Steven Lubet: Remembering the roots of a real Civil War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steven Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University. His most recent book is "The Importance of Being Honest: How Lying, Secrecy and Hypocrisy Collide with Truth in Law" (NYU Press 2008).]

American political discourse has gotten increasingly nasty over the past 10 months, with brutal rhetoric spilling from talk radio to town hall meetings to the very halls of Congress. When anti-government protesters openly carry loaded weapons at rallies and Texas Gov. Rick Perry hints at the possibility of secession, you might wonder whether the nation is actually at the brink of civil war over the unlikely issue of healthcare reform. Sadly, the commentators and politicians who exploit such threats of violence and revolution seem to have forgotten what the real Civil War was about, and what it was like. Now would be a good time to start remembering, because, as it happens, the first pitched battle of our bloodiest war began exactly 150 years ago today.

On Sunday night, Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and a troop of 18 men entered the sleeping town of Harpers Ferry, Va., where they began an assault on slavery that would lead first to civil war and eventually to emancipation. They quickly took control of a federal arsenal, but shots were fired in the encounter, killing a black railroad worker and alerting the town that a raid was under way. By mid-morning the following day, Brown and his men were surrounded by local militia whose constant fire killed many of the raiders.

Late Monday, Oct. 17, a detachment of federal Marines arrived under the command of Robert E. Lee, and Brown's fate was sealed. At dawn on Tuesday morning, only five of Brown's men remained standing -- several had fled and the others were dead or gravely wounded. When Brown refused a demand to surrender, a squadron of Lee's troops stormed the armory. Brown was taken alive along with four other survivors.

Brown was turned over to the state of Virginia for prosecution. He was soon indicted on the capital counts of murder, inciting servile rebellion, and treason against the state of Virginia. Gov. Henry Wise had decided to use the prosecution as a means to assail the entire abolitionist movement, and the indictment therefore blamed the raid not only on Brown, but also on the "counsel of other evil and traitorous persons."

John Brown, too, understood the potential political impact of his trial. Refusing secret offers to organize his rescue, he explained that "I cannot now better serve the cause I love so much than to die for it; and in my death I may do more than in my life." Then Brown set about orchestrating the events leading up to his own execution, using the courtroom as a platform from which he could explain and justify his war on slavery...

comments powered by Disqus