Connections with the Past:
Not the Alamo--Seven Points About the Harpers Ferry Raid That You Should Know
Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
The Afrolumens Project is pleased to be able to publish the following essay on John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Historian Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., a highly respected and recognized John Brown scholar, presents the often controversial event as a first blow in a war of liberation, and places it up against a celebrated historical icon of American character: The Alamo. DeCaro's comparison begs the question of why one event is widely celebrated over another.
Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. is author of two books on John Brown. They are "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU Press, 2002) and the forthcoming John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (International Publishers, 2006).
Today is the 147th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia, which was made a state in 1863). 1
With a small band of men, white and black, Brown seized the federal armory--the only government armory in the South--as well as the arsenal and took prisoners while his men rounded up local enslaved men to assist them on the ground. Much of what has been otherwise said of the raid has been skewed and misrepresented by slavemasters, Democrats and Republicans, and a host of hostile and/or ignorant journalists and historians over the past century-and-a-half.
Here are 7 points about the Harper's Ferry raid you should know:
In contrast, the Harper's Ferry raid was the effort of a small band which, to a man, involved people with unusually high principles and convictions regarding justice and human liberation. There was no self-interest in the group, except for Dangerfield Newby, who was fighting in the hopes of freeing his enslaved wife and family. The goal of the raid was not to seize territory and extend slavery but to deflate and collapse the slave economy. Brown believed that a civil war was inevitable, even imminent, and hoped to defuse it by undermining the infrastructure of the South with minimal violence. Historians have often "credited" him with the start of the Civil War, although it had been his hope of avoiding it. To suggest (as did some 20th century historians) that the War would have been avoided were it not for Brown, is ridiculous. The problem of slavery had to be dealt with, and to suggest that another half-century of "moderation" was needed is unrealistic with respect to Southern militancy. Too, to suggest that slavery should have been phased out in time is to join with many others who have temporized over doing justice for reasons of prejudice. The Harper's Ferry raid represented the best interests of our nation's founders, many of whom were stymied by their own racism and hypocrisy (like Thomas Jefferson) being both prophets of freedom and slave masters. Brown--not the floundering late-born emancipator Lincoln--represents the prophetic single-minded corrective to Washington and Jefferson's double-mindedness.
John Brown was a "bible Christian" who acted out of interest in the freedom of an oppressed and victimized people. He believed something had to be done and at least he tried. To impugn him for using "violence" is hypocrisy since our nation used violence in order to subdue, control, and "settle" this land. To condemn him for not allowing the "problem" to be resolved by governmental leadership is also a farce. First, this is precisely what Brown and many other anti-slavery people did throughout the first half of the 19th century. By 1850 things had actually gotten worse for the cause of freedom. The government was in the hands of pro-slavery forces and there was secession (and continued slavery) on the lips of powerful southerners. Furthermore the North was hardly driven by concern for free blacks, let alone enslaved black people in the South. As long as slavery was contained, people like Abe Lincoln would have been contented.
All things considered, the Harper's Ferry raid, failure and all, was exactly what was needed in the long run. There was no other way to deal with slavery except by ending it, and there was no other way to end it than by a program using a measure of violence. Brown tried a program of minimalist bloodshed and happily went to the gallows believing that his death would at least snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. "I failed," John Brown told one of his Virginia guards, "but it is only delay, for as certain as the sun shines, the negroes will soon be set free." John Brown was prescient in his vision of slavery's end. Lincoln began his presidency by defaming Brown but ended it by doing a political imitation of him.
How one views the Alamo and Harper's Ferry is not a matter of historical trivia. It is a barometer of one's sense of justice in history and probably in the contemporary sense as well.
Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D. 2, 3
Also to be posted on my John Brown blog at:
1. Received in email correspondence, forwarded by Jean Libby to the Afrolumens Project, 16 October 2006.
2. Permission to publish on the Afrolumens Project website obtained 17 October 2006 from Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
3. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. is author of two books on John Brown. They are "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU Press, 2002) and the forthcoming John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (International Publishers, 2006).
material on this page copyright 2006 Afrolumens Project
Article copyright 2006 by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
Permission to reprint and publish has been obtained from the author.
The url of this page is http://www.afrolumens.org/ugrr/decaro01.htm
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This page was updated October 25, 2006.