John Brown’s Two Bodies

Regardless of the purity of the perpetrator’s motives, it is not without some justification that one might say terrorism should be frowned upon. This is a lesson that has proven difficult to learn for progressives on both the left and the right.

Not so Abraham Lincoln, who thought John Brown justly executed for the raid on Harpers Ferry and the federal arsenal there in October 1859, despite the fact that Brown was right about slavery. Lincoln put it like this:

Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.

But things get even more interesting when we place the above quotation in context. The remarks come from the report of a speech Lincoln gave in Leavenworth, Kansas, on December 3, 1859. The sentences that surround the comments about Brown have to do with submission to the governing authorities–including a president that one does not like. If Lincoln’s opponents elect a president he does not support, he must submit rather than violently break up the Union; likewise his opponents if a Black Republican is elected. Anyone who refuses, and therefore attempts “to destroy the Union,” is legally and constitutionally in the same position as Brown, and should be dealt with “as old John Brown has been dealt with.” Here is the whole paragraph from which the quotation about Brown’s treason comes:

But you are for the Union; and you greatly fear the success of the Republicans would destroy the Union. Why? Do the Republicans declare against the Union? Nothing like it. Your own statement of it is, that if the Black Republicans elect a President, you won’t stand it. You will break up the Union. That will be your act, not ours. To justify it, you must show that our policy gives you just cause for such desperate action. Can you do that? When you attempt it, you will find that our policy is exactly the policy of the men who made the Union. Nothing more and nothing less. Do you really think you are justified to break up the government rather than have it administered by Washington, and other good and great men who made it, and first administered it? If you do you are very unreasonable; and more reasonable men cannot and will not submit to you. While you elect [the] President, we submit, neither breaking nor attempting to break up the Union. If we shall constitutionally elect a President, it will be our duty to see that you submit. Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right. So, if constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with. We shall try to do our duty. We hope and believe that in no section will a majority so act as to render such extreme measures necessary.

“Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3 [Aug. 21, 1858-Mar. 4, 1860].” In the digital collection Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 7, 2024.

(As an aside, this is a brilliant move rhetorically: advocates of slavery hated Brown, and saw him as a revolutionary murderer. Lincoln effectively says, “Just so. And why therefore do you want to be like him? He that does Brown’s acts shall receive Brown’s reward.”)

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Lincoln in this speech explicitly claims the mantle of “conservatism”: he wanted to preserve what was old; what was given; what was inherited. And that was the Union as governed by the Constitution.

His adversaries thought themselves conservative, too. “Very well,” he says[1]–though there can be little doubt about which type of conservatism he thought the higher and more architectonic or, as it were, masterful. There is a link here with the Philippist tradition concerning the primacy of the preservation of civil society through the rule of law. I pursue that no further here, but leave it as a closing suggestion for further reflection.


1 “You claim that you are conservative; and we are not. We deny it. What is conservatism? Preserving the old against the new. And yet you are conservative in struggling for the new, and we are destructive in trying to maintain the old. Possibly you mean you are conservative in trying to maintain the existing institution of slavery. Very well; we are not trying to destroy it. The peace of society, and the structure of our government both require that we should let it alone, and we insist on letting it alone. If I might advise my Republican friends here, I would say to them, leave your Missouri neighbors alone. Have nothing whatever to do with their slaves. Have nothing whatever to do with the white people, save in a friendly way. Drop past differences, and so conduct yourselves that if you cannot be at peace with them, the fault shall be wholly theirs.”


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