On the 162nd anniversary of the execution of radical abolitionist John Brown last week, many took to social media to praise the controversial figure for his supposed heroism in the fight against slavery in America.
In 1859, John Brown led a raid on Harpers Ferry in the hopes of inciting a slave rebellion. A few years earlier, Brown had carried out the Pottawatomie Massacre, which left five dead, two of whom were the sons of a pro-slavery man Brown and his followers had hunted. Brown’s ostensible goal was to vindicate black slaves unjustly deprived of their natural right to life and liberty.
Instead, the first man Brown killed in his infamous raids was a free black man. Brown’s actions did nothing to help the cause of emancipation. If anything, it harmed the cause.
But to the great American statesman Abraham Lincoln, such a tragic course of events was no surprise at all.
In an address in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, Lincoln warned an auditorium of young men of the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” Lincoln’s famous Lyceum Address dealt with the perpetuation of our political institutions in the face of bloodlust and radicalism.
“Mob justice” Lincoln argued, had no choice but to end in bloodshed, and only further injustices against those not even at fault for the injustice so avenged. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln said that “when men take it in their head today, to hang gamblers, or burn murders, they should recollect that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn someone, who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is.”
In other words, law and order, in addition to being important as a moral concept, is also important as a matter of practical necessity. The nature of humanity is such that boundless violence, however noble its stated aim, will inevitably result in harm against the innocent. Indeed, the senseless bloodshed that resulted from John Brown’s raid further entrenched in the Southern mind of the supposed “rightness” of slavery, proving Lincoln correct.
Of course, even with Lincoln’s warning against mob rule, he did not hesitate to advocate the emancipation of blacks, even past the limits of what was accepted in his day. Lincoln’s persistent and principled rejection of those who would deny that blacks had natural rights equal to whites was so controversial to the South, that seven southern states seceded after the election before Lincoln even assumed office. In the seventh of Lincoln’s debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Douglas merely had to restate Lincoln’s observations that blacks were included in the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal,” to ensure a stunned reaction from the crowd.
Lincoln was in full favor of equal natural rights for blacks and did not mince words in stating that fact. But he understood that rioting and violence was no way to correct the injustice of slavery and that flagrant disregard for the laws of the nation would only make things worse.
If John Brown and his modern defenders are seeking to preserve freedom, Lincoln warns, such actions as Brown’s are actually counterproductive to such a pursuit. Our country, as it is set up, defends us from the vast majority of foreign invasions on our liberty. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln proclaimed, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Brown’s modern-day defenders will argue that in the face of such flagrant disregard for the natural rights entitled to humanity, where else can one turn but to violence? As Lincoln’s prescient warnings demonstrate, the antidote to injustice is not mob violence.
What evidence do we have that Brown’s imprudence was worthy of censure rather than celebration? Only this: that Brown did not free one slave, while Lincoln freed 3.5 million.