NEWS & LETTERS, July-August 2005

Recollecting John Brown's revolt

by John Alan

In world history we deal with the Idea as it manifests itself in the element of human will, of human freedom.... Objectively seen the Idea and the particular individual stand in the great opposition of Necessity and Freedom--the struggle of man against fate. But we take necessity not as that of the external necessity of fate, but as that of the divine Idea. The question then is: How is this high Idea to be united with human freedom?

--Hegel on "the individual as subject of history" in REASON IN HISTORY

David S. Reynolds’ JOHN BROWN, ABOLITIONIST: THE MAN WHO KILLED SLAVERY, SPARKED THE CIVIL WAR, AND SEEDED CIVIL RIGHTS (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005) has received many favorable reviews in the press. Apparently, a considerable number of people are still profoundly interested in John Brown’s October 1859 raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with armed white and Black followers.

Reynolds tells the reader that John Brown and his armed men quickly took control of the U.S. armory, the arsenal and the rifleworks in Harpers Ferry and then: "All that was now needed was for the word to spread to local slaves, and soon the liberation force would be swelled by hundreds, perhaps thousands of emancipated Blacks.

"At least, that’s what Brown thought. He sent a party into the countryside to liberate slaves and take captive their masters. Three whites (Steven, Cook, and Tidd) and three Blacks (Larry, Green, and Osborne Anderson) were assigned to do the job. Brown wanted this important mission, which he believed would initiate the liberation of Virginia slaves, to be undertaken by a racially mixed group."

But no slaves appeared to support Brown’s insurrection. Reynolds points out that there were many reasons. Fear may have kept the slaves away. For example, Reynolds writes, "Harrison Berry, a Georgia slave, argued in an 1861 pamphlet that blacks did not join Brown because they feared certain, horrible death if they were later captured."

But fear had never stopped slaves from revolting. There had been a long sequence of Black uprisings, as seen in Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 and many, many others.

Without mass support, Brown and all the men with him were captured and those who were not killed in the fighting were all hanged. According to Reynolds, the after-the-fact support of those who applauded Brown’s cause, while condemning his method, so aggravated the South that they plunged into the Civil War.

Brown’s vision for the changes in the U.S. law and in Black participation in government was well ahead of his time. But it was not forgotten. In 1906 the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, held its founding conference in Harpers Ferry. 

I remember going on a field trip to Harpers Ferry when I was a teenager in high school in the 1930s. It seemed a dreary place. Since we were all Black students we knew they would not serve us so we never even tried to get any soda or coffee. The teacher, Mr. Joyce, wanted to show us, in addition to the armory, the railroad station and the Black college in the town, because he wanted to impart to us how important this site was.


The one who appreciated the importance of the attack at the time it happened was Karl Marx. Marx wrote Engels on January 11, 1860: "In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown and, on the other, the movement of the serfs in Russia... I have just seen in the TRIBUNE that there has been a fresh rising of the slaves in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given."

Marx was writing this in England, at the time the center of the industrial world empire. Both U.S. and Russia were provincial backwaters in Europe’s view. Yet he was so attuned to the actualization of freedom in the world, that he knew that the challenge from the slaves would be a new beginning of freedom for everyone, especially in re-energizing the labor movement. As Dunayevskaya shows in MARXISM AND FREEDOM, Marx reshaped the very concept of what theory is on the basis of the actual struggle against slavery.

The idea of freedom continues to be a driving force in human history. As the new biography shows, John Brown’s effort to realize freedom was limited by his own particular will. Yet the idea unfolded in spite of that. The task of our age is to overcome that gap by realizing the unity of the particular individual with the Idea of freedom itself as necessity.

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