Now As Then
We are living at a time when fanaticism obscures our national decency. It may be difficult for a good person to understand those who call for a president’s assassination, for the murder of people who disagree with them politically, for punishing “white” people for no other reason than the color of their skin or their gender, or who beat anyone wearing a MAGA hat to a pulp. This is the state of affairs in the United States today, but it isn’t the first time we Americans have entered this hell.
When John Brown raided the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859, he received overwhelming support from America’s northern intellectuals. It did not matter that John Brown was (likely) clinically insane, or that when measured by any standard, his actions were completely irrational. Not even men in chains supported him, but the northern elite did … in terms of propaganda and fund raising by which he was able to carry out his murderous escapade.
The northern elite not only funded John Brown, they called for the mass murder of every plantation owner in the United States. In its proper context, (ignoring his escapades in Bleeding Kansas) the John Brown affair was a small matter and easily dealt with by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee and a detachment of U. S. Marines.
Yet, in the minds of the northern intellectuals, even if John Brown was insane, it was easy to forgive his sins because his compelling motive was “divine.” It is hard not to lose one’s breath considering that this psychotic behavior pushed America into a conflict where close to a million men, women, and children starved to death, froze to death in winter, lost their limbs, and ingloriously bled out in our pastures and fields of green.
Horace Greely thought that John Brown’s actions were those of a madman yet had “not one reproachful word.” Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of Brown as a saint. Thoreau, Longfellow, and Bryant led the entire northern pantheon of intellectuals to claim Brown as an “angel of light.” Whitman and Hawthorne were the only two northern intellectuals to abstain from such hypocrisy. It wasn’t John Brown who was mad —it was the society that hanged him.
Thoreau, for example, was willing to be imprisoned rather than supporting a war with Mexico but had no qualms about shedding American blood to further his own ideologies. It was a period of mass puritanical fanaticism—and not at all unlike what is going on in our society today. The difference between then and now is that rather than religious puritanism, it has become Marxist puritanism. In 1859, it was the planter that had become public enemy number one; now it is any white male who prefers reason to emotional (often nonsensical) discourse. William Garrison once said, “Every slave holder has forfeited his right to live.”
How mad was that?
In contrast, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln observed, for as much as he opposed slavery, ending it could not excuse bloodshed and treason. But Mr. Lincoln became a useful tool for the northern intellectuals to achieve what they wanted all along: fire in the lake. They did get what they were hoping for.
For every action, there is a reaction. The US Congress investigated the Brown affair and its result did nothing to quiet anxieties, north or south. In the south, there evolved a suspicion of widespread conspiracy among northerners to foment slave insurrections. It did not help matters that congressional investigators revealed that John Brown received $23,000 in only four months, from the city of Boston (in 1858) to support a guerrilla war. Behind this effort were ministers, Harvard graduates, professors, surgeons, philosophers, lawyers, capitalists, and philanthropists.
Meanwhile, among most southern whites who did not own slaves, or ever supported slavery, there evolved a fear of what northern insurrectionists might do and they did what all red-blooded Americans do when threatened: they armed themselves, and placed themselves under the authority of their respective states, “in the common good.”
We have come full circle. Fanaticism is clouding American decency. We are again confusing ends and means. The acceptance and encouragement of civil violence throws a somber light over our “grand experiment” in democratic republicanism. Amazingly, now as then, the number of intellectual elite threatening America’s institutions is very small.
Now, as in 1861, radicals have taken over the US congress. Now, as then, the American people are being held captive to sheer madness. Now, as then, paranoia is feeding on itself. What is yet to be proved is whether the American people are smart enough to see through the intent of these “small numbers” of people who form the basis of the deep state.
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