In Defense Of The Terrorist: Clarence Darrow Eulogy For John Brown

In the ongoing debate here regarding what constitutes a great American—sparked by reader valkygrrl’s guest post on the topic as well as the President’s recent remarks at Mount Rushmore, the question of whether abolitionist John Brown belongs has been the most contentious. I don’t believe that one can ethically assign a murderer and law-breaker (and unraveling fanatic) like Brown to the “great American” category,  but a figure unquestionably smarter than I whom I believe unquestionably was  one of the greatest Americans did, and his argument deserves attention and thought. That figure is Clarence Darrow.

Brown was much admired by Darrow’s iconoclast father, Amirus Darrow, and his mother was an anti-slavery activist, turning the Darrow home into a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Born in 1857, Darrow was too young to remember the pre-Civil War period, and Brown was hanged in 1859. Nonetheless, the admiration for Brown was passed on from father to son, and there are moments in Darrow’s career where his actions seemed consistent with Brown’s philosophy of the ends justifying the means when the stakes were important enough, notably the conduct that almost got him disbarred and imprisoned for jury tampering. (Darrow was guilty, but was acquitted because he had a great defense attorney—Clarence Darrow.)

John Brown was a hero of Darrow’s , who didn’t have many: the abolitionist, Voltaire, and his friend and mentor John Peter Altgeld were about it, as far as I can tell. Periodically, on the anniversary of Brown’s birthday (May 8), Darrow would give a speech eulogizing Brown to a progressive group. Its final sentence is the most quoted:

The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow, and other martyrs take up the work through other nights, and the dumb and stupid world plants its weary feet upon the slippery sand, soaked by their blood, and the world moves on.

Incredibly, Darrow’s John Brown Eulogy is impossible to find on the web now; I have no idea why. (Enter that sentence in Google, and what pops up is…me!) Thus I am  reproducing Darrow’s speech here, for two purposes: first, to let you consider Clarence Darrow ‘s argument for why we should honor John Brown, and second, to have an online home for it.

It is not the whole speech, but my own shortened and edited version. I am still hunting for the whole document in a form I can post (I have it in several books), and when I find it, I’ll substitute the complete version for this:

John Brown, 1800-1859

by Clarence Darrow

John Brown was born in Connecticut in 1800.  His parents were farmers, and like all who really work, were poor.  His natural instincts were never warped or smothered or numbed by learning.  His mind was so strong, his sense of justice so keen, and his sympathies so deep, that he might have been able even to withstand an education. 

He believed in Destiny and in God.  He was narrow, fanatical, and self-willed, like all men who deeply impress the generation in which they live.  Had he been broad and profound, he would have asked himself the question, “What is the use?” and the answer would have brought an easier life and a peaceful death.  He was a man of one idea, which is all that the brain of any man of action can ever hold.  He was a type that here and there down through the ages, has been needful to kindle a flame that should burn the decaying institutions and ancient wrongs in the fierce crucible of a world’s awakening wrath.

…  Up to his middle life, the demands of business and the claims of a large family took nearly all his time and strength. But more and more the crime of slavery obsessed his mind…

Most of John Brown’s biographers tell us when and why he became the champion of the black, but they do not tell us right.  His love of the slave was a part of the fire that, although it seems to slumber still now and then, through the long and dreary night kindles a divine spark in the minds of earth’s strong souls which lights the dark and devious pathways of the human race to nobler heights.

John Brown found the power of slavery thoroughly entrenched in the United States; no other institution in the land seemed more secure.  True, here and there voices were raised to denounce the curse, but for the most part these came only from the weak, the poor and the despised.  The pulpit, the press, the courts, the wealthy and respectable gave it their sanction, and more powerful still was the fact that slavery was hopelessly interwoven with the commercial and financial institutions of the land, and any attack on these was an attack on the sacred rights of property—the sin of sins!

Even in his business life, he talked and worked against slavery.  He was one of the chief conductors of that underground railroad …but to John Brown this was like bailing out the ocean with a dipper.  This might free a slave, but it would not abolish slavery.

The system must be destroyed. 

John Brown could not long resist the lure of Kansas.  With a slender purse, a few trusted men, a small number of guns, a large family and a devoted soul, he made his way to there.  He found the enemy militant, triumphant and insolent, [and] the friends of freedom peaceable, discouraged, and submissive.  He gathered a small devoted band and prepared to fight.

Guerrilla warfare was the order of the day.  Guerrilla warfare is murder because the killed are so very few.  In this warfare, the name of Brown was a terror to the other side.  He was silent, active, resolute and unyielding. …The commander, like all fanatics, believed he was called of God to do His work, and so he was.  Every man is called of God, if he but believes it strong enough.  When an army goes to battle singing psalms and muttering prayers with a leader called of God to perform his task, let the world beware: such an army cannot lose, no matter what its size.  Even though vanquished and destroyed, from the bones and ashes of the dead will spring a multitude that will prevail against all the powers of hell.

At once Kansas was aflame. The Free Soilers with whom Brown had fought were the ones who most loudly condemned the act… they hastened to deny either sympathy or complicity with his violent deed.  A silence profound and deadly fell over all the leaders of the state.  A price was put on John Brown’s head, but no one seemed overanxious to win the prize.  The pendulum swung back, as pendulums always have and always will.  Even the non-resistants took up their guns, and the battle for freedom in Kansas was won.

Then John Brown turned East. There still was work to do, and he was growing old. 

Perhaps no one knew the exact plan of his last great fight.  For years he had given up all hope of a peaceful solution of the cause; he did not believe in moral suasion or political action.  To the nonresistant, he answered in the language of the Hebrew prophet: “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins.” 

Harpers Ferry was the place to strike the blow.  Harpers Ferry was a natural outlet of the great Black Way to the north.  This great Black Way lay east of the mountains, running from Harpers Ferry south through the Virginias and Carolinas, reaching three out of the four million blacks in the United States.  Along this way with weary feet had fled most of the poor fugitives in their escape from the land of darkness to the land of light.  Harpers Ferry, too, had the government arsenal packed with arms, used by the nation in defense of slavery.  These he would capture and place in the hands of the blacks and his comrades to fight for freedom.  Immediately surrounding this town was a country where the blacks were more numerous than the whites, and where he might expect to get recruits when the blow was struck.

Frederick Douglass, the leading colored man of his time, counseled him not to undertake the task. He pointed out that it would surely fail, and he believed that failure would seriously harm the cause.  But all argument was of no avail; win or lose, John Brown had no choice. Whether he had many followers or few, a voice had spoken to his soul, and that voice he must obey.  How could he fail?  His cause was the greatest cause for which any martyr ever lived and died – the liberty of man!  No sordid motive ever moved his life; his Commander was the great Jehovah, and the outcome had been determined since the morning stars sang together and the world was new.

With scarcely a score of men he reached Harpers Ferry, rented a farmhouse, and began to collect arms and make his plans.  John Brown… tall, gaunt and gray, with serious face and stooping frame…[was] taking upon his devoted head the crime and sorrows of the world.  Around him were five sons and kindred whom he loved with a tender devotion; seven obscure blacks, fresh from the bonds of slavery; and nine more unknown whites. [These] made up the army that with bowed heads and consecrated souls challenged the strongest institution of the land [and] made war upon the United States with force and arms.  And strange to say, this poor and motley band of humble, unknown men were triumphant in the cause for which they fought and died.

On the seventeenth of October, 1859…the little army left the farmhouse for Harpers Ferry, five miles away.  They quickly captured the arsenal and took possession of the town.  Then their plans began to go awry: the citizens rallied, [and] the regular troops were brought upon the scene. Brown and his followers were penned in the engine house, and made a last desperate stand against overwhelming odds.  John Brown was seriously wounded, [and] two of his sons were shot down by his side. Six [of his band] escaped; all the rest were either shot or hanged.

Brown was indicted [and] immediately placed on trial while still suffering from his wounds. Of course, [he was] convicted, and within six weeks after the raid, [John Brown] was hanged.  He was convicted and hanged, for though one of the purest and bravest and highest-minded patriots of any age he was tried by the law, which makes no account of the motives of men, but decides upon their deeds alone.

The news of John Brown’s raid sent an electric shock around the world. The slave power was aghast at the audacity of the act, and knew not where to turn.  The leading abolitionists of the North were stunned and terrified at the manhunt coming on. 

In the first mad days but one man stood fearless and unmoved while the universe was falling around his head, and this man was John Brown.  When faint voices cried out for his rescue, Brown promptly made reply, [saying] “I do not know that I ought to encourage any attempt to save my life. I think I cannot now better serve the cause I love than to die for it, and in my death, I may do more than in my life.”

But when the scaffold bore its fruit, and the dead hero’s heart was cold, the pulse of humanity once more began to beat. The timid, the coward, the time server, the helpless and the weak looked on the brave, cold clay, and from a million throats a cry for vengeance was lifted to the stars.  Men cried from the hustings to wake a sleeping world. Newspapers condemned the act, [and] ministers who still were Christians appealed from the judgment of the court to the judgment of their God. Church bells with sad tones tolled out the tidings of Brown’s passing soul, and men and angels wept above his bier.  And still the tide rolled on, until, in less than two short years, the land resounded with the call to arms, and millions of men were hurrying to the field of strife to complete the work John Brown began.

Once more at Harpers Ferry was gathered a band pledged to the same great cause, “the Liberty of Man,” a band that under the leadership of Grant swept down the great Black Way with fire and sword, and in a sea of blood washed the crime of slavery away.

More than any other man, his mad raid broke the bondsman’s chain.  True, the details of his plan had failed, where the plans of prophets always fail; the men who worked with him and the poor for whom he fought left him to die alone.  But this story too is old, [as] old as the human race. 

The world has long since accepted the results of John Brown’s work.  Great as the cost was, all men know that it was worth the price.  But even now the idle, carping, and foolish still ask; “Did Brown do right, and would it not better have been done some other way?”  Of all the foolish questions asked by idle tongues, the most childish is to ask if a great work should not have been done some other way.  Nothing in the universe that was ever done, could have been done in any other way.  He who accepts results must accept with them every act that leads to the result.  And all who think must accept all results.  High above the hand of man is the hand of destiny, all potent in the world.  To deny destiny is to deny God and all the forces that move the universe of which man is so small a part.  To condemn an act as wrong assumes that the laws of justice laid down by the weak minds of man are the same as the laws of the universe, which stretch over infinite matter, infinite time and space, and regards nothing less than all.

Long ago it was said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”  The fruits of John Brown’s life are plain for all to see; while time shall last, men and women, sons and daughters of bondsmen and slaves, will live by the light of freedom, be inspired by the hope of liberty.

The earth needs and will always need its Browns; these poor, sensitive, prophetic souls, feeling the suffering of the world, and taking its sorrows on their burdened backs.  It sorely needs the prophets who look far out into the dark, and through the long and painful vigils of the night, wait for the coming day.  They wait and watch, while slow and cold and halting, the morning dawns, the sun rises and waxes to the noon, and wanes to the twilight and another night comes on.  The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow, and other martyrs take up the work through other nights, and the dumb and stupid world plants its weary feet upon the slippery sand, soaked by their blood, and the world moves on.

13 thoughts on “In Defense Of The Terrorist: Clarence Darrow Eulogy For John Brown

  1. I was thinking about this the other day and I dont see an ethical difference between Brown and Lincoln. One did it himself, the other did it through his Generals and armies. If John Brown isn’t a great American it’s not because he killed people (Lincoln inarguably caused the death of millions) or acts of terror (Sherman’s march to the sea is a pretty clear large scale act of terror) it’s only because he wasnt as successful as Lincoln. Whats that old saw: “kill one and they call you a murderer, kill a thousand and they call you a king”

      • We’ve already covered this in another post – many of Lincolns actions were objectively illegal. Suspension of civil rights, mass executions, and the big one (which I know you disagree with) but invading the south was illegal. There is no law against secession and the union at the time was not seen by the states as irrevocable – the only court case on secession came much much later and couldnt even base it’s ruling on a written law. They had to base it on the Articles of Confederation and the preamble of the constitution (which isn’t law and should show you how weak the case is).

        • The President’s powers during wartime are near absolute, and in the absence of a Congressional or SCOTUS decree, it is literally “what precedent will support and what he can get away with.” Lincoln had no precedent except Jackson’s (effective) threats, and an existential situation to deal with. In every existential situation the US has faced—The Civil War, Lincoln’s Assassination, the Great Depression, WWII and 9/11, the nation has taken extreme action that has later been called illegal or extreme —by people who have the benefit of hindsight, and who didn’t have to solve the problems themselves.

          The Ethics Incompletenesss Principle applies, and the Constitution has the wiggle room for it because the President is elected. Terrorists like Brown are not. They “elect” themselves. Material difference.

          • Well that certainly is not true. Some presidents have wielded dictatorial powers in war, not all and Lincoln was certainly the worst of them. You don’t need hindsight to see that barring god given civil rights is extreme or starting wars as extreme. Being elected, or appealing to a situations complexity doesn’t make something wrong magically right. Lincoln did a lot wrong. He was the lesser of two evils for sure and is an ethics hero ending Americas original sin but his ethical failures are definitely the same as John Brown on a much larger scale. I think John Brown is also an ethics hero.

            • He’s an ethics hero for preserving the Union, and his extreme measures were essential to do that, including his shutting down of some critics. A Civil War is not like any other kind of war, and thus Lincoln had to take measures no other President could or would dare to. In the case of the Civil War, the ends justifies the means does apply, which is why Lincoln said he would keep slavery or abolish it, whatever it took.

              • I would modify “the end justifies the means” to “circumstances affect the ethics.” In most cases, it’s unethical to lie; however, when Nazis are at your door asking about the Jews when you have a Jewish family hiding in your attic, it’s unethical to tell the truth.

  2. I could utterly decimate this essay. Tear it to logical threads. The man is obviously deranged, and it is this American Derangment that lives in and animates American Progressivism. God help us all.

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