Commentary: It's time for a John Brown pardon

By Craig Hammond
John Brown 1856 Photo
John Brown 1856 Photo
The sesquicentennial of John Brown's 1859 raid, trial, and hanging in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia has come and gone, with a flurry of interest from a wide swath of Americans who are intrigued by Brown, his mission, and his significance in  American history.  There is a new appreciation growing for Brown's ideals, if not his precise approach towards achieving them.


The commemorative events in Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, WV have
provided many of us an opportunity to understand Brown.  How is it that a devoted Christian and family man could arrive at a point in his life when he wanted to arm the slaves of the south, enabling them to escape to freedom in the AppalachianMountains?  And could he have been serious when he claimed later that he didn't want a slave uprising to end up with mass killings of white southern citizens?

Brown was an idealist.  Indeed, it was his ideals that drove him as an abolitionist. As one example, Brown was a participant in the famous Underground Railroad. If a slave made it to his home in Ohio, he would personally escort them 250 miles to freedom in Canada.  That's commitment, and this commitment to his ideals made him look for peaceful means to achieve his abolitionist goals.

But year after year went by with no progress made by the U.S. government on the issue of slavery.  In fact, northern Presidents like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan bent over backwards to give southern slaveholders anything they wanted.  Brown saw all of this and wondered what it would take to take the stain of slavery from his country.

We don't have to side with Brown's decision to take up arms against slavery. And it may seem hard to believe that he wanted slaves to have those rifles from Harpers Ferry's federal armory purely for self-protection instead of violence.  But he did draw up a provision constitution for the new
free slave area in the mountains, and his treatment of his captives at Harpers Ferry suggests that he wasn't bloodthirsty.

For these reasons, Brown should be pardoned posthumously by Governor Bob McDonald of Virginia and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia Beyond the fact that Brown's trial in Charles Town would never pass muster as a fair trial today, we should at least honor his vision of an America where all human beings are free.  He dedicated his life to that vision that we take for granted today. 
Indeed, as Frederick Douglass noted, Brown gave his life for that vision. A posthumous pardon of John Brown would be a good way to begin observing Black History Month in the two Virginias.

Craig Hammond is a former mayor of Bluefield, WV and host of Radio Active on WHIS (1440 AM) and WTZE (1470 AM) in Bluefield and Tazewell, Virginia. The photo shows Brown, born in 1800, in 1856.


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