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John Brown, Righteous Anarchist

Just finished reading John Brown: Great Lives Observed, a concise, balanced and non-partisan collection of writings, drawn from both contemporary and modern sources, about the legendary abolitionist John Brown - his formative years, the Kansas Free State crusade, and most importantly his raid on Harper's Ferry and its aftermath. (The book is long out of print, although still available here.) Like many abolitionists of Brown's era, I object to his violent means of bringing about change, even as I wholeheartedly agree with the moral rightness of his goal. In the concluding paragraphs, editors Richard Warch and Jonathan Fanton succinctly summarize Brown's impact on American history:

John Brown embodies, then, the actual despair of his own time and the potential despair of all times. He is a watchword and a warning that when a nation fails to resolve its problems and allows them to reach crisis proportions - particularly those that threaten human rights and liberties - the response of a John Brown is possible and often inevitable.

There is, however, a further legacy of John Brown. He was, in his last years especially, a man of purpose who translated thought to action, who attempted what others only contemplated, and who was faithful to the dictates of his conscience. John Brown believed in the promise of the Declaration of Independence and anguished over its unfulfillment. However one may judge his means, he sought to realize that promise for black Americans. He dreamed of the more perfect Union that would not come until, as he predicted, the crimes of this guilty land were purged away with blood.

November 14, 2007 in Books | Permalink

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