“He Knew How to Die”: John Brown on the Gallows, December 2, 1859
Mr. Blight is professor of American History at Yale University, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition, and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.One hundred fifty years ago this week, John Brown, the radical abolitionist, walked out of the Charlestown, Virginia jail to a wagon containing his simple wooden coffin. He sat on the box as the wagon conveyed him a half mile to the edge of town for his appointment with the gallows. U. S. troops and Virginia militia guarded this most famous execution in American history, fearing attempts to rescue the leader of the shocking Harpers Ferry Raid. As Brown’s 59-year old body dangled in the cold breeze that morning with the starkly beautiful mountains as a backdrop, Americans all across the land contemplated the meanings of violence, slavery, and martyrdom as never before. And we have never managed to get John Brown – his deeds and his death – out of our consciousness.
Every discussion of the history of revolutionary violence or terrorism (choose your label) in American history begins with John Brown’s efforts to destroy slavery. Today, many have folded Brown’s story into a pleasing sense of the inevitability of the Civil War; Harpers Ferry is viewed as the ordained “first shots” of the nation’s tragic, but worthwhile, struggle to end slavery in a society as Brown so famously put it, “purged with blood.” Some admire Brown as America’s own righteous, Bible-quoting Spartacus somehow advancing our history, a redemptive hero who justifies our self-perception as a nation devoted to freedom and equality. Or, then as now, Brown can be dismissed as the midnight terrorist, the bloody agent of fanatical rage in the name of God’s designs. These extremes can keep us comfortable with our prejudices and our desires, but blind to the authentic fated tragedy in Brown’s acts.
Saintly hero or evil monster, John Brown on the gallows has inspired and haunted American poetry, painting, fiction, and historical interpretation. A living ghost in the national psyche, he will not go away, especially in our post 9/11 world of ubiquitous political and religious violence. John Brown should and does still trouble us; his “soul” may “go marching on” in the song that bears his name, but we should never let him or his story rest too easily in the narratives we tell ourselves. History should never come so cheap as to simply make us feel good about murder in the name of vengeance for slaveholding. Yet, few at the time of his execution could resist the fact that vengeance (God’s or man’s) for more than two centuries of the destruction of the lives, the souls, the collective human future of millions of Africans and African Americans was a primal challenge in the struggle for the very existence of the experiment called the United States.
The raid on the federal arsenal in October and the famous trial that followed were sensational events. But the public hanging, conducted on southern soil by the state of Virginia, was far more important in the long run. If Brown had not been captured so readily, if a slave insurrection in Virginia had killed thousands and Brown himself had been merely shot on some country road and the body never found we would not be thinking about him today. It is all about the gallows. Brown said so himself in one of his many letters from jail while awaiting execution: “I am worth now infinitely more to die than to live.” And many of his admirers would say the same thing over the generations. Ralph Waldo Emerson gushed that Brown had “made the gallows as glorious as the cross.” By 1880, Frederick Douglass, to some extent a co-conspirator with the Old Hero, declared: “I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.” In 1928, the poet Stephen Vincent Benet tellingly captured Brown’s lasting meaning: “He had no gift for life, no gift to bring/ Life but his body and a cutting edge, / But he knew how to die.” And in Jacob Lawrence’s haunting series of paintings of John Brown done in the 1930s, nearly every one of the 22 images contain some variation of a cross, formal or twisted, made of rifles and spears, or of Brown’s body itself. Lawrence’s Brown on the cross was America on the cross. And no use of this most powerful image of western culture – crucifixion – should ever make us comfortable in our stories.
John Brown should confound and trouble us. Martyrs are made by history; people choose their martyrs just as we choose to define good and evil. And we will be forever making and unmaking John Brown as Americans face not only their own racial past, but the ever changing reputation of violence in the present. Indeed, as Robert Penn Warren, a fierce critic of Brown, nonetheless once said, it is the job of historians to pick the “scabs from our fate.” Love old John Brown or not, if we can do that with this subject we will learn a great deal about ourselves.
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