I’ll be the first to admit that I love John Brown. And the reason for it is really quite simple. He lived in a time and a place where owning human beings as property was sanctioned by hundreds of years of tradition. It was a practice older than America itself, but John Brown still knew that it was wrong. He fought against it, and he paid for his beliefs with his life.
With the benefit of 150 years of hindsight, it’s easy to call slavery the monstrous injustice that it was. But Brown didn’t have that luxury, as he lived in what he called a “guilty land” because of the presence of slavery. He fought against it by taking matters into his own hands, first in “Bleeding Kansas” and then at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. While some quietly agreed with his principles, far too many thought that Brown was the real danger, and not the practice of human bondage.
One of my favorite poems is Herman Melville’s “The Portent,” which refers to “Weird John Brown” as the “meteor of the war.” And I don’t doubt that this is true, either. Brown burned hot and then flamed out, but his importance lingers still. On the anniversary of his death, I am grateful for the changes that his actions–as misguided as they may have once seemed– helped to bring about in this country.