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Thursday, April 21, 2005

John Brown: The Transcendentalists' terrorist.

Okay Unitarian-Universalist and American literary history buffs, be sure to read Adam Gopnik's essay about the brilliant, violent abolitionist John Brown. I'd like to call your attention especially to the way the Transcendentalists — our most famous Unitarians — embraced Brown after he and four of his sons slaughtered five pro-slavery men in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. That's right, after. Reviewing David S. Reynolds's new biography, Gopnik writes:

Brown was never arrested or tried for the Kansas killings, and when he came back East he found himself a hero—though not with the members of Garrison’s abolitionist “establishment,” who were firmly pacifist and consumed by their own sectarian squabbling. Instead, it was the high Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson and Alcott first among them, who became Brown’s fervent admirers and propagandists. Some of Reynolds’s most illuminating pages are devoted to Brown’s relationship to the Transcendentalists. The historical cliché has been that the Transcendentalists had their heads too far up in the clouds to see what was happening on the bloody earth below. Reynolds, however, following Stauffer, establishes that they were Brown’s most important intellectual allies.

In a way, it was an early instance of radical chic: the Transcendentalists preferred a real man to a squabbling set of Mrs. Jellybys. But there was more to it. They shared a disdain for materialist Northern society—which Brown had bankrupted himself out of, and which the Transcendentalists viewed largely with baffled dismay. Whatever else Brown might be, he was not a trivial man, or a worldly one: he was not a merchant with a Sunday cause. He was a free man already in a state of liberty. In a way that recalls the idealization of Jean Genet by the French existentialists, it was his own freedom from constraints, as much as his urge to break the shackles of others, that drew the Transcendentalists to him.

He received the backing of a group of wealthy abolitionists who called themselves the Secret Six, though a less secret secret group is hard to imagine. They included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the man who was later Emily Dickinson’s patron. (Reynolds has some fascinating speculative pages on traces of Brown’s life in Dickinson’s poetry, one essentially fanatic American imagination speaking to another.) From that time on, Brown was devoted to fund-raising and recruiting for his Southern invasion plan, which soon centered on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Another member of the Secret Six was the radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker — along with Emerson one of the saints of Unitarian intellectual history — whose involvement Dean Grodzins describes this way:

Parker grew convinced that there could be no wholly political solution to the slavery crisis. During the proto-civil war in Kansas territory, he raised money to buy weapons for the free state militias, and later became a member of the secret committee that helped finance and arm John Brown's failed attempt, in October 1859, to start a slave insurrection in Virginia. When Brown was arrested, Parker wrote a public letter defending Brown's actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters (John Brown's Expedition Reviewed).

Gopnik makes the case that Brown was central to the American Civil War:

By writing John Brown out as an oddity or sideshow, [Reynolds] insists, we miss the essential reality of the war: what was unthinkable and extremist in 1859—the armed descent of the North on the South to end slavery—had by 1864 become a mass movement, so that the war could be understood as what Lincoln called “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.” Brown is the first mover in the American tragedy, the man who struck the bell and struck it hard.

I'm not sure I had very directly confronted the fact that the Transcendentalists knew they were funding a murderer and terrorist when they embraced John Brown's rebellion. (Loaded word? Sure, but it fits precisely, as Gopnik shows.) Brown and his supporters illustrate how clarity of purpose can justify violence, a tragic outcome of commitment — something I thought about when reading Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, which also focuses on a handful of New Englanders in Emerson's orbit during the Civil War.

("John Brown's Body," Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 4.25.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 21 April 2005 at 9:26 PM

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April 22, 2005 09:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

I recently heard a story, told to me by a colleague, that at the moment John Brown was executed in Washington D.C., All Souls D.C. (was it named All Souls in 1859?) tolled their church bell in honor of him.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

April 22, 2005 10:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've always thought the story of John Brown and the Transcendentalists should serve as a lesson and warning about the dangers of lending religious legitimacy to political radicalism. Obviously, it isn't enough to say we are called by our religion to do something, one must also question the ethics and effect of the call. Parker believed he was helping slaves by supporting John Brown, but the massacre actually resulted in "retributive" violence directed at slaves not involved with the uprising, making their condition worse. When I hear about a UU group raising money for Palestinians in the name of UUism, I wonder if we aren't making a similar mistake.

Meadville Lombard recently acquired a relic of John Brown, now on display outside the Wiggin Memorial Library.

Jeff Wilson:

April 22, 2005 02:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

This is a really good topic, glad to see it discussed here. The situation is even murkier than Matthew suggests, because Brown's actions (particularly in 1859) helped in part to start the Civil War. Does this mean that his terrorism did in fact contribute ultimately to the emancipation of the slaves?

Unitarian/Transcendentalist support for abolition was widespead and included all sorts of activites, from protecting fugitive slaves in the North (another activity the Secret Six were involved in) to funding abolitionist paramilitaries to enlistment in the War Between the States (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., etc). But that shouldn't imply there weren't plenty of copperheads among the Unitarians, or that their abolitionism was always about human rights (in some cases, it was about removing blacks--supposedly an inferior and dangerous race--from the United States).


April 22, 2005 03:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew, you warn about the dangers of lending religious legitimacy to political radicalism, but would you lump the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer plotting an assassination attempt against Hitler into the same category?

Matthew Gatheringwater:

April 22, 2005 06:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

John Brown believed that people innocent of a particular sin should be punished even by death for simply being a member of what he considered a sinful society. He forced wives and children to listen while he killed their unarmed fathers and husbands because he believed he had a right to resort to violence when the law did not recognize his particular moral standpoint. It is not a coincidence that Timothy McVeigh considered him a hero--at least, not any more a coincidence than that John Brown considered Oliver Cromwell to be a hero. The fact that we happen to agree with a portion of Brown's moral position--that slavery is wrong--does not mean we must agree with the methods by which he sought to end slavery.

It sounds like you are well-informed about history perhaps even more so than I, a student, but I think it is a stretch to say that Unitarian and Universalist support for abolition was widespread. Parker's views were not in the mainstream of Unitarianism and he suffered for them. Unitarian Universalists have tended to selectively recall and celebrate abolitionists and other figures in the past who reflect modern values, while ignoring other people and groups who were just as much a part of their tradition and history and presumably just as motivated by their faith to work for temperance, phrenological research, and the eugenics movement--all of these being issues which had much more widespread support than abolition. There were many more Unitarians who were anti-slavery than abolitionist, and not only were there differences about how slavery should be ended in both groups, there were also some who were not convinced it should be ended. I even once ran across slaves for sale in an antebellum Universalist periodical! Even the abolitionists UUs celebrate today had problematical beliefs about race. Parker, for example, was very clear in his views that Negroes were, as a race, inferior to whites, and the best outcome he could imagine for them would be what many would now call genocide: the gradual disappearance of the race through intermarriage.

As to the question of whether terrorism contributed toward Emancipation: In the first place, I'm not sure I'm comfortable ever saying the ends justify the means. In the second place, the ends aren't so great. Frederick Douglass refused to have anything to with Brown's planned uprising because he believed it would result in violent retribution, even mass execution, of Negroes. He was right. Panic over the Harper's Ferry massacre spread through the south, fueling a lynch mob mentality that marred American culture long after Emancipation.

I am afraid of all idealists, whether or not I agree with their position, who are willing to become indifferent to human suffering in pursuit of their cause. Both Brown and Bonhoeffer were devoutly religious men who used their religion to legitimize religion. I find Bonhoeffer to be the more sympathetic personality of the two, but I don't approve of his plot any more than I approve of Brown's. After all, we cannot lay all the atrocities of WWII at the feet of one man. Hitler deserved to die but I do not believe Bonhoeffer deserved to be his judge.

Rather than foster an uncritical acceptance of well-meaning supporters of terrorism like Theodore Parker, I think Unitarian Universalists would be better served by looking at other, less romantic, perspectives on this issue, such as those presented by William Lloyd Garrison. Now when is the last time you heard a sermon about *him*?


April 22, 2005 10:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew- I guess I see the perspective that holds that all ends must be accomplished by pure and perfect means is a dangerous form of idealism unto itself.

I do not disagree with your concern about religiously legitimated violence but I share at least an equal if not greater concern about non-religious or religious ineffectiveness and inaction.

Jeff Wilson:

April 22, 2005 10:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew, I agree with your assessment of selective UU memory. Let me clarify that by widespread I didn't mean universal, or even that it was a majority opinion--just that it was far from uncommon and was found in many different types of manifestations during different periods and in different parts of the country. But you're right to call me out on conflating abolitionism with anti-slavery, which were not necessarily the same thing. In many cases the support of people like Parker had less to do with admiration for the capacities of black people and more to do with regional antagonisms toward the South based on cultural/economic differences. That's why the Fugitive Slave Act so angered them--it gave Southerners the right to come into the North and assert authority while tracking runaways. The Northerners felt their honor and sovereignty (so to speak) were besmirched.

I think maybe I'm leading this discussion astray. Going back to Unitarian support for apparant terrorist acts (and Universalist too, since they've now been added in), I have a hard time making up my mind on this one. Part of that is my training as a historian--since this is a time period I study I'm used to trying to take it as it was, suspending my judgments. But I also think Parker's assessment of the situation was right: there was no purely political solution to the problem of slavery. Without the bloodshed of the Civil War, I suspect blacks would be slaves right now.

In a way, this linkage of terrorism/murder to the end of slavery goes back even further. Nat Turner's 1831 uprising, wherein he and comrades killed 55 whites (including infants), helped inspire John Brown's actions, which helped to initiate the Civil War. As with Brown's actions, the backlash against the Turner Rebellion was viscious and resulted in the deaths of many blacks and severe restrictions (which, in their own way, also helped to provoke the war).

I don't think murder is right, and I don't think what Turner or Brown did was good. But in a way, it is understandable to me. I can imagine myself acting in similar ways in their positions, though I don't like to consider myself a potential killer (or a religious zealot, something both men were). There was a touch of insanity in both men, and I don't mean that as a way to dismiss or relativize them, it's just an observation (perfectly sane men also commit terrible crimes). Truthfully, if I was alive back then I would've been more likely to be one of their victims than a supporter, since my family were slaveholders. If I can forgive my ancestors for their crimes, I also feel a need to forgive those who did them harm for a cause I feel was just (for instance, the invading Yankees whose actions resulted in the death of my great-great grandfather, a true Confederate patriot).

Matthew Gatheringwater:

April 22, 2005 11:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

RevThom: I hope I am not such a fool as to insist upon "pure and perfect means" but once we begin to abrogate not only the law, but the sanctity of life itself, for the sake of individual morality, where shall we end? It does no good to say that Brown (or any other zealous terrorist) was intent upon removing a great injustice if he deprives some people of life in order to improve the lives of others. Violating one's own principles in order to preserve them is the nonsensical temptation of the well-meaning doctrinaire. One may sympathize with Brown's principles while loathing his sense of proportion.

Besides, part of my argument is that Brown's action was not, in fact, effective. It is hard to see who benefited from the massacre. Certainly not Brown himself or the people who died with him--both his victims and the people he armed and led into a situation anyone not convinced by Brown's peculiar brand of millennialism would surely have seen was hopeless. Nor is it clear to me how the massacre improved the conditions of life for the slaves he wished to free. Quite the reverse, in fact. And, as I have pointed out, black leaders like Douglass didn't want Brown's kind of help.

Your concern, however, does not seem to be only about an historical debate. Neither is mine. I'm interested in the connection between terrorism and the Transcendentalists because I think it has something to tell us about the role of religion in public life today. "God told me to do it," is not, to my way of thinking, an adequate defense for breaking the law or violating the sanctity of life.


April 23, 2005 10:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew: You are right, in this particular discussion I am less interested in the history of John Brown than in the ethical and trans-ethical dimensions of religious experience, radicalism (violent or otherwise), and what happens when social norms and religious revelation find themselves at odds.

You are also quite right that this is a dangerous discussion that can lead to dark places. I will admit that I am using this discussion not to promote my own firm beliefs but to explore dangerous ideas. This is an exercise in intellectual testing, so I hope no one construes my posts as advocating violence, murder, or criminal acts.

Matthew writes, "Once we begin to abrogate... the law... for the sake of individual morality, where shall we end?" and "'God told me to do it,' is not, to my way of thinking, an adequate defense for breaking the law or violating the sanctity of life." I have two qualms with these statements. First, laws of the land are fallible. They have their limitations. You can understand laws as a covenantal guide to relations within a community or society. You can understand laws as a control mechanism instituted by the power elite. But laws and legal codes are particular rather than universal, created rather than absolute. (Some laws clearly do approximate ideas that are universal.) Of course, if you break a law, you should be willing to accept the penalty. That God tells me to steal your TV does not mean that I will not pay society's penalty for stealing TV's. (Note: God has suggested to me no such thing.) The point: it is conceivable that religious revelation can be at odds with society's legal codes.

The second point about the two lines I quoted is the reference to the singular individual. What if it is not a rogue individual but a community? Even John Brown, though praised by the Transcendentalists as a Liberated Man, did not act alone. He was funded by a community of discernment, supported by a religious/philosophical community. Does his connection to a community of ethical discourse make his actions more legitimate? Less?

My final concern is over the question of efficacy. I think we can separate, intellectually, the desired outcome from the actual outcome. In the case of John Brown, the jury is still out on whether he was effective. His actions had negative consequences, but did they also have positive ones? Is historical causation something we can know for sure? I've not fully thought out this part of the conversation yet.

Thanks for reading my dangerous, seditionist ideas!

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