Glenn W. LaFantasie:The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown

Roundup: Talking About History

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

With the official government killing of Osama bin Laden last month, the issue of using violence in a good cause has once again surfaced. "Justice has been done," said President Obama as he announced bin Laden's death by a team of Navy SEAL operatives. Americans reacted, American-style, with bibulous celebrations in Times Square and, more quietly, with feelings of relief and contemplation. Some of that contemplation included the question: Did the United States have the moral authority to assassinate bin Laden, no matter how much evil he had committed?

Personally, I don't have a straightforward answer to that question, but I can tell you as a historian that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia), in 1859, an event that historians believe intensified the sectional controversy between North and South that eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And when I think about John Brown, a radical abolitionist who believed that violence could -- and should -- be used to end slavery in America, I can't help also thinking about the place he raided, Harpers Ferry -- one of the most peaceful, scenic spots in the entire United States.

There is a great incongruity between John Brown's use and advocacy of violence and the bucolic tranquillity of the place he attacked. Harpers Ferry is a beautiful place where some terrible history took place. But unlike other historic sites, like, say, Lexington and Concord (note to Michele Bachmann: These towns are in Massachusetts; note to Sarah Palin: Paul Revere rode from Boston to warn the Minute Men in Lexington and Concord that the redcoats were coming to confiscate the colonists' muskets and powder), Harpers Ferry has never gained the stature of sacred American soil. In part, I think that's because the now-restored village suffers from the legacy of John Brown's morally twisted and befuddling attempt to use violence in the name of ending slavery, as good a cause as existed in the middle of the 19th century. We like our history simple. At Harpers Ferry, one must confront a moral dilemma: Is violence ever justified in removing evil from the world?...

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