How John Brown's legacy disrupted the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.
John Brown tested America. As the Irish poet William Allingham saw, the abolitionist who waged holy war against slavery was like a touchstone: a dense, opaque surface against which the metal of the nation could be rubbed to reveal its true composition.
Americans have pressed the questions of the day against the hard memory of John Brown in every decade since his execution in 1859. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X all called upon memories of Brown to talk about slavery and its legacies in the United States. But Brown has also been used as a touchstone for other questions. Early in the twentieth century Eugene V. Debs made the case for socialism by calling for a “John Brown of wage slavery.” At mid-century C. Vann Woodward painted Brown as an extremist and used his image to criticize Cold War fanatics on every side. In the 1970s the Weather Underground named their journal Osawatomie to evoke memories of the place where Brown directed the killing of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. Twenty years later Timothy McVeigh appealed to Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry as a precedent for his attack on the Murrah Federal Building. Christopher Hitchens, Barbara Ehrenreich, and a host of others have recalled Brown’s story in efforts to think through terrorist violence in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Most recently, Cornel West called upon Brown’s legacy to resist the security apparatus that has emerged in response to those attacks:
Brother Edward Snowden is the John Brown of the national security state. He's the canary in the mine. http://t.co/yVOqdnFMbP— Cornel West (@CornelWest) June 28, 2013
As this string of examples suggests, the touchstone of John Brown is not only revelatory but also mutable—and combustible. Throughout this long history of interpretation, two options have organized conversations about how to think about John Brown. He has been seen as either freedom fighter or fanatic, revolutionary martyr or theocratic terrorist. Interpreters of Brown have disagreed sharply about which label is more accurate. But they have tended to accept the structure of the question. That structure reveals much about our shared imagination of religion and violence. The old touchstone retains its power to assay.
The tradition of interpreting Brown as a fanatic runs from nineteenth-century Southerners like Henry Wise, the Governor of Virginia who ordered Brown’s execution, to twenty-first century liberals like Sean Wilentz. The view found vivid expression in The Santa Fe Trail, a 1940 film that projected a pious, wild-eyed, and homicidal Brown on movie screens across the country. The film shows Brown terrorizing Kansas until Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn ride in as the cavalry officers who establish order.
A parallel tradition naming Brown as freedom fighter runs this same 155-year course. Early champions of Brown like Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau said that he showed the same spirit as the rebel-patriots at Lexington and Concord. Douglass and Thoreau connected Brown to the nation’s past, and the Union soldiers who sang the “John Brown Song” connected him to the nation’s present and future:
“John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,” they sang, but “his truth is marching on!” Brown’s truth marched on in the bodies of the soldiers who sang about him. With a knapsack on his back, they sang, he would march to capture Jeff Davis and hang him from a tree. Brown’s soul would keep marching, the great African American social gospel preacher Reverdy Ransom said, through amendments to the Constitution, actions of the courts, and the federal troops that would enforce them. Brown even “seeded” the civil rights movement, in the words of one contemporary biographer.
“Freedom fighter” and “fanatic” seem like a pair of mutually exclusive opposites. But a focus on the differences between them misses the deeper commitments that they share. Both labels assume that violence can be justified only in relation to moral obligations that can, like Kant’s categorical imperative, be generalized to apply to every person without exception. Those who see Brown as a freedom fighter focus on the moral obligation to resist something as evil as slavery. Those who see him as a fanatic stress the obligation to work for social change through non-violent means. If they disagree in their evaluations of Brown, they agree to evaluate him by the standards of an immanent ethics of universalizable norms.
Both those who see Brown as a freedom fighter and those who see him as a fanatic have also shared assumptions about the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. For those who would condemn Brown, it is exactly his transgression of this norm that marks him as a fanatic. Even those who hail him as a freedom fighter have tended to justify his violence by writing him into a story about the founding, preservation, and ongoing sanctification of a nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all. Legitimation flows in two directions in these stories of Brown as freedom fighter. It is because the state eventually took up his cause that Brown is justified. And it is because of Brown’s martyrdom that the state’s cause has a sacred quality that can demand further sacrifice from citizens now. The disagreement between those who have seen Brown as a freedom fighter and those who have seen him as a fanatic is not about whether the state is the source of legitimation for violence. It is about whether Brown can be connected to that source.
Evaluating Brown within a framework defined by universalizable moral obligations and the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence misses the real challenge that he poses, for Brown calls each of these convictions into question. If Brown sometimes spoke in the language of ethics, he also spoke of the violence done by and to him in an irreducibly theological language of sacrifice, purgation, and atonement. Moreover, he saw himself as called to a very particular role in history—a role that not everyone could or should play. He understood himself not just in relation to a universal standard, but as in some ways exceptional.
If Brown raised questions about universal codes of immanent ethics, he directly assaulted the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. He raided a federal arsenal in order to steal weapons to give to people who were forbidden by law to possess any kind of weapon. And he did so in the name of a higher law that stood in judgment of the laws of every nation. Brown challenged the sovereignty not just of the United States as it existed at that time, but of every nation in every age.
The touchstone of John Brown reveals the depth of shared assumptions that violence should be thought of within a frame defined by immanent moral obligation and the state’s monopoly on legitimate use of force. Performing a critique of this constellation—making its appearance appear—takes us to the limits of what we usually mean by ethics. It invites some tentative steps into political theology.