I think one of the things that well-meaning but perhaps uninformed people get wrong about John Brown is that “peaceful protest” was not an option on his table. I’m going to take their arguments in good faith and assume that folks who say “he should have done x or y instead of being violent” just do not understand the realities of slavery and opposing it in the 19th century.

Many of us grew up in a culture that talks about civic engagement—write to your member of congress! vote! attend a protest!—and maybe don’t realize (due to a lack of adequate historical education) that it is not, and has never been, that simple. Brown’s opposition to slavery in Kansas wasn’t just an “unpopular” political position; it was a felony punishable by hard labor, imprisonment, and death. And those were just the codified laws, let alone what vigilantes would do.

Brown knew this. And it’s not like he was a half-cocked killer, only in it for the bloodshed. He did the other things, too. He assisted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad (as his father did before him). He read The Liberator and supported organized abolitionist groups and wanted to start a school to educate formerly enslaved peoples. When he saw Black worshippers segregated in the back of his church, he gave up his pew to them and moved his own family to the back. He moved to upstate New York to help teach free Blacks how to farm and support themselves. He housed fugitive slaves in his home, treated his Black neighbors with a respect they’d never received from a white man before, was so committed to the movement that his friend Frederick Douglass said “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

So when people say “Brown should’ve done x and y,” well, he did those things. And those things were good. But John Brown said he felt he had a purpose from G-d. His purpose from G-d was not to read abolitionist essays. He pledged his life “to the destruction of slavery.” And he came to the conclusion that violence was the only option if he truly wanted to end slavery in the U.S.

There are people who act like Brown was the first person to introduce violence to the issue in the 1850s. But no, violence had been at the heart of the slavery since its inception—between pro- and anti-slavery factions, as well as the immeasurable, irreparable violence of the act and institution itself that slaveowners wrought on millions of people every day for centuries. Brown admired Nat Turner and saw the way his uprising brought national attention to the evil of slavery. And that’s what he did at Harpers Ferry, too. And then came the Civil War.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, in an effort to keep my sanity, I’d like to believe that most regular people who express discomfort with John Brown’s tactics do so from a place of unintentional ignorance, and it is better to help educate folks than attack them for not knowing. After all, everything you know now is something you once had to learn! (But for racist bigots who don’t like John Brown because they’re racist, fuck you, he should’ve killed more slaveowners because slaveowners aren’t people)

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