Who, if anyone, has the “right” to kill? And from what source does the right derive? When does (or should) taking another life bring honor, and when disgrace? Is there such a thing as a “just” war that merits medals and heroes–the American Revolution? The fight against fascism?–or is slaughter always slaughter, and never worthy of praise? Do certain circumstances mitigate the crime of murder? Is “self-defense” the chief of these? On what grounds would one deny the right of Jews earmarked for Nazi extermination to resist violently? Or the right of black slaves, their lives stolen, their bodies brutalized, to slit the throats of their self-designated masters? Does the same exculpation extend to revolutionaries (American? Algerian? Cuban?) who take up arms to topple tyrannical laws and rulers? To a woman fighting off a rapist? A gay person being fag-bashed? A sex worker threatened and abused?
The ethical conundrums multiply even as their resolution resists consensus. Sometimes the issues at stake can be clarified through historical perspective, by investigating certain singular figures in the past whose lives seem to encapsulate those issues and whose reputations have shifted, in tandem with shifting cultural values, through time. In this regard few lives are more emblematic than John Brown’s. Though African-Americans have always and overwhelmingly regarded John Brown as a noble, heroic figure, few whites have. And while the civil rights movement produced a limited shift in attitude, very few white historians have written with any sympathy for the violent tactics John Brown employed during the mid-1850s war to make Kansas a free state, or for his subsequent attempt in 1859 to lead a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Though Nat Turner has also been dismissed by some white historians as a sort of crazed religious fanatic, too addled to tote up the overwhelming odds against the success of his rebellion, his somewhat more favorable press derives from the fact that he and those who joined his uprising were blacks, direct victims of the system they hoped to overthrow. Fighting on behalf of one’s own liberation has been treated as more legitimate than fighting, as did John Brown (or the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, or the white freedom fighters during the civil rights era) for the liberation of somebody else. According to this canon of judgment, itself derived from capitalist ethics, morality is defined as devotion to one’s self-interest.
Historians for many generations have derided John Brown, a white man and a Northerner, as a meddling outsider, a self-appointed emancipator whose motives must be suspect because, unlike Nat Turner’s cohorts, he himself did not suffer from slavery’s barbarism and could therefore have no “real” interest in encouraging its overthrow. The historical profession long made much the same sort of indictment against the nonviolent abolitionist movement as a whole, essentially agreeing with Daniel Webster’s notorious charge during the debates in Congress over the Compromise of 1850 that the “outside agitators” of the antislavery movement did nothing for the slave but secure his bonds more firmly than ever before; according to this perspective, the white South responded to moral condemnation not by inaugurating some long-term process of gradual emancipation but rather by tightening up its system of surveillance and by honing its ideological defense of slavery as a “positive good,” as an institution that brought the blessings of Christianity to a savage, benighted people.
But though Daniel Webster’s moral compass was far off course, his incidental point was accurate: Until a bloody civil war–until violence–produced emancipation, there was little if any evidence that the institution of slavery was weakening, let alone moving toward extinction. On the contrary, those white Southerners who at the beginning of the nineteenth century had qualms about an institution so at odds with their own ringing declaration of independence from Britain had, by mid-century, and even in the border states, been silenced or converted to a proslavery ideology.