Lee’s Dilemma
Avery Craven

Note: The following is taken from the April 1961 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 69), pp. 131–48.



IN his sketch of Robert E. Lee in the Dictionary of American Biography, the late Douglas Southall Freeman states that Lee made his decision to follow Virginia into secession “without mental debate.” The only question with Lee was “simply whether his first allegiance was due to his state or the Union.” So when Virginia acted, Lee “instinctively . . . cast his lot with her.” It was “the answer he was born to make.”

Freeman also notes that Lee followed this course in spite of the fact that he was “warmly devoted to the Union,” did not believe in the right of secession, and was no defender of slavery in the abstract. He deliberately chose the path of revolution.1

For this, Freeman offers no apology, no defense, and apparently thinks it requires no explanation. He accepts Lee’s action as the natural one for a Virginia gentleman with Lee’s background to have taken.

Allan Nevins, on the other hand, speaks rather contemptuously of the ease with which Lee made his decision. With more of cynicism than truth, he implies that Lee’s only reason for hesitancy, and the only struggle it cost, was over separation from the Army, not from the Union. Then, in order to make Lee’s action more clearly “the product of instinct, not deep reflection,” he lays heavy emphasis on Lee’s expressed “contempt for the business of secession” and on his frank statement “that the framers of the Constitution would not have exhausted so much labor, wisdom and forbearance in its formation and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken up by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for ‘perpetual union’. . . . It is idle to talk of secession.”

After admitting that “nobody today dreams of questioning Lee’s sincerity,”
Nevins concludes by saying: “But we may well question whether the man
who thus preferred State to nation did not lack a certain largeness of view,
did not respond to a parochial type of patriotism, and did not reveal an inadequate
comprehension of the American destiny.”2

It is not my purpose this evening to defend Robert E. Lee against the charges of provincialism and narrowness of view. If Douglas Freeman, speaking to the future, saw no reason for explaining Lee’s action, I most certainly can find no excuse for doing so on this occasion. I need only to say, in passing, that to me the real significance, and the true value in Lee’s action, lie in the very things to which Nevins objects. Lee, in reality, took the hard road. He chose to yield deeply-held convictions regarding immediate concrete issues, in order to stand by those intangible, yet more profound values which had to do with honor, with self-respect,a nd with duty. The importantt ruth, on which all else turns, is that Lee did genuinely and deeply love the nation. He had long grieved over its troubles, and had sincerely declared that “there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honour.” “My own troubles, anxieties & sorrows,” he added, “sink into insignificance when I contemplate the sufferings present & prospective of the nation.” He had denounced secession, declared himself unable to realize “that our people will destroy a government . . . that has given us peace & prosperity at home, power and security abroad, & under which we have acquired a colossal strength unequalled in the history of mankind.” He had as frankly said that “There are few in this enlightened age who would not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”

The cruel fact is that Lee, like the majority of Southerners in 1861, had no choice that could be made by a mental process. He and they had been driven into a comer and caught between conflicting values. On charge of being sinners, they were being forced either to yield their convictions in regard to slavery and secession, or to subject the land of their birth to an impending social-economic revolution which would wipe out millions of dollars of invested capital and plunge their section into racial chaos.

Developments at the North, which had climaxed in the birth of the Republican Party, had produced a holy crusade armed with a law higher than the Constitution which had been framed supposedly to protect local and minority rights. Slavery had become the symbol of all sectional differences, and slavery, as a sin must at once be put on the road to ultimate extinction. Christianity, democracy, and progress all required it. Southern men saw it as a case of submission or secession.3

Now the tragedy in the situation was the fact that three-fourths of those who lived south of Mason and Dixon’s line held no slaves. The majority of them, like Lee, were unquestionably opposed to secession. Yet, in the end, these men were forced to fight under Lee as few humans have ever fought, to preserve the Confederacy born of secession and anchored to Negro slavery. That is one of the great tragedies of history.

Then, to turn tragedy into irony, present-day historians are more and more inclined to view the War in which Lee and his men fought so bravely as “a needless war.” They see it as the product of “the demagogy, selfishness, and blindness” of a “blundering generation.” With equal assurance, they insist that, in that war, “the South stood face to face with a socio-economicr evolution from which not even victory could extricate it.” The Industrial Revolution, enlisted on the Northern side, had made the Southern cause a lost cause even before the fighting began.4

And it must also be remembered that Robert E. Lee, more than any other single individual, was responsible for prolonging that “needless, hopeless war” which cost half a million lives and more than nine billion dollars, made possible the bitterness of Reconstruction, and the extravagance and brutality of the Age of Big Business. To Lee and his gallant men, it brought only failure and defeat. Yet failure and defeat for which both North and South are endlessly grateful. To the North, it brought victory, but at the cost of decades of political corruption, wasteful and unbalanced economic development, and social problems which the next two generations would spend most of their efforts trying to solve.

It is thus only in terms of tragedy and irony that Robert E. Lee’s story has meaning. It is only in such terms that the War between the States has lessons to teach a nation that still stumbles and blunders. It is, therefore, without apology, that I ask you as Virginians who admire the man who, as a soldier, did so much with so little, and who turned failure into greatness, to take a new look at the events which led a whole people into this ironic tragedy.


A wise English historian has divided the historiography of civil struggles into two stages. The first he calls the “Heroic” stage, in which the victors write their own chronicles, gloat over the defeated, count their trophies, commemorate their achievements, and boast of how righteousness triumphed over evil.

The second and more mature stage comes much later when the defeated side has had a hearing and all passion has been spent. Then the historian can see that it was a conflict between one half-right that was perhaps too willful, and another half-right that was perhaps too proud; and that even back of this lay “a terrible predicament,” which had the effect of putting men at cross purposes with one another, causing situations to harden, events to tie themselves into knots, and one party or another to be driven into a corner.

When this stage is reached, the historian can feel sorrow for each side and give due weight to the “fundamental human predicament—one which we can see would have led to a serious conflict of wills even if all men had been fairly intelligent and reasonably well-intentioned.”5

Tonight I would like to approach the bitter struggle which, one hundred years ago, divided North and South into warring factions from this point of view. I would like to select just one single event which had a vital part in tying things into knots and hardening situations, and which so brutally reveals the sad predicament that lay behind it. I have chosen the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry.


On the sixteenth of October 1859, a little band of silent, determined men left an old farmhouse on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and headed towards Harper’s Ferry. They carried rifles under their long gray shawls, and a farm wagon, creaking down the dark road behind them, was heavily loaded with sledges and pikes recently fashioned in New England shops. Their rifles were of a kind widely known as “Beecher’s Bibles.”

At their head strode a grim and gaunt old man, Kansas battle-scarred, who, according to Wendell Phillips, carried “letters of marque from God.” He and his men had come South for the purpose of turning slaves into freemen and to arouse a nation to the necessity of getting on with business long overdue.6

What happened that night and the next days at Harper’s Ferry was, from any legal point of view, simply a raid on public property by an irresponsible band of armed outlaws. What happened from any common sense point of view was pathetic tragedy. The John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry was from any point of view childlike both in conception and in execution. It was, as Robert E. Lee said, “the attempt of a fanatic or madman which could only end in failure.” What of temporary success it had was due entirely to the mistaken belief that large numbers were involved and to the general notion that nothing so absurd could possibly be undertaken.7

What John Brown had in mind if we can believe his own statement was nothing less than the stirring up of “a servile war on the borders of Virginia, which he expected to extend . . . through the State and throughout the entire South.” By seizing the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, he expected to establish a base to which the slaves and the non-slaveholding whites would flock in great numbers. “When I strike,” he has said, “the bees will swarm.” At this base, his forces would be armed with the pikes and guns which he had brought from the North and with those captured at the arsenal.

With an army thus formed, he would move southward along the mountain ridges which extend from Virginia far down into the heart of Alabama. He would conquer and gather forces as he moved along. Then he would create a new and greater state out of this conquered territory, powerful enough to defend itself against the old slaveholding states and against the United States government itself if necessary.

For the administration of this vast conquered region, a plan of government had already been drawn. At a Constitutional Convention held at Chatham, Canada, on May 8, 1858, a “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the people of the United States” had been framed and adopted. In its preamble it declared slavery to be “none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . . in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence.” Since the present government did not protect all men in their rights, it had become necessary to form a new one.

With the purpose stated and justified, the forty-eight articles which followed projected a government of three departments—legislative, executive, and judicial—with the duties and responsibilities of each carefully described. Then followed provisions for an army under a “Commander-in-chief” who was to exercise unusual powers throughout the entire government. In fact, the whole organization seems to have been planned with the conquest and control of “conquered territory” in mind. Even the procedure for making “treaties of peace” was included, together with regulations dealing with captured or confiscated property, neutrals, prisoners, and persons placed on parole.

Social life, under the new government, was to be carefully regulated. Needless waste, profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior or indecent exposure of the person, intoxication, and quarreling were not to be tolerated. Schools and churches were to be established and high morals and personal cleanliness encouraged. Individuals in “conquered territory” were not to be allowed to carry concealed weapons, but those of good character and sound mind who were members of the organization were to be encouraged to carry arms openly. This state would face its moral obligations.

To inaugurate this vast scheme for the ending of slavery in the United States by the use of force, John Brown brought along only twenty-two men. Some of these were boys in their teens, and only one of the group had ever had any professional experience either in things military or in things political. Nor did they possess, other than in animal courage, the qualities necessary for such a bold venture. In spite of the fact that secrecy was absolutely necessary, even for establishing a base at the Ferry, Brown permitted a night train, bound for Baltimore, to proceed on its way after it had been delayed at the Ferry bridge long enough for its crew and passengers to understand clearly what was taking place.

Equally fatal was the seizure, next morning, of a nearby schoolhouse for the storage of pikes and guns to be used by revolting slaves. School was in session and some thirty frightened children, ranging in age from eight years to fifteen, were permitted to scatter to their homes and to spread the alarm.

Nor did Brown’s men inspire the terror necessary for quick success. Important slaveholders who were seized in order to serve as hostages did not react to the name of John Brown as had settlers in Kansas. When his men demanded from Colonel Lewis W. Washington his watch and money, the dignified and courageous refusal in the face of their guns brought only the remark, “Take care, Sir!” And when pressure was offered by mention of Ossawatomie Brown, Washington declared that he had never heard of him; that whenever he saw the word “Kansas” in a paper, he turned the page and refused to read it.

Nor were Terence Byrne and his brother any more impressed. They refused to surrender their slaves voluntarily or to help Bown’s men to find them. “Hunt for them [as I do] when I want them,” was the answer.

Somehow the advantage in men and guns did not meet a situation where gentlemen retained their dignity and composure. Brown’s men could only waive their demands.

Nor did the slaves respond to Brown’s call. A few frightened groups were rounded up and pikes placed in their hands. None, however, resorted to violence and all, at the first opportunity, dropped their pikes and returned to their homes. Regardless of what they thought of slavery, they showed no signs of being ready to revolt or to injure their masters. The name of John Brown held no meaning for them. Not a single recruit was found in all Virginia.

Under these circumstances, the whole movement collapsed as suddenly as it had begun. In taking possession of the arsenal, it was necessary to seize only one man, and the shooting of a Negro, who approached the railroad station, was both foolish and unnecessary. So quickly and easily was the work done that it was possible almost immediately to send out men for the purpose of collecting hostages and slaves. Not until morning and the arrival of armed men from the surrounding area did resistance develop.

During the course of that one day of unorganized snipe shooting, all of Brown’s party, except those who had remained behind on the Maryland side, were either killed or captured or were driven within the engine house. The final blows were struck early next morning when a small detachment of United States Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee broke down the engine-house doors and brought the raid to an abrupt end. As Colonel Lee said in his official report: “The whole [affair] was over in a few minutes.” Brown and all but one of his men were seriously wounded and taken captive. Only those who had remained on the Maryland side escaped. The raid on Harper’s Ferry had come to nothing.

The trials and conviction of John Brown and the other survivors from his band were more or less matters of observing legal forms rather than of determining guilt. The facts were too clear and the admissions too frank and open. The question of insanity might have been given more consideration, but Brown’s own firm demands and the ultimate realization by friends that Brown dead was more valuable to their cause than Brown merely insane made that impossible. Perhaps the most significant development between the capture and the execution was the pious indulgence in falsehoods both by Brown and by those who had provided him with money and arms. Both were trying to transform a criminal in to a martyr. Their effort, as Robert Penn Warren says, was “all so thin that it should not have deceived a child, but it deceived a generation.”8


From this brief statement of facts, it would seem that, under ordinary circumstances, the whole incident, which in itself was little more than a tragic fiasco, would soon have been forgotten. Brown’s efforts would have been judged for what they were, and his name would have had little place in American history. The raid, in itself, was too absurd in character and too local in its physical effects to have become a matter of national importance.

That they were not forgotten and that they assumed historical significance had nothing to do with the man John Brown or his raid on Harper’s Ferry. The significant thing about this insignificant affair, like much else that occurred in this period, is the light it throws on American thinking, and on the desperate and tangled situation in to which the nation had fallen. It was a situation in which violence, that reached the status of private warfare, had not only been permitted but openly encouraged, in Kansas. Pious men, on their own responsibility, had enlisted soldiers, provided arms and m ney for leaders as irresponsible as John Brown. William H. Seward in Congress had shouted: “Come on then gentlemen of the slave states, since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side that is stronger in numbers as it is in right.”9

With this understanding of personal responsibility outside the law, well armed individuals from Missouri had poured a cross the border to face the challenge of the equally well armed men from New England and New York. Civil War and every kind of violence that could be covered by a supposedly holy cause soon produced what came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The United States Army and civil officials, though present, played little part. Under the guise of accomplishing pious ends, the individual had come to believe that the law and the government had failed, and that he alone had become the agent of truth and right and God’s will. It was, indeed, a sad predicament.10

To understand the relationship of this to Harper’s Ferry, we must go back to the simple fact that John Brown’s entire effort was based on “expectations” and “assumptions,” not on cold fact. When Governor Henry A. Wise asked him, after the raid, as to what and how much support he counted on in men, he replied “from three to five thousand, if we wanted them.” At which one of his wounded companions interrupted to say that “he was not sure of any aid, but he only expected it .” He assumed that thousands like himself were anxious to shed Southern blood. Futhermore, he assumed that every slave in the South was ready to rush into rebellion at the slightest opportunity and even to slay his master. He assumed that rich and powerful men in New York and New England, who had already provided him with money and arms, would back his efforts as they had done in Kansas; that they believed in a moral law higher than the laws passed by legislative bodies; that ends justified means, and that guns provided the only means for checking and destroying an aggressive slaveocracy.

These “expectations” and “assumptions” proved to be rather weak weapons in an emergency, but, were they not based on fairly reasonable grounds? Had not men been poured into Kansas by the thousands to fight slavery and to create free territory? And had they not been provided with “Beecher’s Bibles” with which to fight? Had not the abolitionists pictured slavery as a state of constant war and rebellion and had not the “underground railway” been functioning on that assumption? And was it not William H. Seward, Mr. Republican, who had originated the “higher law doctrine” which Joshua Giddings told the Congressional Committee he had been expounding in public lectures? And had not two of the North’s greatest preachers, Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson; two of its most prominent teachers, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and Franklin B. Sanborn; and two of its men of wealth, Gerrit Smith and George L. Stearns, secretly permitted guns and money, contributed for Kansas, to fall into Brown’s personal possession?11

No, it was not John Brown who was confused. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. It was the people of the nation, both North and South, who were confused. Northerners were trying to live under both the moral law and the law of the land. They were saying that slavery was wrong,—was a sin that must be done away with, but which had a perfectly legal right to exist in the United States. No wonder they had begun to talk about a “higher law.” Southerners, for their part, saw only property rights involved, and refused to see that the whole western world viewed slavery as a moral blight. They saw the “higher” law as only an excuse for selfish gain—for denying rights guaranteed by the Constitution! The historian can only conclude that each was half right and each half wrong.

The reactions to the John Brown raid showed this plainly.12 An affair that never reached beyond the borders of a sleepy little village and involved a handful of unimportant men stirred a nation to its depths. Southerners magnified it into positive proof of all that had been charged against the abolitionists, the Republicans and the North as a whole. A wave of anger, insecurity, and fear swept the section. No other single occurrence played so decisive a part in convincing the masses of their own danger and of the depravity of their enemies.

Northern reactions varied. Republicans were generally quick to disavow any connection or approval of Brown’s deeds. The political stakes were too high. A few even condemned Seward and the “higher law.” Democrats, of course, were quick to see the connection between Brown’s deeds and the words of Seward, Hale, and Sumner. “They, not the crazy, fanatic Brown, are the real culprits,” said one editor. They matched him in all but courage. They were as deserving of the gallows as was Brown himself.

The little group of prominent men who had backed Brown with money and arms suddenly saw this as a possibility. Stearns, Sanborn, and Howe fled to Canada. Smith found shelter in insanity and was confined to an asylum. His secretary hurried off to England. Parker, already safely in Italy, expressed regret that he was not at home to use his remaining strength “in defense of Truth and Right.” Only Higginson stood his ground and turned on his colleagues with the scornful remark: “Is there no such thing as honor among confederates?”13

Most Northerners, however, still thought as did Abraham Lincoln that “even though he [Brown] agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong,” that did not “excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason.” They and he were still trying to keep their moral convictions and their legal obligations in separate compartments.

Unconsciously the contradiction implied in such a situation led gradually to a realization that, though most Northerners could not accept Brown’s means, they did approve of the ends which he sought. That realization completed the transformation of a man, whose career had been marked by business failure, sprinkled with “flagrant dishonesty,” and by violence, climaxed by open theft and brutal murder, tangled with a passionate hatred of slavery, into a martyr and an American saint.

Intellectuals and clergymen began it. The Reverend Charles Gorden Ames found fault with Brown’s head but honored his heart. “I regret his blundering haste and his rash, foolish violence, but I love and glory in the cause for which he died.” The Reverend J. M. Manning of Old South Church, Boston, saw Harper’s Ferry as “an unlawful, foolhardy, suicidal act,” but added that he stood “before it wondering and admiring.” “That he violated statute enactments is true,” said the Reverend Stephen H. Taft, “and so did the Prophets; so did the Apostles; so did the Savior of men. . . . If John Brown was a law-breaker . . . , so were Moses and Daniel; so were Peter and John; so were all the martyrs of all ages. If John Brown deserved death, then much more did Warren, Adams, Hancock, and Washington.” His final conclusion was that John Brown had “reproduced before the world that grand sublime type of heroism which dignifies humanity, and inspires anew in the heart of man his faith in God and truth. He has done more to lift humanity towards God than any other man of this age.”14

No wonder the Boston Post remarked that if John Brown were insane, “then one-fourth of the people of Massachusetts, are madmen,” and perhaps three-fourths of the ministers of religion. To which the Reverend Freeman Clarke replied that Brown’s madness was “the madness of Curtius leaping into the gulf which yawned in the Forum; the insanity of a Roman Consul, who, dedicating himself to the infernal gods, plunged alone and in full armor into the ranks of the enemy as a sacrifice for his nation. . . . It is the kind of insanity of which a few specimens are scattered along the course of the human race—and wherever they are found . . . make the glory of human nature, and give us faith in God and man.”

Parker, Thoreau, and Emerson rounded out the picture. Parker pronounced Brown “not only a martyr, . . . but also a saint.” Thoreau praised him as one who “did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. No man in America has stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man and the equal of any and all governments.” “I rejoice that I live in this age, and that I was his contemporary.” In a plea for Brown’s life, he added: “A man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. Into whose making went the costliest material . . . , sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity. . . . You who pretend to care for Christ crucified, consider what you are about to do to him who offered himself the savior of four million men.” Emerson brought it all to a climax when he described Brown as “The saint, whose fate yet hangs in suspense, but whose martyrdom, if it shall be perfected, will make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”15

It is perfectly clear that these intelligent, high-minded men were not talking about the real John Brown or the real raid on Harper’s Ferry. They had forgotten the man and the means; they were thinking only of the fact that a blow had been struck at slavery; and that was an end much to be desired. They were thinking of themselves as Americans who were responsible for a democratic dream, a moral principle. They literally radiated self-righteousness. They were convinced that they faced an unprincipled foe bent on destroying all the things which God had entrusted to their keeping. If the government did not act, it was time, as the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson said, to give up what he called “that spirit of blind, superstitious loyalty to the U.S. government” and to fight “any opponent, state or federal.” He was ready, with Gerrit Smith, not only to have slavery “repulsed with violence, but pursued even unto death, with violence.” Ends justified means.16

Nor were Southern reactions to the raid any more in line with actualities. The deeds of a mere handful of extremists and the approval of a few idealists were taken as positive proof of the fanatical intentions of the whole Republican Party—perhaps, of the entire North. A reign of terror brought every stranger under suspicion, led to a liberal application of tar and feathers, and silenced moderate voices. After the John Brown raid, even “fervid Union” men declared themselves willing to risk the evils of secession “sooner than submit longer” to what they called “Northern insolence and outrage.”17

Now what needs to be better understood is that this same situation had existed for a decade or more. Something deeper than immediate events had been producing reactions all out of proportion to the events themselves. Southern reaction to the Wilmot Proviso shows this clearly. That document did reveal a growing Northern opposition to the expansion of slavery, and it did constitute a sharp protest against the course of the Democratic administration, but it never seems to have had the slightest chance of enactment into federal law, and it did not in any way determine the fate of slavery in California. The people of California themselves, of their own free will, did that, and no section, no ational political party, or no administration can be blamed for the decision reached. It represented neither aggression nor injustice. Yet Southern men fumed and raged and threatened secession. They rejected a free California as Northern denial of Southern rights. They precipitated a national crisis over what was at that time purely an abstract question—the right to share equally in territory acquired from Mexico, for which they had no immediate use. Yet, in the debates which followed, they harked back to the Northwest Ordinance, to the Missouri Compromise, to Oregon, to fugitive slaves, and to slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. They made it perfectly clear that back of their reactions to the Wilmot Proviso and California lay the haunting fear that something more dangerous was threatening them with permanent inequality, perhaps even with inferiority.

As a matter of cold fact, harsh words and threats aside, the only cases of open Northern aggression on clear cut Southern rights, prior to the John Brown raid, had to do with fugitive slaves. Even here the United States Census Bureau in 1860 estimated that only one thousand out of the three million slaves held in 1850 were fugitives. They constituted only three one-hundredths of one percent. And as Professor Edward Channing says, there is absolutely no way of knowing how many of these crossed the Mason and Dixon Line. It might even be a safe guess that the majority who did, were from the Border States, which showed little enthusiasm for secession in 1860.18

Nor were reactions to Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Bill any more in line with actualities. That act never produced one foot of slave territory and neither its author nor intelligent Southerners expected it to do so. The feeble Southern effort to carry slaves to Kansas and the quick acceptance of defeat when the people of Kansas themselves chose freedom, confirms the oft expressed statement that a recognition of abstract equal rights, not slave territory, was the real Southern objective.

Yet that bill set the North on fire. Sane and pious men accepted as fact the absurd charges made in the Appeal of the Independent Democrats (written, incidentally, by men who were not Democrats), supported private warfare in Kansas, and openly declared that “The worthlessness of the Union to all who love liberty and hate oppression ought to be shown up” and “idolatry” of it “be rebuked and ridiculed.”

Kansas made possible the absurd reactions to the John Brown raid and
both suggest the tragic predicament into which the nation had fallen. A
situation had developed in which events had meaning only in terms of civilizations
in conflict. That was why a novel which had no great literary merit,
and which quickly degenerated into a neglected Civil War relic, became a
best seller surpassed only by the Bible. That is why Charles Sumner and
Preston Brooks each became a sectional hero for conduct equally absurd.


Now it seems perfectly clear that back of the absurd gap between events and the reactions they produced, lay the ever widening gap between Northern and Southern economic and social values. The emerging Modern World in its uneven course was pushing them steadily apart and deepening their apprehensions of disasters yet ahead. Under its impact, nothing had remained static. Few things had retained their original form or meaning, and those who traveled at an uneven pace were destined to misunderstanding, fear, and hatred. It was this which, to use our English historian’s words, was setting them at cross purposes and rendering them “embittered by the heat of moral indignation . . . just because each was so conscious of its own rectitude, so enraged with the other for leaving it without any alternative to war.”19

The fashion of the age, as Calhoun put it, lay in the direction of the consolidated nation and its more active central government, of finance-industrial capitalism, and a more democratic social order. The Northeast and gradually the Northwest had caught stride with the emerging Modern World, while the South, with cotton and slavery, had lagged behind. Neither section had deliberately chosen its course. The North had only gradually and reluctantly accepted its new capitalists, its factories, its cities, and its new communications based on steam. Some had questioned whether its wage workers were any better off than the Negro slave. Some had thought the machince was a curse, not a blessing. They had only slowly discovered that the good outweighed the bad, and had come to hail it all as progress. Only gradually had they brought their old social and moral values into line and to the support of the new day. The crusade against slavery both as an impediment to progress and as a moral blight belonged largely to the last two decades. Even then it was against the so-called Slave Power as a political rival that a working unity was achieved.

The South had more readily accepted the task of supplying the new age with cotton, but it did not deliberately choose between free white labor and Negro slavery for its cotton fields. It simply took what was at hand in the mad hurry to reap profits. Virgin soils and high cotton prices only gradually silenced the harsh criticism of slavery which, up until the mid-1830’s, had found wide and open expression in the Old South. Not until then was slavery called “a positive good” and the idea evolved that it constituted the foundations of a superior society.

Under such conditions, the average Southerner really never had a fair chance to compare the merits of the old order with those of an urban-industrial society. They met the Modern World only as profits in cotton produced by slave labor and as a hostile force to be resisted, not evaluated. Yet, throughout the 1850’s, they had shown enough interest in scientific agriculture, the building of factories, and what they called “the mechanic arts,” to suggest that under normal conditions, they, too, might in time have known its transforming power.

But the spread of cotton as the South’s share in the Modern World meant only the continued dominance of a rural-agricultural interest and a new field for the spread of slavery. It did not require a change of opinion regarding institutions and values. The federal character of our government and the powers granted under the Constitution remained the same. Southerners knew little of the growing interdependence which goes with an urban-industrial society, and which, at the North, was making disunion not only unthinkable but impossible. Southerners were not indifferent to the Nation’s growth nor were they lacking in loyalty to it. They had simply been driven into a corner where, as a permanent minority, they were forced to defend institutions and values which were no longer valid, by appealing to Constitutional principles already outgrown.

The futility of it all and the growing certainty of defeat bred a feeling of helplessness, bitterness, and anger. Southerners were right when they said that their institutions and their values were no longer safe in the Union. It was just another way of saying that they were no longer safe in the Modern World.

Northerners, on the other hand, were conscious of their growing superiority in numbers and in material strength. They were impatient of the restraints imposed by Southern opposition to tariffs, internal improvements,

and homesteads. Their course into the Modern World and the realization of their potentialities were being impeded by a backward South whose notions of government and whose labor system belonged, as Seward said, to the Dark Ages. Progress, Christianity, and democracy all demanded that something be done about it. In the Republican Party, they created a means to that end. They had, in fact, created the political agent through which the nation would make its way into the Modem World. It was the vague realization of this fact which permitted the Southern States to believe that they faced submission or secession on the perfectly legal election of a Republican President pledged to do them no immediate harm. It was this which reduced all issues to those of nationalism versus States’ Rights and freedom versus slavery. Both had to be settled as the price for entering the Modern World. In fact, the most important positive result of the Civil War was to permit the United States, freed of restraints and taught the importance of “plan and control in war days, to enter the age of consolidated nationalism and enlarged freedom.”

Now these two issues may have been unsolvable as abstractions this side of war or they may not. No one can say with certainty. But in the light which the John Brown Raid throws on the mental distortions of the period, does it not seem intelligent to suggest that when John C. Calhoun asserted that each state was still sovereign, he was dealing in abstractions regarding an issue which the necessities of his own day under steam were already dissolving; and, that when William H. Seward so boldly announced that in forming the Constitution, the “States . . . as States . . . had submitted themselves to the sway of the numerical majority without qualifications or checks,” he too was dealing in abstractions, only recently discovered, which unnecessarily added to the fears and apprehensions of the day, and which bore little resemblance to statesmanship?

And is it not sound to ask, when the historian assumes that slavery created two social-economic orders so incompatible that one whole section of the nation had to be destroyed in order that the other might live, whether he is not forgetting that three-fourths of those who lived in the slave states held no slaves; that four slaveholding states did not join the Confederacy; and that the real battle against slavery up to the middle of the 1830’s was waged in the Southern states themselves? It does, indeed, take quite a stretch of imagination to take seriously Lincoln’s assertion that the nation was in danger of becoming all slaveholding. And it takes even more imagination to believe the Southern assertion that the whole world would again accept slavery as a positive good.


So now that we are a hundred years away from the passions of that day, is there not some sense in asking what might have happened had slavery been dealt with, not just as a sin to be immediately given up, but as a national economic problem involving millions of dollars in invested capital, as a social problem carrying with it a race question not yet solved, as a political interest where three-fifths of the slaves were counted as population in determining representation?

We do not know. It was never tried. Instead men faced each other with a growing feeling of self-righteousness, with hurt pride and growing fears and distrust. Each accused the other of aggression. Each believed that the central government had become the tool of an unprincipled foe. Congress became a place where men met to air their grievances and to make speeches intended largely for home consumption. Reformers occupied the seats intended for politicians if not for statesmen, and the democratic process ceased to apply. In the end each accepted war as a kind of romantic adventure without the slightest realization of the destructive character of modern warfare. Such men deserve our sympathies, not our apologies.


It was into such an atmosphere that John Brown came to perform his acts of violence with complete confidence of success and wide approval. Since reason had been abandoned, force was the only logical answer. Wise and good men had already proclaimed the higher law which set aside the restraints imposed by courts and legislatures. They had announced an irrepressible conflict which, of course, had to be settled sooner or later. The struggle was now one clearly between good men and bad men, between justice and injustice, between progress and backwardness, between civilizations.

John Brown was, therefore, simply a normal product of an abnormal situation. He may or may not have been insane. That made no difference. He did kill innocent people and he did attempt to stir up the worst of social disasters—a servile insurrection. He did lead a body of outlaws in the seizure of government property—but none of these things made any difference. The point is that he represented in himself the tragic predicament into which men’s minds and relationships had fallen—that narrow line that separates social sanity from surrender to the mad forces of destruction. His raid came only a year before South Carolina, in much the same mood, would take matters into her hands and secede from the Union—only a short span before the legal call for troops to put down insurrection and to plunge the nation into civil war.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the soldier boys who soon marched off to accomplish, in the end, what John Brown attempted, should have found him walking in front of the armies.

A straggler met him, going along to Manassas,
With his gun on his shoulder, his phantom-sons at heel,
His eyes like misty coals.
A dead man saw him striding at Seven Pines,
The bullets whistling through him like a torn flag,
A madman saw him whetting a sword on a Bible,
A cloud above Malvern Hill.20