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The abolitionist who believed in bloodshed John Brown's legacy raises a tricky question: can an institution be so evil that violence against it is justified?

Abolitionist John Brown leading a raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Credit: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Abolitionist John Brown leading a raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Credit: Kean Collection/Getty Images


August 21, 2020   6 mins

Shortly after his divorce from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was asked in an interview whether he would accept whites into the short-lived, upstart organisation he’d founded, the Organisation for Afro American Unity (OAAU). “Definitely not”, he instantly snipped. But after a moment’s contemplation, he added: “If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him.”

During the second OAAU rally held in Cairo, Malcolm declared: “we need allies who are going to help us achieve a victory, not allies who are going to tell us to be nonviolent,” before elaborating on why he would embrace John Brown as a “white ally” in the struggle for black freedom:

“He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves. He wasn’t nonviolent. White people call John Brown a nut 
 any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom — in the sight of other whites, he’s nuts. As long as he wants to come up with some nonviolent action, they go for that, if he’s liberal, a nonviolent liberal, a love-everybody liberal. But when it comes time for making the same kind of contribution for your and my freedom that was necessary for them to make for their own freedom, they back out of the situation.”

Brown played an important role in one of the greatest progressive struggles of modern history: the struggle to abolish institutionalised chattel slavery in the USA. This struggle arose from the contradictions left unresolved by the American revolution of 1776. The Declaration of Independence declared in stirring language the fundamental equality of man and his inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and yet maintained an institution that was the foulest offence against these ideals.

A rugged-faced Puritan from Connecticut, Brown earned the unqualified respect and admiration of black radicals because he viewed blacks as moral equals. Most mainstream abolitionists viewed blacks as the moral equivalent of children, who were to be seen but not heard; he refused to infantilise them. Instead of acting ‘for’ slaves, he insisted on including them in the armed struggle for their liberation — and was willing to risk his life and reputation in service of black freedom. For W. E. B. Du Bois, Brown was “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk”.

Originally a New Englander (and quite possibly a Mayflower descendant), Brown was raised in an intensely Calvinist household headed by a stern yet tender father, who set up anti-slavery societies and frequently debated the issue when the Browns moved to Hudson, Ohio. Brown was influenced by his father’s beliefs, as well as the fiery sermons of Jonathan Edwards, with their strict insistence on predestination and colourful tales of eternal punishment for sinners. His Puritanism was not simply pious; it was political. He strongly held to antinomianism: the idea that the ‘higher law’ of God was superior to the law made by men. If human institutions contradicted that ‘higher law’, then it was one’s duty to disobey, resist, and overturn it. In this spirit, Brown was a legatee of the revolutionary Anglo-Protestantism associated with Oliver Cromwell, whom Brown modelled himself on.

In his biography of Brown, David Reynolds argues that the abolitionist’s other great inspiration was Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution that ended slavery there. A revolution formed and led by the slaves themselves. Brown admired L’Ouverture as he admired Cromwell: as revolutionary leader, a generalissimo, a master strategist and tactician, and as a man of high principle, faith and honour. He assiduously studied L’Ouverture’s battles, as well as those of other maroon communities in the Caribbean.

The “horrors of Saint Domingue”, as the Haitian revolution was often referred to, cast a long shadow over early nineteenth century America. Images of African slaves, no longer meek and passive but fierce and autonomous, overthrowing their white masters provoked a climate of fear among white society. The debate on slavery became rawer and more visceral. ‘If it could happen in Haiti then it could happen here,’ was the prevailing worry. John Brown, no doubt, would have heard the name and tales of L’Ouverture as he was growing up.

As a young man, Brown used the tannery on his farm as a hideout on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada. He even published his own re-written version of the American constitution, to redress its implicit acceptance of slavery. Nevertheless, he initially aspired to live a modest existence as a farmer, businessman and entrepreneur — enterprises he consistently failed at  —  while devoting his life to obeying his strict moral code. I imagine in a world without slavery and with a bit more luck, he would’ve been a stellar example of the ‘Protestant work ethic’.

His radicalisation really began in November of 1837, when Presbyterian Minister and outspoken abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob. It is said from then on Brown made a promise to himself: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

In the 1850s, Brown was drawn to ‘Bleeding Kansas’, a state in crisis. In order to maintain its position, the ‘Slave Power’ used electoral fraud, intimidation and violence with total impunity. A Free State militia captain, Reese P. Brown (no relation), was hacked to death outside his home by a pro-slavery mob. When the Senator Charles Sumner spoke out against slavery in his ‘Crimes Against Kansas’ speech, he was viciously caned on the senate floor. Violence was the order of the day, until the intervention of Brown and his banditti.

It was the conflicts in Pottawatomie and Osawatomie that brought Brown notoriety; a mist of controversy has surrounded his name ever since. Angered by the pacifism of anti-slavery partisans in the face of pro-slavery violence, Brown decided to make a reprisal raid. He killed several leading pro-slavery Kansans in the dead of night, disrupting the swagger of slave-owning Southerners who boasted about the habitual meekness of their foes, who supposedly lacked martial virtues. Now, they knew they were in for a real struggle. For Brown, the devout Calvinist, an eye for an eye was a more persuasive doctrine than turn the other cheek.

Brown’s final act was the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. He and his partisans planned to seize the federal armoury’s arsenal, in order to arm rebellious slaves and put the fear of Jehovah into slaveholders. It was a disaster. Ten of his men were killed, among them two of his sons. And, of course, it did not ignite the imagined cataclysmic slave revolution. It earned him the noose for treason. But the courage and defiant nobility he displayed after such a humiliating and somewhat anti-climactic defeat impressed even his captors, who reported that, far from being a deranged ‘madman’, he was sober in mind, lucid and eloquent in speech. As he testified in court at his trial:

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”

His matyrdom was not in vain. As his close friend Frederick Douglass remarked, in a speech delivered on the 14th anniversary of Harper’s Ferry: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”

Indeed, on the day of his execution, Brown handed his guard a slip of paper, prophetically stating: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” His conviction that the “peculiar institution”’ of slavery could not be extirpated from America without a war of emancipation was proved right. America could no longer remain, to use Lincoln’s words, “half-free and half-slave”: a conflict was inevitable. Lincoln was forced to execute what he initially tried to avoid: what he called, “a John Brown raid on a gigantic scale”.

In death, Brown was transformed into an icon: a symbol of the abolitionist cause, a prophet of a new American freedom. On the battlefields of the civil war, Union soldiers belted out “John Brown’s Body” alongside the standard patriotic hymns.

Heroes do indeed exist. And John Brown was unquestionably an American hero. He fought and died for the dream of a democratic multi-coloured America where liberty and equality are a reality for all. Unfortunately, his dream is yet to come true. Despite the progress that has been made, racial inequality and violence are still a plague on American society. As the murder of George Floyd demonstrated, black people are still mistreated by authority.

For all of its flaws and contradictions, an anti-racist movement has emerged to redress this injustice. What was unprecedented about the protests across America was how white people made up a significant number of the protesters. John Brown should be an inspiration to young white anti-racists: he was passionate without being overbearing and sensitive, and without being self-loathing. Above all, his ethos was based on collaboration with blacks as equal partners, not paternalistic narcissism.

Moreover, Brown’s legacy provokes the sensitive question: can an institution be so evil and oppressive that political violence against it is justified? Can the ends really justify the means? His goal of abolishing slavery was undeniably good, but his violent methods are hard to swallow in a political culture that valorises non-violence and trusts in the gradualism of the democratic process to achieve change.

Nevertheless, Brown’s actions were a product of his context: his carefully considered violent tactics resulted from America’s continuous compromise with an evil institution that negated its founding ideals, with the objective of realising those very ideals for all Americans. And so his story demonstrates that there is no objective ethical concrete we can take refuge under.

Each of us has a place in history, and we have to use our own agency to grapple with difficult moral and political questions for ourselves. It’s something people living under oppressive conditions all around the world have to deal with every day. It is the only way humanity has been able to progress.


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
3 years ago

“…the murder of George Floyd…” Poor choice of words. No one has been tried, much less convicted.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

George Floyd committed de facto suicide. He died of the drug overdose he had taken. He was a wicked man who lived a wicked life and died a wicked death of his own devising.It is revealing of their priorities that so many so-called black rights activists wish to venerate as a hero a violent, misogynist, home-breaking drug-dealer.

Tom W
Tom W
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

His death looks nothing like “suicide by cop”. It’s clear he was far from a model citizen and was in some distress when apprehended by the police, but I’ve seen nothing that suggests he wanted to die.

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

Indeed. George Floyd was by most accounts a nasty violent man, who led a nasty violent life and seemed foreordained to die a nasty violent death. The statistical quirk was that his death (while in the hands of the police) was the low probability outcome; the high probability outcome was his death at the hands of someone just like himself.

John Dowling
John Dowling
3 years ago

Maybe the author does not realize that “the murder of George Floyd” is playing into the anarchists’ hands. Mr Floyd, having been arrested for allegedly passing a forged $20 bill, was under the influence of fentanyl and had traces of other drugs in his system. He had heart disease, and died of a heart attack probably brought on by the stress of his arrest and the drugs he was on. Check the autopsy report. His irrational behaviour was likely due to the drugs and the start of the heart attack. Fentanyl affects breathing and he was saying “I can’t breathe” BEFORE being restrained whilst resisting arrest. He was a big man (6’5”) and all 4 of the policemen were unable to get him to stay in the police car, one suffering a minor knee injury. Having called for an ambulance due to the concern of the police officers as to his health, he was restrained until its arrival. Unfortunately, he died of the HEART ATTACK before it arrived. If he had obeyed police instructions and cooperated he would likely be alive today but when have drug users been rational?

Tom W
Tom W
3 years ago
Reply to  John Dowling

What does having “traces of other drugs in his system” have to do with anything? I do not take drugs myself, but what if I did? I would be troubled if I were the subject of some public controversy and people smeared me because I had smoked a joint three days prior and had taken ecstasy the weekend prior – “traces of other drugs in his system”. So what?

Johanna Barry
Johanna Barry
3 years ago
Reply to  John Dowling

I had no idea. I understood he was an innocent man brutally killed, while four officers stood by watching. I thought this was an interesting piece about John Brown, but I felt it missed other aspects that I have come across about similar or more white men being killed in custody in the last couple of years. To me there seems to be a wider issue about training in the US police force. Anyway the ending of the article was just too glib, which was a shame because it was very interesting up to that point.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  John Dowling

They still sat on his bloody neck for 8 minutes while he died though.

David George
David George
3 years ago

The question of the justification for violence can’t be complete without considering who it is directed at and a realistic assessment of the real motives. Is it justice or power that is being sought.
The murder of innocents (the concert bombing in the UK for example) surely destroys any legitimacy the terrorist might have conceived; injustice creating greater injustice. Pretty weak essay for what it chooses to ignore.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

The most striking element of the debate of the early to mid 19th century is that the abolitionist appear to be from a strong Christian (usually Presbyterian) tradition. The current BLM movement and similar movements for Transrights, pro Choice, etc would like to cancel everyone from that Christian tradition.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago

“Most mainstream abolitionists viewed blacks as the moral equivalent of children, who were to be seen but not heard; he refused to infantilise them.”

So then he would have zero place in today’s “progressive” movements – got it.

“What was unprecedented about the protests across America was how white people made up a significant number of the protesters.”

Yeah, and that may seem like a good thing (using Bernie Sanders’ accent and quote regarding people being in bread lines), but there is a mountain of video and other documentary evidence about the “protests” here which mostly have zero to do with George Floyd or, really, police misconduct. Any legitimate grievances which exist are drowned in Marxist radicalism and old-fashioned thuggery, looting, and vandalism. The pasty-faced (and other) dilettantes have no idea was oppression really is and their manipulators are in the business of keeping them ignorant and brainwashed.

Gabriele
Gabriele
3 years ago

Outside of morality, the problem of violence is its effectiveness or lack thereof. As the author himself noted, the American Civil War ended slavery but it did not end discrimination. In that sense, the peaceful abolition of slavery in Brazil was much more successful. And this happened despite the general worse situation of rights and freedom in Brazil.

Violence has a certain attractive purity: “I am ready to defend justice at all costs”. However, this lead to an equally extreme reaction. The end result is that the mean (i.e., violence) trumps every other consideration.

In short, you might start with “violence for justice and freedom”, but you end up with “just violence”. Because if you lose a battle of violence, you lose everything. So, most people prefer to drop any restrain in order to win (and survive): violence and freedom become a secondary concern.

Tom W
Tom W
3 years ago
Reply to  Gabriele

You conclude with “violence and freedom become a secondary concern”. I think you must have meant “justice and freedom become a secondary concern”

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

The meme of the moment is that nowhere at any time in history has the “plague” of racism been so bad as in the US in 2020. Anybody who knows the tiniest history knows the opposite is the truth. Although of course it is important to try and improve the situation more and more, the BLM and allied movements give no credit to the unprecedented attempts by the West to abolish slavery and racism – and its unprecedented self-hatred for its colonial past. How much more do you want? For the West to crucify itself in Christ-like fashion in one final fit of oikophobia? With just a few million more bodies, our multi-cultural utopia will be reached……

Fiver Fiver
Fiver Fiver
3 years ago

I think Flashman had the measure of John Brown (in Flashman and The Angel of the Lord)

Simon Cross
Simon Cross
3 years ago
Reply to  Fiver Fiver

Very wise man, was GMF.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

‘If it could happen in Haiti then it could happen here,’

It has taken them a long time, for they were not a majority in the US like they were in Haiti, but the BLM movement, abetted by the Democrats, are finally achieving their goal of making the US just as stable and prosperous as their black-led utopia of Haiti. They follow proudly in the footprints of other prosperous black states today such as Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc, etc, etc. Vote Biden-Harris to speed up the process and achieve Haiti-like levels of success by the end of the next presidential term!

Sarcasm aside, as South African journalist Oluniyi D. Ajao points out for Tech Dot Africa, “African Countries Top List of Failed States” [https://tech.africa/african…]. Or take a look at the Fragile States Index: https://en.wikipedia.org/wi…. Of the worst 20 states on that list, all but one are either African or Muslim (or both). The only exception? Haiti. *mic drop*

These states are the way they are because of the humans who live there. It is not some magic property of the soil or the climate that makes them that way, as evidenced by Haiti’s failure relative to its Hispanic neighbours. So when prosperous countries import the humans who created these fragile or failed states, it is inevitable, utterly inevitable, that our prosperous countries will go the same way, in proportion to the numbers that we import. There ought to be nothing controversial about this fact. The only question is: what are we going to do about it?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

It is mainly about the policies countries follow. The comment about the ‘humans who live there’ sounds pretty much like racism in any body’s language.
Race in a biological sense, if not entirely a myth, is a very weak category. Modern science shows that there is vastly greater genetic variance between individuals in any ‘race’ than there are between races. Africa, where modern humans arise has more genetic variety than the rest of the world, explained by the relatively small number of people involved in the ‘Out of Africa’ migrations.

Some African countries are doing pretty well, such as Botswana, but many are not. However an endless focus on grievance, demands for reparations, talk about neocolonialism, debt forgiveness, and foreign aid does them a complete disservice, which it is good to see many African thinkers are beginning to argue.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

You can clutch your pearls over whether I’m being politically correct if you like. The facts of which peoples have managed to construct functional societies and which haven’t are the facts, and no amount of starry-eyed idealism about “equality” will change them.

Steve Edwards
Steve Edwards
3 years ago

As has already been pointed out, we don’t know if George Floyd was murdered any more than whether Cannon Hinnant has been murdered yet as no trials have taken place. We do know that at least 30 people have died in the US subsequent to the protests/riots choose your own word, following George Floyd’s death. A price worth paying? Ask the loved ones of the deceased first.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

“His conviction that the “peculiar institution”’ of slavery could not be extirpated from America without a war of emancipation was proved right.”

Thomas D’Lorenzo makes a compelling case contra. England, France, Brazil, …everybody but Haiti did it without blood. Slave labor had long since become economically irrational. All the even minimally enlightened slaveholders only needed compensation. Equally, the war didn’t free the blacks it only made a technical change in their relative status (often for the worse) from chattel to serf.

Robert Flack
Robert Flack
3 years ago

And yet still no mention of white slavery in Africa.

philip.davies31
philip.davies31
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Flack

I see no evidence that the author of this article would not admit of it. I suppose it was simply not his immediate subject of concern. In light of the position Lincoln himself was forced by events to take – “a John Brown raid on a gigantic scale” – I think Leonard’s attitude is perfectly rational. Regrettably. Of course the issue remains an open wound in the USA to this day. Evil is an ineradicable presence in human affairs. But people are doomed to go on seeking the resolution of this evil legacy, even though there is no salvation on Earth for our fatally flawed nature. Tragically.

neilyboy.forsythe
neilyboy.forsythe
3 years ago

Well, the answer is democracy and liberty. If you can vote out and in the representatives that make the laws you live under, and those laws are applied equally to all citizens (There’s a reason article 7 exists in the UDHR, Humza Yousaf), there is never an excuse for violence.
Fail to follow those simple rules and……..yeah, violence is not only legitimate, it’s inevitable.

chris carr
chris carr
3 years ago

“It is the only way humanity has been able to progress.”
I am not sure what “it” refers to here, but passionate, idealistic claims to have “the only way” are false.

Lincoln Larsen
Lincoln Larsen
3 years ago

He strongly held to antinomianism: the idea that the ‘higher law’ of God was superior to the law made by men.

Whatever other flaws exist in this article, one glaring one is that this author has a highly inaccurate idea of antinomianism. Even the hyperlink contradicts what he says. Antinomianism actually has nothing to do with opposition to man-made laws, and everything to do with the denial of the need for a believer to follow God’s law.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
3 years ago

Just to clarify, it was the United States Constitution that maintained the institution of slavery, not the Declaration of Independence.

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

The author takes as a given that the killing of George Floyd was racially motivated. That view is consistent across a great deal of commentary – and even what’s supposed to be straight news reporting – about his death.

Perhaps racial animus was a factor in Chauvin decisions to mistreat Floyd, but we don’t know that at this point. It wouldn’t particularly surprise me if evidence emerges that’s the case, but it hasn’t so far.

As one point of comparison, Tony Timpa – who is white – died at the hands of Dallas police under extremely similar circumstances in 2016: under the influence of drugs, handcuffed, and lying face down for over 10 minutes, with an officer’s knee on his back. There’s also a video of that death, from police body cameras. The officers were charged in his death, but all charges were dismissed by the local prosecutor before going to trial.

In short, there are some problems with policing in the U.S., but statistics – and looking into the circumstances and race of the people killed in particularly egregious cases – don’t really support the idea that police routinely kill black people under circumstances where no white person would meet a similar fate. There does seem to be evidence, however, for the “Driving While Black” phenomenon that blacks are disproportionately more likely to be pulled over by police.

John McWhorter has a thoughtful take on this subject – https://quillette.com/2020/

Ben Dobbyn
Ben Dobbyn
3 years ago

I wonder if Malcolm X would of welcomed the Royal Navy into the OAAU, considering their sometimes violent resistance to slavery?

ednajanjacobs
ednajanjacobs
3 years ago

Here’s something to consider about John Brown……perhaps a sociopath with intense faith in Jehovah. He’s not a great example for debate, unless one is into irrational action. There is a museum at Harpers Ferry , W. Virginia that commemorates the man but still he lacked the executive brain function to organize something truly significant other than outright murder. John Brown NOT a martyr nor an example to follow.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
3 years ago

I have to wonder if John Brown would be as understanding of todays black crybabies as he was of blacks in his day who had completely legitimate grievances. Today’s blacks are, for the most part, babies.

Patrick Pending
Patrick Pending
3 years ago

‘Political violence’ ? No, just violence. It doesn’t come in different flavours to suit your argument.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago

“Can an institution be so evil that violence against it is justified?” Yes, of course. But Negro slavery in North America and the West Indies was not that institution. On the other hand the murderous regimes of Stalin and Hitler certainly were.