The New York Times features two op-ed pieces dealing with the event. In a rather odd but interesting piece, Tony Horwitz (of Confederates in the Attic fame) compares John Brown to al-Qaeda (Horwitz is working on a book on Brown’s raid). He argues that the South overreacted to Brown’s raid in December 1859 and thus began to mobilize for a civil war. In the same way, Horwitz wonders, if the United States has overreacted to 9-11, leading us to a long war in Afghanistan that, if Obama’s speech last night is any indication, is getting longer.
The other article is by Brown biographer and historian David S. Reynolds, who wants the state of Virginia and/or Barack Obama to pardon Brown for instigated the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Why pardon Brown? Because he had a legitimate and well-researched plan for disrupting slavery in the south, he was respected by men like Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and W.E.B. DuBois, and there are many precedents of these kinds of pardons.
I am sympathetic with Reynolds’s arguments and find myself wanting to support them. Looking back, there was much about Brown’s raid and his efforts on behalf of abolitionism and racial equality that are admirable. But I am not entirely convinced. I am not sure I could bring myself to pardon a man who precipitated violence in a terrorist fashion and even committed murders in Kansas on behalf of the abolitionist cause. Brown defended the humanity of slaves, but his behavior at Pottawatomie and Harper’s Ferry shows that his respect for human life was incomplete.