MAHIN on HARPERS FERRY: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do so again

October 16, 2009
Chris Mahin

Harpers Ferry, WV

October 16, 2009 will mark exactly 150 years since 21 brave revolutionaries launched an attempt to seize the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, and spark a slave uprising in the United States.

After 36 hours of hard fighting, most of the raiders were killed or captured. The raid failed – in the military and tactical sense. In the moral and strategic sense, it was ultimately a resounding success.

The raid and the subsequent execution of John Brown and six of his comrades deepened the split between the North and the South, a situation which led directly to the Civil War. Given this, it is important that we ponder the lessons of Harpers Ferry for today.

Harpers Ferry was a signal of the impending collision of two very different economic systems, chattel slavery in the South and the industrial system in the North.

This split had been growing since the introduction of steam power into small New England textile mills in the very first days of the 19th century.

When the United States was created, the representatives of the slave power completely dominated the Union. The federal Constitution agreed to in 1787 was a compromise between the North and the South. When that Constitution went into effect, the representatives of the slave power controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. This domination of national politics continued for decades. It led to a stunning arrogance on the part of the political representatives of slavery.

But once the steam engine was introduced into production, a qualitatively new economy began to develop in the North. This economy ceased to be simply an extension of the slave system.

As the population of the North grew, the North gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Desperate for new territory to bring more slave states into the Union, the South’s political representatives helped provoke a war which ended with the United States seizing half of Mexico’s territory in 1848. Then the South insisted on a Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which forced the entire population of the North to become what amounted to slave-catchers. In 1854, slavery’s defenders in Congress rammed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a measure which undid the previous agreement to ban slavery in the territories north of Missouri’s southern border. And, finally, in 1857, a Supreme Court dominated by Southerners ruled that slavery was legal throughout the entire United States (the infamous Dred Scott decision.)

Faced with these attacks, the North struggled to assert itself, weighed down by the terrible dead weight of the compromises made to form the Union and by the presence within the North of economic forces allied with the South – such as the merchants who traded extensively with the slaveowners.

The role of new ideas

At moments of crisis like this, an important role can be played by even a small number of people, provided that they have the moral courage to fight for what is right and the clarity to know what is needed to push history forward. That is why, in the history of the struggle against slavery, a special place of honor will always be reserved for the 21 men who attacked Harpers Ferry and especially for their leader, John Brown.

In a time of confusion and cowardice, John Brown’s stance was unwavering: Slavery was wrong. It would have to be abolished by force, and God had chosen him to lead that fight.

John Brown understood that the key to ending slavery was to “take the war to Africa,” – that is, to arm the slaves.

Activity and propaganda

The Harpers Ferry raid vividly illustrates the dialectical relationship between activity and propaganda.

Initially, most of the North opposed the raid. But during the 60 days from the time that the shooting stopped until the execution of John Brown, the attitude of people in the North changed markedly.

When he was captured, Brown’s rifle was taken from him. The New England essayist Henry David Thoreau remarked that Brown “could afford to lose his Sharpe’s rifles, while he retained his faculty of speech, a Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range.”

After the shooting stopped, the country was transfixed by the spectacle of the state of Virginia rushing with obscene haste through the trial of a wounded old man (who lay on a cot, barely able to stand, during most of the proceedings.)

The Virginia authorities made two serious blunders during this period. First, they allowed reporters to interview Brown. Second, prison officials allowed Brown to write and answer letters.

Here is how in his book, To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown, historian Stephen B. Oates described the consequences of that second decision:

“[T]he old man, taking advantage of this God-sent opportunity, sent out from that Charlestown jail some of the most eloquent statements ever to come from the pen of a condemned man. Even the sheriff, who examined Brown’s letters as a matter of duty, frequently had to wipe tears from his eyes.”

On Nov. 2, 1859, the judge asked Brown if he had anything to say before sentence was pronounced. Caught off guard because he had not expected to be sentenced before the other prisoners, Brown still responded with a defense of his actions so eloquent that Ralph Waldo Emerson later compared it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Pointing out a Bible being used in the courtroom, Brown declared that everything that he had done had been in accord with that book, and had been in defense of God’s “despised poor.”

Dedicated propagandists speak out

In addition to Brown himself, a core of dedicated propagandists also spoke up immediately in defense of the Harpers Ferry raid, often at great personal risk.

On the Sunday following the raid, Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips – the most dynamic public speaker of the time – stood before an initially unsympathetic audience in Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn and delivered one of the many speeches he would give defending the raid on Harpers Ferry.

In those speeches, Phillips mocked the idea that a state government which permitted children to be sold on auction blocks could presume to judge anyone. He referred to Virginia contemptuously as “a pirate ship on the ocean of the nineteenth century” and described John Brown as “a Lord High Admiral of the Almighty, with his commission to sink every pirate he meets on God’s ocean.” Phillips also declared that John Brown “has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise, as Governor Wise has to hang him.”

On October 30, 1859, Thoreau gave a lecture in Concord in support of John Brown. When town officials refused to ring the bell summoning the townspeople to the lecture, Thoreau rang it himself.

Thoreau’s address – “A Plea for Captain John Brown” – was widely reprinted in the newspapers. Thoreau’s boldness encouraged his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson -- the most prominent literary figure in the country – to speak out.

On Nov. 8, 1859, Emerson gave his lecture “Courage” before a large crowd at the Music Hall in Boston. Emerson called Brown “that new saint” whose hanging “will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”

On Dec. 2, 1859, as John Brown was being executed, church bells were ringing and protest meetings being held from New England to Kansas.

So, it was only after the bold attempt to seize the arsenal that there could be a nationwide debate over whether that action was right. But it was that weeks-long war of words – including the interviews, letters, speeches, sermons, newspaper articles, and public meetings – which turned opinion in the North to the raiders’ side, hardened Southern support for slavery, and paved the way for the Civil War. The battle of Harpers Ferry continued after the shooting stopped, and it was won not with the firearms of slavery’s opponents, but with their propaganda weapons.

Lessons for today

The “crisis of the Union” before the Civil War demonstrates that nothing can change in a crisis until there is a pole of clarity. This pole has to be formed around an idea, a cause.

The Harpers Ferry raid also shows that a cause has to be taken to the section of society whose interests the cause represents in order for it to be effective.

One hundred and fifty years after the attack on Harpers Ferry, we too need to establish a pole of clarity. Just as John Brown and his compatriots took an uncompromising stand that a system which sold children on auction blocks had to be overthrown, revolutionaries today need to take an uncompromising stand that a system which makes millions of children hungry and homeless needs to be overthrown.

John Brown’s last act of propaganda was to march up the steps of a scaffold on a spring-like December morning, his brisk footsteps and unflinching firmness announcing to the world that he was ready to die, undaunted and unafraid. Today, we toll the bell in his honor best by continuing to bring the weapon of clarity to the “despised poor” that he and the other heroes of 1859 fought so valiantly to mobilize.

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Chris Mahin wrote this article for Rally Comrades!, the newspaper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America.