Tag Archives: edmund ruffin

John Brown: Fanatical Idealist and “Warrior for God”

John_brown.JPG

                                                        John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

October 16th is the anniversary of John Brown’s attempted seizure of the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry. He was executed after trial on December 2nd 1859. Brown was  a man who had a righteous cause, but surrendered the moral high ground because of his fanaticism. Justice Robert Jackson wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” John Brown was a fanatic who in his desire to achieve his goal was not above committing murder as he did in Kansas, and insurrection as he did at Harper’s Ferry. There are many people in this country who harbor similar beliefs. John Brown serves as a warning to all of us. Violent means in service of a honorable or righteous cause often make things far worse.

This article is part of my draft book Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 John Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4]Brown regarded moderate free Staters with distain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.”[8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising….  believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10] 

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders plead for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15] 

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp. The Richmond Enquirer wrote in its editorial, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion, more than any other event that has happened since the foundation of the Government; it has rallied to that standard men who formerly looked on it with horror; it has revived, with ten fold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy…” [21]

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [22]

Brown’s composure and dignity during trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [23]

UBrown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [24] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [25]

Future Confederate General Lafayette McLaws spoke for many Southerners in the army when he wrote: His diary entry for February 27th 1860 noted:

“Debates in congress show no mitigation of sec. feeling…. I think it would be better not to be so fanatical on any subject, the extreme pro-slavery man is as bad as that type as that type of anti-slavery, John Brown. I do not consider slavery an evil by any means, but I certainly do not think it the greatest blessing.” [26]

But in the South there was a different understanding of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message proclaimed by Southern newspapermen, ministers and politicians was that the North could not be trusted.  Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [27]

Of course that was not the feeling in much of the North, but Brown’s actions and words were seized upon by the Southern versions of Brown to make Civil War inevitable once the political balance changed, and they neither controlled the Presidency, House, or Senate.

                                                          Notes 

[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.18

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] ___________ The Harper’s Ferry Invasion as Party Capital The Richmond Enquirer, 23 October 1859 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.54

[22] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[23] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[24] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[26] Oefinger, John C. Editor A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London 2002 p.18

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.119

3 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, ethics, faith, History, leadership, Political Commentary, racism, Religion

America’s Original Sin, Part Three: The Fire Eaters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison.

We see this every day in our media where outlandish and evil men build up followings and make others who hold their beliefs, without their character flaws look good by comparison. So here is tonight’s installment from one of my books dealing with the history of slavery, emancipation, and the return of Jim Crow and White Supremacy.

I admit that it is not a comfortable read and unfortunately it is also all too contemporary for comfort.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin 

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate around slavery, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. As I constantly note, human beings are the one constant in history. Two of these men, there are two that I think stand out from almost all other Southern supporters of slavery. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called one of the proponents of Confederate nationalism; and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett, who was so hard line in his beliefs that he could not work within any system that required compromise, even at the end of the war.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy, and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850, a compromise that actually did more to help Southern slaveholders than to harm them, which turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist.

When he decided on secession he did so with the zeal of a man on consumed by something almost akin to religious conversion:

he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Ruffin’s conversion was remarkable because as young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

But Ruffin was not a unlearned or unsuccessful man. He was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper, and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years, even before the Compromise Of 1850 hardened him into the most passionate advocate of secession. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was the type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. He knew that the only way slavery to survive was for the South to become a nation of its own, and that meant secession. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not disapprove of enslaving people of the same race, but he believed that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable. But Ruffin, a true believer in White Supremacy believed that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first shot.

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] Rhett was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification. Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] 

During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept the premise that the state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified.

After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways,  “The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] 

When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] 

Rhett was elected to the Confederate House Of Representative but However, following secession Rhett’s inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders. He grew increasingly isolated, and become one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865, with Sherman’s Union armies having overrun South Carolina and Grant’s at the gates of Richmond, Rhett remained defiant and uncompromising. He opposed any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the belated attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for survival of the Confederacy.

Rhett moves to Louisiana and left the Mercury to his son, he never reentered politics and died in 1876. Ruffin made a more spectacular exit. Two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia, Ruffin exited his earthly life.

When the war ended with the Confederacy defeated and the south in ruins, Ruffin still could not abide the result. In a carefully crafted suicide note he sent to his son the bitter and hate filled old man wrote on June 14th 1865:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule- to all political, social and business connections with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States! … And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my last breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule — to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.” [17]

There will be more to come.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slaveryhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the Southhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

[17] Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865). Diary entry, June 18, 1865. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Retrieved from http://blogs.loc.gov/civil-war-voices/about/edmund-ruffin/ 24 March 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, economics and financial policy, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Radicals That Make Mainstream Evil Look Good: The Fire Eaters, Slavery, and Secession

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery from my yet to be published book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era” that I will publish this week. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called the “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men due to their radical views on race and the enslavement of people that they considered to be less than human.

The fact is that all forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison. We see this every day in our media and in our current presidential administration.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Understanding the Issue, The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. Two of these men stand out. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called a proponent of Confederate nationalism, and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett because of his inability to work within any system that required compromise.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist. When he did so, “he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Likewise, as a young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

Ruffin was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was a type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to“secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not believe that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable, but he did believe that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first. [7]

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] He was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification, Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett would resign his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept a state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified. After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways, but The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] However, his inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, and he grew increasingly isolated, becoming one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865 Rhett with Union armies having overrun South Carolina and at the gates of Richmond, Rhett was opposing any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slaveryhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the Southhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

Leave a comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, economics and financial policy, faith, History, Political Commentary

Human Beings as Property Part 3: American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison. We see this every day in our media. So here is

Peace

Padre Steve+

Understanding the Issue, The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. Two of these men stand out. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called a proponent of Confederate nationalism, and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett because of his inability to work within any system that required compromise.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist. When he did so, “he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Likewise, as a young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

Ruffin was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was a type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not believe that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable, but he did believe that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first. [7]

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] He was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification, Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett would resign his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept a state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified. After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways, but The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] However, his inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, and he grew increasingly isolated, becoming one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865 Rhett with Union armies having overrun South Carolina and at the gates of Richmond, Rhett was opposing any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slavery http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the South http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

3 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

John Brown: The Fanatical Idealist

John_brown.JPG

John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

December 2nd was the anniversary of the execution of John Brown, a man who had a righteous cause, but surrendered the moral high ground because of his fanaticism. Justice Robert Jackson wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” John Brown was a fanatic who in his desire to achieve his goal was not above committing murder as he did in Kansas, and insurrection as he did at Harper’s Ferry. There are many people in this country who harbor similar beliefs. John Brown serves as a warning to all of us.

This piece is part of my draft book Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 John Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4] Brown regarded moderate free Staters with distain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.” [8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising….  believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10] 

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders after pleas for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15] 

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp. The Richmond Enquirer wrote in its editorial, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion, more than any other event that has happened since the foundation of the Government; it has rallied to that standard men who formerly looked on it with horror; it has revived, with ten fold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy…” [21]

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [22]

Brown’s composure and dignity during trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [23]

Brown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [24] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [25]

Future Confederate General Lafayette McLaws spoke for many Southerners in the army when he wrote: His diary entry for February 27th 1860 noted:

“Debates in congress show no mitigation of sec. feeling…. I think it would be better not to be so fanatical on any subject, the extreme pro-slavery man is as bad as that type as that type of anti-slavery, John Brown. I do not consider slavery an evil by any means, but I certainly do not think it the greatest blessing.” [26]

But in the South there was a different understanding of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message proclaimed by Southern newspapermen, ministers and politicians was that the North could not be trusted.  Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [27]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] ___________ The Harper’s Ferry Invasion as Party Capital The Richmond Enquirer, 23 October 1859 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.54

[22] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[23] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[24] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[26] Oefinger, John C. Editor A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London 2002 p.18

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.119

2 Comments

Filed under civil war, ethics, faith, History, Political Commentary

When Political Parties Implode: Pt 5: “The Heather is on Fire…” Politics, Religion, and War

revpalmer

Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Confederate Preacher and Propagandist

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Over the past six months or so I have alluded to events in the Republican Party that make it appear that it is about to implode. I am a historian, and there is precedent in American history for the collapse of a national political party. This happened before in the 1854 collapse of the Whig Party, the 1912 division in the republican Party, but more importantly during the 1858 through 1860 collapse of the Democratic Party. Now I am not a person to say that history repeats itself. there are similarities and trends, but nothing is ever exactly the same as to why different parties collapse.  

While the issues of each day may be different there are common threads of humanity, hubris and hatred that unite to destroy political parties. I think that this is happening now in the Republican Party, and that it is possible that something similar may occur with the Democratic Party in the coming years. So it is important to look at history whenever possible to see how different political leaders responded in times of intense ideological, economic, social, national, and sectional division.

I decided to add an afterward to the three part series on the disaster that the Democratic Party made for itself and the country between 1858 and 1860. The third part deals with the after effects of results of the democratic Party split in the election of 1860. I followed those articles with one yesterday that dealt secession crisis that enveloped the nation as former Southern Democrats led their states into rebellion against the Union and Northern Democrats joined the anti-secession party in the North. Today is a section that talks about the mood of the country in that time and the impact of religion on the politics of the era. I do plan on doing a bit more work with it but figure that it works fine for the present moment, when religion again is a major part of politics, not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world.

This is a section of one of the chapters of my Civil War and Gettysburg text and I hope that you will find it interesting and thought provoking.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

As no middle ground remained, the nation plunged into war with many leaders in the South and North including those who previously had encouraged conciliation and compromise hardened their positions on secession. In the South men like Alexander Stephens and Judah P. Benjamin joined the secession movement, while in the North the positions of leaders hardened as the Southern states seceded and seized Federal installations including armories, forts, and mints and threatened others. “Northerners greeted secession as a deadly assault upon their own rights, welfare and security. Secession leaders sought not to nullify a single law, but the results of an entire presidential election. Far worse, they intended to shatter a nation that was liberty’s last, best hope. That could not be tolerated.” [1]

But soon only four installations in the new Confederacy remained in Federal hands, “two far away in the Florida Keys; Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida; and the most visible, Fort Sumter.” [2] Among them, one, Fort Sumter would sit at the eye of the brewing hurricane of civil war that threatened to hit the nation with unmatched fury.

In the South, Church leaders provided “Ministerial hosannahs to the providential nature of secession, such as Benjamin Palmer’s, contributed vital ideological work to the creation of the Confederacy. Such sermonizing language provided the appearance of a seamless bridge between proslavery and the revolution creating an independent nation.” [3] The South forged ahead to claim the mantle of Christ and God for their side; and given the widely held theological “assumptions about divine sovereignty and God’s role in human history, northerners and southerners anxiously looked for signs of the Lord’s favor.” [4] Of course people on both sides used the events of any given day during the war to interpret what this meant and both were subject to massive shifts as the God of Battles seemed to at times favor the armies of the Confederacy and as the war ground on to favor those of the Union. Tennessee Presbyterian pastor William H. Vernor was blunt in what God’s position on secession and slavery was, “In all contests between nations God espouses the cause of the Righteous and makes it his own….The institution of slavery according to the Bible is right. Therefore in the contest between North and South, he will espouse the cause of the South and make it his own.” [5]

Benjamin Morgan Palmer was one of the most influential preachers in the South, and when he took the pulpit on November 29th 1860 preached one of the most polemic pro-slavery and secession sermons made anywhere in the South. This Thanksgiving Sermon became one of the most influential Confederate propagandists. “Some 50,000 copies of that sermon were printed in pamphlet form and circulated throughout the South. That pamphlet became a most powerful part of Southern propaganda.” [6] The sermon was electrifying in it Palmer thundered against abolitionists, in particular Northern ministers equating them to atheists and radicals of the French Revolution. .

“Last of all, in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights…. Under this suspicious cry of reform, it demands that every evil shall be corrected, or society become a wreck—the sun must be stricken from the heavens, if a spot is found upon his disk. The Most High, knowing his own power, which is infinite, and his own wisdom, which is unfathomable, can afford to be patient. But these self-constituted reformers must quicken the activity of Jehovah or compel his abdication. In their furious haste, they trample upon obligations sacred as any which can bind the conscience…. Working out the single and false idea which rides them like a nightmare, they dash athwart the spheres, utterly disregarding the delicate mechanism of Providence, which moves on, wheels within wheels, with pivots and balances and springs, which the great Designer alone can control. This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air—”liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze,—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religion and of all truth. In this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries, against the family, the State, and the Church; which blasphemously invades the prerogatives of God, and rebukes the Most High for the errors of his administration; which, if it cannot snatch the reign of empire from his grasp, will lay the universe in ruins at his feet. Is it possible that we shall decline the onset?” [7]

Even as their preachers like Palmer urged secession and linked the cause of the Confederacy and slavery to Divine Providence events continued to move forward. Those who had been hesitant about secession in the South were overcome by events when Fort Sumter was attacked. Edmund Ruffin spoke for many of the ardent secessionists when he proclaimed “The shedding of blood…will serve to change many voters in the hesitating states, from submission or procrastinating ranks, to the zealous for immediate secession.” [8]

But very few of the radical secessionists found their way into uniform or onto the front lines. Then like now, very few of those who clamor for war and vengeance the most, who send the sons of others to die in their wars, take up arms themselves. Confederate General Jubal Early saw the sour irony in this. Early had been a strong Unionist and had fought against secession until the last as a Virginia legislator during the Virginia secession debate. But when he finally accepted secession as a reality, he went to war and never looked back becoming an intractable enemy of the Union. During the war he became one of the most committed Rebels of the Cause and after the war became one of the most powerful voices for the Lost Cause. That being said, the caustic Early was not fond of the proponents of secession and took pleasure as the war went on by taunting: “the identifiable secessionists in gray uniform who came his way, especially when the circumstances were less than amusing….” [9]After the disastrous defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864, Early looked at his second in command, former Vice President of the United States, failed candidate for President in the 1860 presidential election, and Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge, who had advocated secession as they retreated amid the “chaos and horror of his army’s rout. Early took the occasion to mock his celebrated subordinate: “Well General, he crowed, “what do you think of the ‘rights of the South’ in the territories now?” [10]

In the North a different sentiment rose as one volunteer soldier from Pennsylvania wrote: “I cannot believe…that “Providence intends to destroy this Nation, the great asylum for all the oppressed of all other nations and build a slave Oligarchy on the ruins thereof.” Another volunteer from Ohio mused “Admit the right of the seceding states to break up the Union at pleasure…and how long before the new confederacies created by the first disruption shall be resolved into smaller fragments and the continent become a vast theater of civil war, military license, anarchy and despotism? Better to settle it at whatever cost and settle it forever.” [11]

As the war began and both sides mobilized for war, the clergymen on both sides of the now divided land now proclaimed a holy war to support their side’s cause, just as they had in the decades leading to the crisis. Palmer, whose sermon had helped propagandize the cause of secession was active in giving Confederate soldiers a religious basis for their fight, “he insisted that the Louisiana Washington Artillery resist the Northern invasion in order to protect the right of self-government. To them he advocated the pursuit of a holy war, a war of true Christian faith against fanaticism.” [12] The religious character of the war was in evidence as “Clergymen and their congregations became caught up in the patriotic fervor…..It would not be entirely fair to say that politics rode roughshod over religion, but Americans exhibited more spiritual hubris than spiritual reflection” [13] as the country went to war with itself. The depth of the religious dimension of the struggle can be seen in the hymn most commonly associated with the Civil War and the United States. This was the immensely popular Battle Hymn of the Republic whose lyricist Julia Ward Howe penned the lines “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free! While God is marching on” [14]

Evangelical Churches, evangelistic organizations and tract societies were particularly active in conducting revival meetings and working to convert soldiers, and as “early as 1862, large-scale “conversion seasons” swept through both Union and Confederate troops: the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Northern Virginia both experienced large-scale revivals of religion during the winter and spring of 1864.” [15] These would be the last of these seasons of revival as the war entered a new and more brutal phase, which not only tested, but also shattered the faith of many soldiers, one Illinois surgeon named “John Hostetter remarked, “The is no God in war. It is merciless, cruel, vindictive, unchristian, savage, relentless. It is all that devils could wish for.” [16]

Not content with efforts to evangelize and convert soldiers there was also an attempt on the part of some Northern Evangelicals to push religion to the forefront of the conflict and to establish the Christian faith as the official religion of the United States. In doing so they sought to correct what they believed was an error in the Constitution. The error that they sought to correct was that God was not mentioned in it. These Evangelicals believed that the Civil War was God’s judgment on the nation because the Founders had left the mention of God out of that document. The group, which called itself the National Reform Association proposed what they called the Bible Amendment in 1863. The amendment would united Evangelical Protestantism with the Republic, forming what they believed would be a truly Christian nation. They met with Lincoln and proposed to modify the opening paragraph of the Constitution to read:

“We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power and civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to form a more perfect union.” [17]

While Lincoln brushed off their suggestion and never referred to the United States as a Christian nation, much to the chagrin of many Northern Christians, the Confederacy reveled in its self-described Christian character. The Confederacy had “proudly invoked the name of God in their Constitution. Even late in the war, a South Carolina editor pointed to what he saw as a revealing fact: the Federal Constitution – with no reference to the Almighty – “could have been passed and adopted by Atheists or Hindoes or Mahometans.” [18]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.236

[2] Ibid. Cooper We Have the War Upon Us p.192

[3] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.141

[4] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.74

[5] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.138

[6] Wakelyn, John L. Benjamin Morgan Palmer in Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary edited by Charles F. Ritter and Jon L. Wakelyn, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut 1998 p.309

[7] Palmer, Benjamin M. Thanksgiving Sermon, November, 29, 1860. Retrieved from http://civilwarcauses.org/palmer.htm 9 March 2016

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.273

[9] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.52

[10] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.52

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.253-254

[12] Ibid. Wakelyn Benjamin Morgan Palmer p.309

[13] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.56

[14] Ibid. Huntington Who Are We? P.77

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.415

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.415

[17] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.360

[18] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples pp.337-338

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, History, Political Commentary

Fanatical Idealists: John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another section from my Civil War and Gettysburg text while I am away. This one on John Brown, a man who was incredibly idealistic in his desire to free the slaves and frustrated by the lack of political progress in doing so. Brown was also a fanatic, willing to take lives, even innocent ones to make his point and fulfill his destiny. That is the problem with idealism when it becomes frustrated. Frustrated idealists often turn to violence to get their point across, which in turn makes even good causes suspect. Brown is no different than other religious ideologues and not just Christian ones. Religious idealists who become fanatics based on their belief in their cause and their destiny to fulfill it as agents of the almighty tend to be some of the most violent and ruthless of all. Brown provides us a little bit of an insight into the hearts of people who are willing to kill and to die for their religious, social and ideological beliefs. Interestingly enough it was none other than Edmund Ruffin, a slave owner and rabid supporter of the expansion of slavery and secession who seemed to understand Brown the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

jb_portrait

John Brown

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4] Brown regarded moderate free Staters with disdain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.” [8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising…. believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10]

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders after pleas for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15]

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp.

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [21]

Brown’s composure and dignity during the trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [22]

Brown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [23] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [24]

But in the South there was a different understanding. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message was that the North could not be trusted. Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [25]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[22] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[23] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[24] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[25] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.119

1 Comment

Filed under civil war, History, Religion