The John Brown Moment

We talk a lot about the “John Brown Moment” around here.  Here it is, for the record:

In the run-up to the Civil War, lots of Americans thought the country was in thrall to what they called the “slave power conspiracy.”  There was some truth to this, in that thanks to equal representation in the Senate, slaveholders held a perpetual veto — since only vehement defenders of slavery would ever be sent to the Senate by Southern states (senators being appointed, not elected, in those days), no law affecting the “peculiar institution” would ever be passed.  As slavery was an all-encompassing socioeconomic system, though, virtually nothing the government did failed to affect it in some way.  The partisan politics of the 1850s were legendarily nasty, in large part because of this Southern-imposed gridlock.

But the “slave power conspiracy” was a misnomer.  Oh, the Southern senators all voted together, but that’s not a conspiracy.  “Conspiracy” implies an end, a goal, and the slave power simply didn’t have one.  Their actions were purely negative, and if that meant absolutely nothing got done, well, so be it.  They were deeply skeptical of federal power anyway; if vetoing anything and everything that might somehow affect slavery meant that the nation would simply drift along, directionless, that suited them just fine.

But there was another conspiracy afoot in the 1850s: The abolition conspiracy.  You don’t hear about this one in high school history because the victors write the textbooks, but it was quite real.  And this one really was a conspiracy, in that they had a clear goal: The end of chattel slavery.  And it was a conspiracy in a more fundamental sense, in that it was illegal.  The so-called “slave power conspiracy” was obstructionist to the bone, but it’s perfectly legal for legislators to vote against proposed legislation.  It’s not legal to advocate armed insurrection but that’s what the abolitionists did.

On October 16, 1859, a lunatic abolitionist named John Brown led a partisan band in an attack on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  He wanted to distribute the stolen guns to local slaves, thus sparking a race war.  We know this because Brown was captured alive, and the great state of Virginia put him on trial, as they were legally required to do.  Being a fanatic, and knowing that he was a dead man already, Brown took the opportunity to advertise his cause to the world….

At which point it became obvious that not only did Brown have the financial backing of several prominent Northerners, but he had the moral backing of a large segment of the Northern population.  Brown became a martyr, literally — he was frequently compared to Jesus Christ in Northern periodicals.  The important thing to note is this: Brown was captured in armed insurrection against the United States, and lots of the country was ok with it.  This man simply decided that the legal processes could never result in the outcome he deemed morally necessary, so he took the law into his own hands — with the active connivance of prominent Northern financiers and intellectuals, and the avid approval of many Northern citizens.

Remember that, and Southern belligerency makes a whole lot more sense.  The North was obviously ready to go to the gun in 1861, because they’d already gone to the gun in 1859.  The “John Brown Moment,” then, is the point at which violence becomes inevitable, because one significant, influential segment of the country not only passively tolerates it, but actively cheers it.

Are we there yet?  Hard to say, but recall that just this weekend, an “Antifa” got himself killed trying to firebomb an ICE installation.  How many of our fellow Americans even know about this?  Of those, how many approve?

I don’t know, but I guarantee you, something like this will happen again.  It has to, because there’s only one way to deal with a John Brown that doesn’t involve lots of future bloodshed — immediate, brutal reprisal, and repudiation by the entire political, cultural, and social elite.  That obviously didn’t happen this weekend.  Indeed, how many of our “elite” were silently cheering this guy on?  How many of them would have, had they known about it?  How many of them will cheer on the next guy, who does something bigger?

There’s no coming back from a John Brown Moment, because that’s when a significant fraction of the people who matter give up on the very idea of peaceful grievance resolution.  I don’t know who our John Brown is (or will be), but he’s coming — of that, there’s no doubt whatsoever.

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5 thoughts on “The John Brown Moment

  1. MBlanc46

    If lightning strikes again, and Trump is re-elected, it will very likely drive quite a few of them round the twist. Another St Trayvon or St Michael of Ferguson incident might result in more black looting and burning. Having lived through the late 1960s, I believe it’s the case that we’re not quite at that level of anger and hostility. But we’re not too far away. As a commenter at iSteve said yesterday, and I’ve said many times, I just hope it happens before my knees give out completely.

  2. WOPR

    I’ve always believed the South had two legitimate complaints. One was the reaction of some sections in the North to John Brown’s insurrection. The second was illegal Northern resistance to apprehending fugitive slaves. The problem for the South was that breaking away does not solve either of the issues.

    You’ll be happy to know that The History Channel website says something similar.

  3. ErisGuy

    Ten years from now, in a moment of nostalgia while I delete old files from my clips folder, I hope to re-read this, then say out loud, “how wrong he was!”

    1. Severian Post author

      I hope so, too!
      This is why everyone who meets me IRL comments on what an upbeat, chipper guy I am — I’m the only fellow they know who really, truly, sincerely loves being wrong. If I’m proved wrong about something, that means learning the world is a lot better place than I thought it was — instant happiness!

  4. MBlanc46

    In retrospect, Alexander Stephens was quite right: slavery would have fared much better in the Union than out of it. Had the Dems not split in 1860, who knows how much longer the Southerners could have maintained their de facto veto. However, with the anger and hostility at the levels they’d reached—Bleeding Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner, the Brown raid—it’s hard to imagine something not sparking secession in the 1860s even if Lincoln had lost.

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