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May 9, 2005 12:45 pm

John Brown and Nonviolence

A copy of David Reynolds' new biography of John Brown is on its way from Amazon. I'm anxious to read the book because I have already read several troubling reviews, including those by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times, Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. What bothers me about these reviews is their barely veiled implication that Brown, because of his willingness to kill for his convictions, had more radical and more authentic convictions than run-of-the-mill abolitionists who were not willing to kill.

All of the reviewers make clear that Reynolds wants to resuscitate Brown's reputation and to show that his violence was not maniacal or insane, but intelligible, radically egalitarian, and perhaps even necessary. Following the Transcendentalists' own celebration of Brown, Reynolds apparently portrays Brown as a hero. (In the best review I've read, David Blight reports that Reynolds casts Brown anachronistically as a"good terrorist.") But every hero needs a foil. And for the reviewers, as perhaps for Reynolds too, that part is furnished by Northern white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who are portrayed as though they were lily-livered sissies and passive pacifists until Brown came along to steel their nerves.

Gopnik, for instance, calls William Lloyd Garrison"the white Martin Luther King, Jr.," but he adds a"but.""But Garrison, like Dr. King, was a pacifist, and, right up to the moment when the war broke out, he had no really practical plan for ending slavery, aside from 'separation' (i.e., the decoupling of the North from the South) and moral suasion." While Gopnik tars"moral suasion" with the usual brush--it was not"really practical"--Hitchens goes farther. After noting that Reynolds goes to great lengths to rationalize Brown's violent methods, Hitchens glibly says that the"superfluity" of such apologies is"easily demonstrated. Not only had the slaveholders perpetrated the preponderance of atrocities, and with impunity at that, but they had begun to boast that northerners and New Englanders were congenitally soft."

Hitchens seems to agree that non-Brown abolitionists were"soft"; he relishes Reynolds' comparison between Oliver Cromwell and Brown, and he refers to moderate antislavery Northerners as"invertebrate Lincolnians." Ehrenreich echoes the spineless pacifists theme, writing that"antislavery activists ... were often pacifists and usually the victims of their political opponents -- a relationship symbolized by a South Carolina congressman's crippling beating of the abolitionist Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. With his guns and pikes, Brown reversed the equation -- stiffening the backbones of Northern abolitionists, terrifying the white South." Even Gopnik, who goes relatively easy on the Garrisonians, cannot resist saying,"Where Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling." And, referring to an 1835 incident in which a violent crowd of rioters attempted to lynch the radical editor, Gopnik avers that"even Garrison, a man of unexampled courage, could not face down a mob in Boston but had to be saved by the police."

Umm ... he was facing a lynch mob that had managed to tie a noose around him. Is Gopnik really prepared to say that Garrison was less courageous than Brown because the police rescued him from his attackers? (Actually, that's not even entirely accurate: Garrison was lifted to safety by a couple of burly rioters who took pity on him. And he was driven away to safety by an unidentified black hackney-driver, who used his whip to keep the crowd at bay. The police assisted in Garrison's rescue only grudgingly, if at all, and when Garrison was brought for protection to City Hall, he was told that he could not stay there because his presence made the building unsafe.)

There was probably never a day in Garrison's adult life when there was not a bounty on his head somewhere in the South. But was he somehow less courageous than Brown because, unlike the Old Man, he was unwilling to lop off the heads of Southerners?

When historians compare radical reformers, it is certainly appropriate to ask about the practicability of their different methods and even to judge the consistency of their convictions, not because historians are the best judges of character, but because making those judgments can help reveal what their bedrock convictions were. But there seems to be something more going on in these comparisons between Brown and Garrison. What seems to be driving the resuscitation of Brown's reputation is not just an historical judgment but an ethical judgment about his superior courage and radicalism. Read between the lines and you'll find the essentially ahistorical insinuation that principled pacifists are really cowards; that those who choose liberty or death to its enemies are more radical than those who would rather die than kill; that meekness is weakness; that the vision of lions lying down with lambs is a pleasing fantasy invented by lambs; that, by a process of elimination, people turn to pacifism when they don't have"practical" plans for making society more just. Pacifists, to paraphrase Ehrenreich, are seen as"victims." Only the violent are thought of as valient.

Clearly these statements are moving outside the realm of purely historical analysis and into the realm of ethics. I'm not necessarily uncomfortable with that movement; I don't believe people who tell me they can study history without allowing their thoughts to at least drift in the direction of ethical reflection. But so long as we are headed in that direction, allow me to point out the irony of book reviewers consigning"moral suasion" to the dustbin of history and dead pacifists to the ship of fools. What are historians and writers, after all, if they are not persons who believe that the word is more powerful than the sword? And if they do not believe this, then why are they in a byline instead of on a frontline?

I realize that question might not be entirely fair. Not everyone who believes that violence is more radical than moral suasion is thereby obligated to take up arms and rid the world of its wrongs. But such reviewers are essentially castigating people like Garrison for failing to live up to their convictions, to stiffen their spines, to get their hands dirty or bloody. So forgive me if I can't avoid poking a bit at the inconsistency of"inverterbrate Hitchensians." (One could point out the same thing about the Transcendentalist scriveners who were most responsible for Brown's apotheosis. Was Emerson really more courageous than Garrison simply because his words celebrated antislavery violence?)

But that's not the main point I want to make here. Skeptical as I am of the ethical claim that violence is always more radical than nonviolence, I am even more concerned that this view is historically suspect, for at least two reasons.

First, nonviolence was not merely an instrumental strategy for many radical abolitionists; for many of them, it was integral to their most radical ideologies. If we view their pacifism as nothing more than a strategy or personal trait, then it is easier to portray that pacifism as a sign of whimsy or weakness. But in fact, for many Garrisonians, a commitment to"nonresistance" was much more than a mere strategy, and certainly more than a simple sign of courage or its lack. It was at the core of their critique of slavery, government, and much else. According to nonresistants, any exercise of violence was an unjust usurpation of God's authority, an immoral abuse of power. From their perspective, that was a large reason why slavery was wrong--it assigned to the master violent power that did not belong to him or her. For many Garrisonians, then, their renunciation of violence was of a piece with their renunciation of slavery. To call their pacifism a mere lack of spine ignores how it shaped their posture towards slavery and other violent abuses of power--like the treatment of Native Americans, the hawkish expansionism that sparked the Mexican War, and unequal marriages.

I could generalize this point to other theorists of nonviolence like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. For both men, nonviolence was not simply a strategy or a practical plan. Both argued that direct nonviolent action was more expedient than violence, but this was not their only defense of pacifism. Rather, the commitments that informed their pacifism also informed their views of the state, of the human person, of justice; to remove the pacifism would not just be to make a change of"plan," it would force thinkers like Gandhi and King to rethink their entire philosophies. It's also simply false in their cases, as in the case of the Garrisonians, to suggest that nonviolence put a brake on their radicalism. Some of their contemporaries certainly did suggest that--think John Brown or Malcolm X--but they were not necessarily right. Progressives today usually praise King in his later years for moving in more radical directions in his thinking about poverty and the war in Vietnam, but they often forget that this trajectory was an outgrowth of his philosophy of nonviolence. His radicalism, like Garrison's, did not view pacifism as a mere tool in the reformer's hand, but as part of the hand itself.

Second: not only is nonviolence often integral to radical programs; violence is often integral to conservative or reactionary worldviews. It may seem as though John Brown's belief that slaves and abolitionists needed to rise up in holy war against the South could only have radical and egalitarian overtones. But that very belief was also integral to the arguments of those who opposed racial equality and emancipation. In an article in the Journal of American History that recently won the ABC-CLIO Award from the OAH, my friend Francois Furstenberg has argued persuasively that the definition of"freedom" as"resistance" to oppression might actually have served to legitimate personal slavery, since it allowed defenders of the system to claim that slaves who did not resist their enslavement were somehow" choosing" their plight autonomously. Implicitly, I think, calling Garrisonians or Lincolnians"spineless" can potentially point in a similar direction, since it suggests that those who do not, like Brown, put their swords where their words are must not"want" freedom as much.

There are also gendered overtones to the idea that Brown was more genuinely radical than Garrison, since violent resistance was defined throughout the antebellum period (as it probably still is for many people today) as a"masculine" virtue, an act in which men prove that they are manly men. The word"sissy" itself carries that overtone, and to imply, even indirectly, that Garrison was a sissy also comes across as a derogative accusation of effeminacy. The connected implication is that women are incapable of proving their mettle the way that John Brown could. Hitchens' review opens with a paragraph that suggests I'm not making this up. He relates the story of Lincoln's telling Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the woman who started the Civil War. Says Hitchens,"That fondly related anecdote [about Stowe] illustrates the persistent tendency to Parson Weemsishness in our culture. It was not all the tear-jerking sentiment of Uncle Tom's Cabin that catalyzed the War Between the States. It was, rather, the blood-spilling intransigence of John Brown, field-tested on the pitiless Kansas prairies and later deployed at Harpers Ferry." Women novelists become"tear-jerkers" and sentimentalists, on this view, and thus incapable of catalyzing social change. Rather, it's the"field-tested" violence of John Brown and his manly men that get the credit for emancipation.

In sum, while it certainly is appropriate for historians to compare and contrast Brown and Garrison, and to weigh the relative radicalism of their approaches to emancipation, it is historically misleading to suggest that their positions on violence are failproof indicators of their radical commitments. I'm looking forward to reading Reynolds because I think that Brown's reputation is in need of some resuscitating and subtle revising. But why is it that reputation-revivals in history must so often be zero-sum games, so that someone else's stock has to fall for someone else's stock to rise? In this case, I've suggested, it's unfair to praise Brown's radicalism at the expense of Garrison--at least if one is doing so by suggesting that Garrison's pacifism was nothing more than a lack of courage or clear thinking. It certainly is true that nonviolence sometimes is a sign of cowardice, but so is violence. It's always startling to me that despite the fact that most people accept detailed taxonomies of different kinds of violence, which range along a spectrum from justified and heroic violence to illicit abuse, very few of us have similarly well developed taxonomies of different kinds of pacifism, which can also range from the heroic to the thoughtless. I have suggested that a simple dichotomization of radicalism that places"fight" on the one hand and"flight" on the other does violence to history. I also think it does violence to our moral intuitions, but I don't need to make that argument to prove that, historically, (a) nonviolence is often integral to radicalism and that (b) violence is often integral to conservatism.

(Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.)
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Caleb McDaniel - 5/18/2005

After reading this post, please continue to the comments at Mode for Caleb, where I've modified and moderated my critique of some of the reviewers mentioned.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/11/2005

That was certainly the idea behind some of the saber rattling that abolitionists did. Even nonviolent Garrisonians often reminded Southerners that certain doom awaited them if they continued to enslave human beings, and they went further and said that if white Americans had been justified in fighting for their independence, by the same principles black Americans were more than justified in fighting for their freedom.

The problem is that this fear of insurrection did not always lead recalcitrant white Southerners to the conclusion that they had better "reform things fast." It often created a siege mentality that encouraged them to lock down more tenaciously.

I do hope to be able to post on this again once I've read the Reynolds book, but I'm not sure when that will be! Thanks for the comments and the interest!

David Lion Salmanson - 5/10/2005

There is a Jules Feiffer cartoon that depicts two African American men at a resturant booth with two white men in the next booth over. The African American men (dressed in suits) talk about their frustrations and how great violence is starting to look "things better change soon or I'm going to start shooting" or something to that effect. The black patrons leave and the white men (who had been listening in) say "Wow, we better reform things fast!" (or something) and leave. The last panel shows the two African-American men with the punchline "That worked, ready to go again, there's another bar next door" Ok, it's much funnier when you see it. But you get the idea.

Van L. Hayhow - 5/10/2005

I would love to see you update this post when the book comes in and you have a chance to read it. It would be interesting at that point to see how you feel the reviews stack up in there description of the book itself.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/10/2005

I agree that there is scaling between those polarities. That's why I suggested at the end that it's strange that people recognize scaling on the violent end of the spectrum (ranging from "just wars" to "unjust" ones) but tend to reject scaling on the other end. There are various ways to think about nonviolence and what kinds of coercive assertion it allows, which is why it's by no means obvious how much courage a person has just from the simple fact that that person refuses to kill.

In my post I probably fell victim to the schematization of the reviewers, who cast the followers of Garrison categorically as total nonresistants. That's not exactly right, at least not by 1859. After 1850, there were many Garrisonians who believed in what amounted to nonviolent coercive action--like Vigilance Committees who would attempt to rescue fugitive slaves (sometimes successfully) from federal authorities, but without the force of arms--although debate about the legitimacy of such tactics continued even in the 1850s. Moreover, by the outbreak of the Civil War, many Garrisonians had moved away from nonresistance to forms of Unionism that ranged from the reluctant to the enthusiastic, and in many individual cases, it's possible to see that such a conversion was not entirely sudden or surprising. But that's the kind of subtlety I had to leave out, or that is forced out by the polarization of options that you describe. (I think Brown's personal trajectory had subtleties of its own, but perhaps that's for another post, after I've read Reynolds.)

Not sure that's really answering your question ...

Caleb McDaniel - 5/10/2005

Thanks for the comments! Unfortunately, I just lost a lengthy response in the oblivion of cyberspace, but I'll try to quickly summarize some of what I was going to say ...

First, I don't object to historical analysis of what was a more "realistic" way to abolish slavery after the crises of the 1850s. And I think you're right that most of the reviewers are concerned with that kind of analysis. But I also think the quotes I supplied indicate that the question of spinelessness and courage are lurking between the lines. To say that nonresistance abolitionists were out of touch with reality is close to saying that they had their heads in the sand, which is close to saying that they didn't have the courage to face the facts.

My main point, though, was that settling the question of who was more "realistic" doesn't settle the question of whose convictions about race and slavery were more "radical," and I think that attempts to revive Brown as the real Emancipator often confuse those questions. Brown really was more radical in his views about race than many Northerners, but that radicalism is not automatically proved by his willingness to use violence, which means that the Garrisonians' opposition to violence does not automatically entail that they were less radical in their antislavery convictions than Brown. I guess I'm asking for the violence/courage question to be separated, to a certain extent, from the radicalism/egalitarianism question. Too often in American history, as I suggested, collapsing those questions has led to the conclusion that only those willing to water the tree of liberty with a little blood are really committed to liberty.

Although it wasn't my primary aim here, I do think it's interesting to ask the counterfactual question of whether other possible futures were "realistic" in 1854. One could argue that antislavery violence eventually became "necessary" in Kansas, but at what point? The antislavery settlers actually attempted to keep the peace by boycotting the convention that drafted the proslavery Lecompton Constitution. If anything, it was the fraudulent adoption of that Constitution and its subsequent approval by the Buchanan administration that made it difficult to avoid violence thereafter. One could therefore tell the story of Bleeding Kansas with very different emphases: (1) Kansas had to bleed to prevent the domination of proslavery settlers, and abolitionists who didn't see that were unrealistic or cowardly, or (2) Kansas would not have had to bleed if it hadn't been for the domination of proslavery settlers and their allies in the White House. Historiographically, the pendulum seems to me to be swinging in the direction of storyline (1), but I would like to at least make the case for storyline (2).

Ralph E. Luker - 5/10/2005

Caleb, I'm very sympathetic to your insistence that Brown's use of violent means to achieve his aims is a poor indication that he was any more radical than Garrison or Philips, with whom I tend to be more sympathetic. I suppose that one can draw the distinctions along violence/non-violence lines and make of them what one will. But it does seem to me that there is a lot of scaling between those two polarities and that there is more clarity between coercion and non-coercion. Early in the bus boycott, King sought a gun permit and his deacons kept armed guard around the parsonage after one bombing attempt. Publicly, of course, he repudiated violence and personally he bravely embodied it on more than one occasion. But clearly he believed in the necessity of using coercive means of bringing pressure on the opposition. You know the abolitionists a lot better than I do. Were there those who were absolutely opposed to the use of violence to end slavery, but who used non-violent coercion to end it?

Melissa Ann Spore - 5/10/2005

great post raising important issues.

Martin Baskin White - 5/9/2005

I haven't read all of the reviews or the new John Brown book you comment on. However, I think that a major point of the ones that I read was not so much that Brown was braver than other abolitionists, but that his willingness to use violence was more realistic. This is based on a factual historical judgment (with a moral component but not a purely present-minded one) that:

1. Violent action by anti-slavery advocates was necessary to prevent an illegitimate pro-slavery domination of the Kansas territory (although this does not necessarily imply that the particular form of violence organized by Brown in the Pottawatomie (sp?) massacre was necissary).

2. As slavery had developed in the US by the 1850s (and likely earlier) violent action was necessary to end it in a reasonable period of time (say by 1900).

I don't know if these judgements are correct, but they are certainly reasonable, and they are legitimate historical issues and legitimate contexts for evaluating Brown's approach as opposed to that of other abolitionists. One might argue that a willingness to face up to the realities of ones historical circumstances and to the morally difficult implications of ones basic moral commitments is one form of courage, but I don't know enough about Brown to know if this is what was going on in his mind.

I might also add that, from a practical point of view, the sort of violence needed to end slavery in the US (going with the assumption that violence was necessary) very likely was large scale legitimate state violence. For purposes of generating this sort of violence (assuming that was the objective of some hypothetical rigorously realistic (I am tempted to say Leninist) abolitionist) legalistic and moralistic approaches to the slavery issue were almost certainly more important than private violence, and private violence was perhaps counterproductive.

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