. He was captured by army forces under the command of Robert E. Lee and hanged after a Virginia jury found him guilty of murder, treason, and inciting an insurrection of slaves.
From the scaffold, Old Osawatomie left this grim prophecy for his countrymen: “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.”
Brown was a man whom Kenneth C. Davis in his book I Don't Know Much About the Civil War, described accurately as “a fanatic who burned with the furies of an Old Testament prophet.” He added: “If John Brown could have gotten hold of a pickup truck and some high explosives, a tragic disaster of Oklahoma City proportions might have happened a lot earlier in American history. Imagine if CNN had been around to chronicle the siege and last stand of a band of fanatical abolitionists bent on nothing short of armed insurrection against the federal government.”
Less than a year later Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to hold the office of president, thanks to the division among Democrats brought about by men like John Brown. A few months later a true armed insurrection against the Union began. Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry helped touch off the war to save the Union. More than 600,000 men died in the conflagration that followed, and the rotting institution of human slavery died with them. John Brown, guilty or not guilty?
PBS produced a documentary for the American Experience series titled “John Brown's Holy War.” The PBS Web site also features a teacher's guide to help young people understand the moral ambiguities of John Brown's Raid and the impact of his revolutionary acts.
Henry David Thoreau had no doubts about Brown. “I wish I could say that Brown was the representative of the North. He was a superior man. He did not value his bodily life in comparison with ideal things. For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.”
Imagine saying that about a man widely viewed as a murderer, a revolutionary, and a terrorist. Imagine what the false prophets of the right-wing air waves would have done with those words of Thoreau, one of the country's greatest authors and revolutionary thinkers.
Instead of casting stones at public officials who try to make up their own minds about national issues, we should reflect instead upon the fleeting judgments of “received” or perceived American public opinion. False doctrines, where they emerge, are tested in the mar- ketplace of ideas, and usually fall of their own weight. That's the founding principle and the magnificent contribution of our political system to the world, obscured though it often is by the “trivialness and dust” to which Thoreau referred.
Ralph Johnson is a retired journalist and former Editorial Director of The Blade.
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