A Belated Pardon for John Brown, Heroic Abolitionist

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece a few days back noting that this month marks the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to those who died in trying to overthrow slavery?


  1. No1KState

    Let me just get the craw from my stomach first, as it were – what about Nat Turner? Don’t get me wrong, John Brown is my “big John.” But, a narrative that continues to feature whites, even in anti-slavery and anti-racist movements, kinda undercut their value. It’s almost like we’re teaching kids and ourselves that blacks can only accomplish anything under the supervision of whites.

    Sorry, just wanted to get the “bad news” out of the way.

    That said, thanks Joe for bringing this to my attention. I, like everyone else I know of, was taught that while John Brown had the best of intentions, he was a crazy. Him and Marcus Garvey both. College black history classes taught me that he wasn’t crazy; that the raid was part of a larger strategy. Even then, I wasn’t aware of his overall plan. In part because John Brown is usually taught in the context of “bleeding” Kansas.

    The odd thing is that just this morning, I wondered to myself why more slaves didn’t take advantage of the mountains, like the Maroons of the West Indies, particularly Jamaica. Thinking about it again, what comes to mind are the demographics of the situation; also, I’m not sure the Apps offer a direct 1:1 ratio. Plus, I’m not sure of the approximation of slave plantations to the mountains.

    But anyway.

    I definitely think John Brown deserves a monument of some sort and a pardon is past due. Way, way past due. After all, the Union did win, right? In my county seat, there’s a statue of a Confederate soldier. At UNC, there’s a statue of a Confederate soldier. Although, myself and a few friends assuaged ourselves with thoughts of the irony – the soldier now protests the Franklin Graham student union and the Sonja Haynes Stone blakc cultural center – it just didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem to be enough.

    The sad thing is that even now, while intellectual I know John Brown is a hero, I still can’t shake notions of his mental unbalance. Wow.

    • No1KState

      To complete that thought – it speaks to the durability of racist notions and the white racial frame. And to whom it may concern, it’s why I think most people, including 99% of whites, have some degree of racism. Blacks suffer from the deluge of racism in our culture and the white racial frame; it’s just that we’re more apt to reject it.

      So all those folks, including the tokens of color, probably ARE racist and at some level, at least historically, their resistance to healthcare reform/public option is due to racism. Though, we should note that the majority of Americans do support reform and the public option.

    • Joe

      No1KState, I agree that there should be major monuments to all the Africans and African Americans who (according to Herbert Aptheker) engaged in at least 250 revolts or conspiracies to revolt over the 246 years of No. Am. slavery. You are certainly right about Nat Turner, who led what is considered the most successful revolt. There are many others too, like Gabriel Prosser, Cato, Denmark Vesey, and many many more. I only put this up about Brown because exactly 150 years ago this last week he was put to death……

      • No1KState

        Oh yeah, I get the significance of Brown’s . . . execution. That’s why I kinda wanted to just say that and move on. I didn’t want to devalue Browns’ contribution.

        But I do appreciate your response and explanation and mentioning of other revolt leaders.

    • onegemini77

      No1Kstate, forgive me if I misinterpret your post. I believe I understand where you are coming from with your statement, “It’s almost like we’re teaching kids and ourselves that blacks can only accomplish anything under the supervision of whites.” I would ask though, “Why can we not honor both blacks and whites for their contribution to racial equality?” Why should talking about, praising and honoring a white mans contribution be any less than those of black men. Is that not a form of racism in itself? I do not say we should honor John Brown any more than we should Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King Jr. But why should race even matter, when it is their contribution in any form that is important.

      Not only do I believe that blacks can lead themselves and stand up without white leadership. I believe they should. However, does that mean we should ignore others who stand up and fight alongside them and support them regardless of their race?

      Once more, if I misunderstood your post I apologize. I am in no way trying to be antagonizing. It’s just it almost seems like we can not be as proud of white contributions, as we can be of black contributions. There is no doubt that what blacks had to struggle to overcome and still do, was and is a tremendous feat. All the more difficult due obstacles they had/have to overcome that many whites do not. Can we not still honor ALL those who have stood on the side of Justice and Equality?

      I humbly thank you for your posts No1KState and for the intelligent discourse you bring with your posts. I wish you well.

      • Thank you for your well-wishes! All the best to you as well!

        It’s the constant featuring of “saviors” especially white “saviors” that I take issue with. I think we should teach the totality of history, good, bad and ugly. We can teach Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown. At the same time, we need to teach Frederick Douglas, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. But, to combat the incessant pro-whiteness of US society at large, it wouldn’t hurt to teach Denmark Vesey, David Walker and Mary Prince as well.

        I hope that makes more sense. I don’t want to create a white=bad/black=good situation. But I don’t want to create a white=active/black=passive situation either. Get me? The history I was taught in primary and secondary school put African Americans in a powerless light, as though we have no self-agency. Yes, for much of the US history, we had very little to no political power. But if we’re dealing with the totality of history, we have to explain who had guns and who didn’t, who had whips and who got whipped, etc. And do so without caveats like “slave owners didn’t whip all their slaves,” or, as what I was taught, “Slavery couldn’t have been all that bad. Otherwise there would’ve been more rebellions.”

        Get what I mean? Not either/or but both/and. And a little more of one than the other to sufficiently counteract societal imbalances.

        • Joe Author

          Hi, thanks for the savvy comment. I agree that the far more serious issue is the lack of attention in most US history teaching to the Black Americans who made this country much bettern than it would have been. Including the folks you mention, and many others.

          I did not mean for that old post to feature yet one more white savior, but to suggest how even the relatively few whites concerned with anti-racism efforts, as well as the great many folks of color working against white racism, do not know the history of the very few white radicals like John Brown involved in that struggle. And those who do , do not even know the true story of John Brown. I only briefly bring up Martin Delany, the brilliant African American leader who worked with Brown to try to arm those enslaved to bring down the slavery system, and hope to do a piece on him soon.

          • Oh, Joe! Again, I think it’s important to teach John Brown and to do so accurately. I know your intention was for from promoting another “white savior.” I should’ve been more clear about that. And, that actually wasn’t the point I took from the post but more of a side observation in light of AVATAR coming out about the same time.

            No harm?

          • Joe Author

            Blaque Swan, no harm!:)) You are quite right about Avatar being a white savior movie, and we should have done a good post on it. One of my Native American students pointed out just how offensive that movie is. Here is my comment on it for the new edition of the White Racial Frame book influenced by her view: This futuristic movie about an indigenous people on the moon Pandora centrally accents a white savior figure, here a U.S. soldier. The moviemakers present the peace-loving indigenous people’s “god” as preferring a white soldier as their savior-hero, a choice actually inconceivable from viewpoint of most indigenous people.

      • Seattle in Texas

        Not to interrupt the great discussion above and the many important points made, but that white savior theme is very important to highlight in all eras into current times as some scholarly work has done so well. And not to change the topic focused on John Brown, but the white savior theme is very applicable to what is going on with the recent re-election of President Obama. I don’t know if it’s just this area (surrounding area) I’m in or it’s a phenomenon that’s occurring throughout the nation (with the media–it could be a national phenomenon…), but apparently there has been much blaming going on for groups of color voting for Obama only because “he’s black” and Romney because “he’s white.”

        I get why whites would vote for Romney because “he’s white” as throughout U.S. history the U.S. has been a white dominated society and the only “serious” presidential candidates have been white, etc., etc., etc., to put it mildly. Many whites have communicated in various ways they would never vote for a person of color, often through using colorblind rhetoric and strategies. But putting the history of voting patterns by various groups aside, suppose groups of color were only voting for President Obama because “he’s Black”…let me bypass the problems with that statement and the racism here, but let’s assume that’s the case for some or all as absurd as this may be.

        First, it’s assuming there is something wrong with voters of color to be proud of having president of color over a white savior president. It devalues President Obama as a qualified politician to be the president of the U.S. by assuming he got in “only because people voted for him because he’s black” rather than for his platform as a democratic leader, etc. It’s the same game that goes right along with things like devaluing affirmative action policies and accusing subordinate group members of only getting their jobs because they belong to a certain group rather than being qualified for the position, etc. It takes that rightful pride away and turns into a negative and guilt, etc. It assumes subordinate group members cannot think for themselves and further, get everything handed to them rather than honestly working or earning their way through merit. In terms of the election, such assumptions implicitly, or explicitly I suppose, implies they are actually voting against their own best interest. Not to mention the many inherently racist epithets directed at Obama supporters as drinking Kool Aid or since the last presidential election he won, something associated with being drunk on Obama’s movement, etc. Racist epithets that associate him with “ghettos” and poverty, etc. This could go on and on. This is racist/racism all the way around…and god knows I’m critical of democrats too…but for very different reasons that have already been addressed before which largely have to do with my criticisms of capitalism and the flipside racism of the republican side….

        Apparently subordinate groups are supposed to always wish to have a white savior figure for their leader and if someone else comes along who does not fit that stereotypical image or fulfill that role in some way, what ever that may be relative to time/era, there is something inherently wrong with groups of color or whatever subordinate status they may be…including whites too. I fail to understand how whites who openly advocate policies that are not exactly in the best interest of oppressed and subordinate groups should be considered basically white saviors to the subordinate groups, and if they vote or wish for something other, then they are somehow deficient…. There is apparently something inherently wrong with having an honest pride in having a president in office that is a member of some subordinate groups and having a real change in that respect–according to this blaming that seems to be going on between groups? Interesting….

        On the flip side, to move back to the main topic discussed above, I do agree that it is important to recognize whites who do sincerely participate in antiracist causes and sometimes do endure lethal consequences as a result..though being mindful that they too can, and do sometimes become white saviors–even with John Brown as many who wrote about him during his time made him out to be a Christ like figure and he himself believed himself to be a martyr. This makes the others who too fought in the cause, particularly those who were enslaved, etc., as secondary and subordinate to John Brown, if not almost entirely invisible. Very true that folks like John Brown need to be taught in the right context. Though in my own humble opinion, I think for folks who are not familiar with him–particularly who are white and completely unfamiliar with this territory, initially need to learn about him and/or others and discover who he/they were initially within their own understandings at least for starters. Ultimately the job for whites is to of course actively help in the fight or causes, but further support positive leadership that comes from within the oppressed groups and so forth rather than try to be the white savior for the oppressed. Within the philosophies of folks like Dr. King, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, etc.

        Anyway, just my thoughts and enough rambling….

  2. marandaNJ

    No1KState tells us: It’s almost like we’re teaching kids and ourselves that blacks can only accomplish anything under the supervision of whites.
    Exactly! And my observation is that blacks Don’t Need the supervision of whites to accomplish what they want. And blacks don’t need all whites to “realize their own racism” before blacks can lead comfortable middle class lives.
    So which is it?
    1. Blacks Need white collaboration to get ahead OR
    2. Blacks don’t need whites to tell them what they need or speak for them or direct them or pity them.
    Seems to be that whatever whites attmept, they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they try to help it’s “We don’t you telling us what we need Honky!” If we don’t try to help it’s “Give us our rights Now!”

    • No1KState

      marcg says it best.

      You can help by ceasing your racism and calling it out. I even mentioned ways whites can help on a local basis – remember the thread about anti-racism rallies in Glaslow where you kept mentioning crime in black neighborhoods and successfully took the thread off-topic?

      So yeah, you’re using a false binary construction. There are ways to help without being patronizing – telling blacks what we need, what to do, and/or doing for us. It took some thinking, but SNCC and Myles Horton and the Highlander school come to mind.

      Please stop calling me out. I don’t call you out. Even when “you think a post is about you.”

  3. marandaNJ

    Also, instead of honoring John Brown, who was White and thus Problematic, we should honor the black man Gabriel Prosser, who was a literate, enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond area in the summer of 1800.
    In 2002 the City of Richmond adopted a resolution to commemorate the 202nd anniversary “of the execution of the patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America.”[6]

    In the fall of 2006 the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP requested Gov. Tim Kaine to pardon Gabriel in recognition of his contributions to the civil rights struggle of African Americans and all peoples.[6]

    On August 30, 2007, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine pardoned Gabriel and his co-conspirators. Kaine said that Gabriel’s motivation had been “his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution — it was worth risking death to secure liberty.” Kaine noted that “Gabriel’s cause — the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people — has prevailed in the light of history”, and added that “it is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel’s cause.”
    This is a perfect example of how blacks don’t need whites to accomplish their objectives.

  4. jwbe

    I realize that John Brown seems to be a ‘role-model’ in white American anti-racism. Why?
    There are some writings saying that John Brown’s attitudes were sexist and racist. So what is the important thing he did in his life to make him somehow ‘out-standing’?

    • Joe

      JWBE, Brown has mostly gotten very distorted historical coverage in the US and probably elsewhere, and still mostly gets treated as ‘crazy’ even in what little anti-racist literature even deals with him. If you want an honest portrait, you can see the century-old book [http://www.amazon.com/John-Brown-Modern-Library-Classics/dp/0679783539/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260745763&sr=1-1] by the great W.E.B. Du Bois, an early work where he took great pains to do an honest portrait of Brown, one that refutes the many lies and distortions most white scholars/leaders, etc, have had to put out for more than a century. (And Du Bois accents his bravery and anti-racism, as well as that of his colleagues, black and white.) Whites dare not tell the truth about his anti-slavery and anti-racist efforts, just as they cannot do that for Black rebels in that era either. Reynolds book is also useful for seeing who he really was, and for knocking down the myths about Brown. He had his faults, certainly, but was head and shoulders above almost every other white leader in the 19th century in his moral position on slavery. Today, most Americans, indeed, have never even heard of him.

  5. marcg

    Kids should be taught the truth. That slavery/racial oppression and injustice were/are bad things and Black people in the US have led the fight against those things.

    It’s not about devaluing Brown’s contributions. Nor is it a matter of dealing with the false binary constructed by marandaNJ in the posts above. It is about telling the truth.

    The problem I believe telling the truth presents for marandaNJ and other whites is that this telling of the truth bumps, antagonistically, up against the white racial frame. The white racial frame centers whites. But doing that would be untrue.

    So even in remembering how we have resisted white supremacy the white racial frame makes its presence known via the damned if we do, damned if we don’t argument presented by marandaNJ.

    An argument which is really just a demand for the engagement of white racial framing which would center the leadership and actions of white actors.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I do appreciate the main post for several reasons and hope he is pardoned–that would be an important symbolic marker for the U.S., I think. It would be nice if all abolitionists regardless of color who underwent state sanctioned executions for their opposition and resistance would also be pardoned. It would be nice if all slaves who underwent state sanctioned executions for any reason, would also be pardoned. That might be the beginnings of laying groundwork for a serious formal apology to begin with.

    Growing up in the Liberal end, we did not learn about John Brown and other important abolitionists. Admittingly, my formal education is deficient in many respects compared to others, however. But to be sure, I asked others from up there and none of them had heard of John Brown either. It was only the senior folks who remembered him and of course the song. They didn’t really speak negatively of him. But the importance of this for me is that it illustrates how Liberal racism functions. I tell people who aren’t familiar with that side that it’s not what you can see that’s harmful, it’s what you can’t and/or what is prevented from otherwise becoming an honest and important source of knowledge. John Brown is not taught about up there and if any others were born and raised in the Pacific Northwest have experienced otherwise, it would be nice if you would share and share how you perceive him.

    My own readings on John Brown conclude that he was not crazy–rather the society surrounding him was. Society made him out to be nuts, as well as some writers today. I think he did experience some trauma. Some of his children died from being sick. Some of his men, including a couple of his sons who ran with him were brutally murdered, mutilated, and their bodies were used for target practice–just a tad bit on what the pro-slavery folks were like during his time. He was just different from many if not all white abolitionists of his time, which I think is what sets him apart.

    My own readings of him is that he was antiracist so much that action was more important than words–his hatred for racism and slavery drove him to dedicate his life to the cause of abolishing slavery, though he was quite patriarchal. He was a very intense, passionate, and compassionate individual.

    Some people believe it was John Brown who brought the Civil War forward, which he believed was necessary to get slavery abolished. Is this true? Would the Civil War have come forward without him? And in the same time that it did? I don’t really know and do not have enough knowledge to be able to provide my own approximate thoughts on it any further. But I think he is an interesting and important historical figure who should be pardoned.

    I would like to learn about all antiracist folks and their contributions, regardless of color and ethnicity. I think by learning about all of them we learn about the different struggles, privileges, and limitations, they had because of their assigned place and location in society, by race/ethnicity, religion, SES, gender, and so on.

    Just my own thoughts on John Brown :S

    • No1KState

      Now that you mention “class-action” pardons, some class-action conviction would be nice, too.

      Tulsa, OK
      Red River, LA
      Wilmington, NC
      Rosewood, FL
      . . . and many, many, many other sites of race riots and country fair-style lynchings.

      • Seattle in Texas

        Ahhh haaa–so true! It should go both ways. Oh my god–what that would do to history books, hehe. It might result in the beginnings of perhaps bringing forth an honest education at a national scale over time…hmmm…. For serious and honest justice, it would have to be both pardons and convictions

        • No1KState

          It would force Texas to deal more honestly with history.

          A study has shown (I think in the Newsweek article “Are babies racist?”) that when kids are taught a more honest and comprehensive history, they’re less likely to blame minorities for “minority” problems.

          • Seattle in Texas

            No1KState, I seriously don’t know what to say about Texas at the moment. It’s a very diverse state and all the groups have strong state pride. Texas really loves itself, that I know. The one thing about Texas though is that I do think it is going to politically turn around within the next decade or so. Will it be enough to deal more honestly with history? I don’t think merely becoming a blue state is enough (my own state is a good example–we have GW on our state flag and seal and the much history it either distorts or simply makes invisible).

            I think for all states and the nation to deal more honestly with history would be to give out belated pardons and convictions. Also, I don’t think judges should have full immunity for their decisions, including Supreme Court Justices. I think they should be held accountable in some way when they make decisions that are in favor of violating human rights and protecting those often ongoing violations. This nation needs to be fixed in many ways….

  7. marandaNJ

    American history books were written by whites to eulogize themselves. The truth is that white genocide predominates American history and that the only true heroes were anybody who attempted to stop this genocide. That translates into black people.White people will never be totally rid of residual racism, no matter how sterling their intentions. But blacks can do this in an equitable manner.
    Multi-cultural approaches to history aren’t enough. Educated blacks could write entire American history volumes from the black perspective and these could be incorporated into the social studies curriculums as an addendum! All it takes is desire and time. A white man would do it in a racially biased manner no matter how hard he tryed not to. America the Beautiful From Myth to Shining Myth.

  8. No1KState

    @ Seattle –

    I agree with you about the judges.

    But I was referring to the fact that because Texas is the 2nd largest market for textbooks, their decisions, not matter how ridiculous and stupid, inane and inacurate, affects other states’ because publishers will tailor to Texas but not . . . NC, for example.

  9. Seattle in Texas

    ahhh-thank you for the clarification. Wasn’t thinking about textbooks when I responded (many other things about Texas…but not the textbooks)–missed it somehow. My apologies.

  10. shall

    This has been interesting to read! I’d like to add that John Brown was not white. Everything I read says he was but our family bible states that he was not. Maybe our texts books tell us what they want us to believe?


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