I just finished reading Patriotic Treason, John Brown and the Soul of America . Before reading it, all I knew about John Brown was that he was this guy who was an abolitionist around the beginning of the Civil War and that he was hanged for some violent acts that he commtted while working towards freeing the slaves, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know where he fit in history. Was he a good guy or a bad guy? He must have been a good guy because he was anti-slavery and yet he must have done something pretty bad to be tried and hanged.
I have written before here how much I am enjoying reading biographies these days. I don’t know if it is an “old guy” thing or just a “biography phase”, but I find that I am enjoying history as I learn about a single historical figure. It is as if I am living the history through their eyes. Sometimes while I am reading, my mind will wander… While I was reading this book, I was thinking about why I like biographies so much. You wouldn’t think that I would like them because I love surprise endings. With a biography, I know the ending before I even start the book. and yet, somehow I enjoy them. Learning where the subject comes from, what drives them, who loves them, what they care most about is fascinating. Usually I pick a person who I admire to some degree. With Brown, I truly wasn’t sure. So why John Brown?
When we went to Charlestown, WV a few weeks back for a family reunion, we visited Harpers Ferry, which is just a few miles away. There, I became a little better acquainted with John Brown’s story. Harpers Ferry is where he led an assault on a National armory, captured and held it for a short time for which he was tried and hanged. When you enter the John Brown Museum, at Harpers Ferry, you are greeted with a life size tapestry of John Brown as this wild-eyed man with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. That portrait more than any other one piece drove me to want to know more about this man. I believe the message of Jesus to be a message of peace. To see a man depicted as spreading violence in the name of God was very disturbing to me.
It is unfair for me to sit on my couch in the comfort of my home and criticize John Brown’s actions of 150 years ago based on 2008 mores. While I still find much of his methodology to be disturbing, I enjoy life in a society where people with dark skin are allowed the same liberty that I enjoy; very different from John Brown’s world. He recognized the gross injustice of slavery. I don’t have to do anything to help free the slaves. It has already been accomplished. John Brown was a great catalyst towards the end of slavery. He didn’t stop slavery, but the work that he did pushed people to get off the proverbial fence. Was his way the “right way”? Could there have been another way to end slavery than a war? Who knows? We don’t get to replay history and try different means. We only get one shot at it and that’s the way it played out.
I still don’t quite know what to do with John Brown, but I understand a couple of things about him. He was a man who took his relationship with God very seriously. Until the very end, he was driven by the teachings of Jesus to do unto others as you would have them to do unto you, that God was not a “respecter of persons” and that whatever we do unto the least of these, we do unto Him. For good or for ill, it seems to me that John Brown’s fatal flaw was that he answered to no one. Ultimately, the buck stopped with him and that seems like a dangerous position for any of us. I highly recommend this book to you.
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