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Henningsen: Harper's Ferry anniversary

10/16/09 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Today we observe an important historic anniversary with disturbing modern ramifications. Commentator Vic Henningsen explains.

(HENNINGSEN) One hundred and fifty years ago this evening, a small band of men assaulted the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a slave revolt that would sweep the American South.  Their leader was a fifty-nine year-old abolitionist who had failed at everything he attempted.  He would fail at this too, and pay for it with his life.  The country would also suffer:  his actions would help polarize the nation and propel it down the road to Civil War.  The man was called a murderer and a martyr; a traitor and a saint.  He was also, by all understandings of the term, a terrorist.  His name was John Brown.
    
A passionate opponent of slavery, Brown came to public attention in what was known as "Bleeding Kansas" - the conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces over whether Kansas Territory would  be slave or free. Outraged by violence against free-soilers and incensed by a bloody confrontation in the U.S. Senate, in which Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was almost beaten to death by a South Carolina Congressman, Brown called for Biblical justice - an eye for an eye.  On a warm May night in 1856, he and seven others kidnapped five pro-slavery men from their cabins near Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with broadswords.  So chaotic was Kansas that Brown was never prosecuted.   

Committed to a "holy war" against slavery, Brown now planned a dramatic strike to ignite a slave revolution.  On October 16th, 1859 he and18 others attacked Harper's Ferry in a raid that was poorly planned and even more poorly executed. Not one slave rallied to Brown's side.  Holding out for 36 hours, during which ten of his men, including two of his sons, were killed, Brown's force was overwhelmed by U.S. Marines led, as it happened, by Robert E. Lee.
 
A terrified South vilified Brown as Virginia indicted him for treason. Condemned after a hasty trial, he was hanged on December 2nd.  Southerners cheered. As Brown's funeral train passed through southwestern Vermont en route to burial in the Adirondacks, Northerners mourned a man who, in his closing speech, argued that he acted in accordance with a higher law - that of human justice -  and who supposedly kissed a black child on his way to the gallows.  In 1861, northern soldiers marched to war to the strains of a song whose chorus began "John Brown's body lies a'moldering in the grave."  Boston blueblood Julia Ward Howe rewrote the lyrics to make them more dignified, naming the result "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Brown still evokes strong debate. Is terrorism legitimate if conducted in a good cause?  Many Americans agree with his biographer, David Reynolds, that Brown, who fought for black freedom, was right and America at the time, whose laws protected slavery, was wrong.  On the other hand - and this makes us uncomfortable - Osama bin Laden could argue that he follows the example of John Brown.
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