- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009


A century and a half later, people still don’t know quite what to think of John Brown. Certainly, he aimed to be a hero. He thought his plan was the necessary means to a righteous end: Storm a federal arsenal, seize thousands of weapons, arm a gathering guerrilla force and start the revolution that would end the morally reprehensible and perfectly legal institution of slavery.

Yet the first casualty of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was a free black man, a baggage handler who bled to death on the street while Brown’s raiders grabbed hostages and holed up at a fire-engine house. Within 48 hours, Brown’s rebellion was dead, along with at least four civilians, 10 raiders and a U.S. Marine who helped retake the building.

Brown’s methods have been debated ever since, the grandiosity of his plot and his willingness to kill or be killed a timeless fascination. This year, the National Park Service has declared that his raid was the opening salvo in the War Between the States, with sesquicentennial commemorations beginning in West Virginia.

But in 1959, as America began to contemplate the centennial of the Civil War, Brown was largely left out of the discussion.

Segregation of schools and public lynchings still made headlines, and many white Southerners feared that civil rights activists would use retold tales of the raid to agitate. Blacks feared being marginalized, or worse. And so Brown was pushed aside, and the centennial began in 1961, with the anniversary of the Confederacy firing on Fort Sumter.

“John Brown was, in effect, a terrorist. Whether you agree that what he was doing was right or not,” said Gerry Gaumer, spokesman for the Park Service in Washington. “There are people in the Taliban who believe what they’re doing is right. Can you separate John Brown from what’s going on in Iraq or Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan?

“They fervently believe what they’re doing is right,” he said. “But is there a better way?”

This month, the Park Service is offering two-mile walking tours that retrace Brown’s footsteps through the picturesque town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Descendants of raiders, soldiers and townspeople will gather in August, then return for the Oct. 16 anniversary to explain their ancestors’ roles.

Had his own been among the bodies in 1859, Brown might have remained a bit player in the larger drama of the war. But that was not his fate. On trial for treason, murder and inciting a rebellion, he refused to apologize and declared the fight for freedom sanctioned by God and the Bible.

Brown became part of the popular culture of his times, and that legacy endures: An American reggae band is named in the abolitionist’s honor and Brown’s likeness is used on its album covers. In 2007, a rare daguerreotype of Brown sold for $97,750 at a Cincinnati auction.

Still, many people will discover Brown only this year. And as they do, they may wrestle with how to categorize him. History often presents people as one-dimensional characters, known only for good or evil deeds. Brown confounds because he committed both.

“People don’t know what to do with John Brown. They don’t know what color he is. They don’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy. They don’t know whether they should teach their kids about him. They just don’t know,” said Bob O’Connor of Charles Town, a local college instructor and author of “The Perfect Steel Trap: Harpers Ferry 1859.”

“To me, he was a person that was single-focused on a cause that he was willing to die for,” said Mr. O’Connor. “I often ask my students, ‘What cause are you willing to die for?’ They have trouble coming up with the answer to that.”

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