Freedom fighter or rebel?


Today is the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown, a fanatical abolitionist, seized the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the hope of fomenting a slave insurrection. The Marines – lead, ironically, by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee – suppressed the rebellion after three days. Brown and several of his surviving comrades were swiftly tried and hanged. Interestingly, the crime for which Brown was executed was not treason against the United States, but treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. I wonder how many states still have treason statutes?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about John Brown. On the one hand, he was a fanatic, a rebel against the United States, and an insurrectionist who hoped to spark a slave revolt that surely would have cost thousands of innocent lives. On the other hand, the evil that lead him to his rebellion, the abomination against which he held a fanatical hatred, was slavery. While I can’t approve the means, I can surely sympathize with the motives. Those mixed feelings were felt much more intensely in the 1850s, and John Brown’s raid was the first flaring of the fire that would break out in civil war just two years later.

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