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The thugs on both sides

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I wrote the following in a comment on a discussion about the protests in Charlottesville. Some people felt that protesters on “both sides” were “thugs.”

I went to school in Kansas. And if you go into the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka you’ll see an imposing mural of a thug: John Brown He was an abolitionist who (sadly unusually for the time) actually believed in equality - and he walked his talk.

Now this was the 1800s so Brown was by no means a perfect hero. On women’s equality he talked more than he walked. And he was by any definition a religious extremist. The Bible, as the mural depicts, was his alpha and omega. But at a time when many used the Bible as a justification for slavery, he spoke in religious terms for respect and equality for all men. And that put him ahead of most abolitionists of the time.

He fought back against violent slavery supporters in Kansas in pitched battles across the territory in what was known as Bloody Kansas. Eventually, seeing the war that was to come he organised a raid on an armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It failed; Brown and several of his men were caught, tried and sentenced to be hung.

Victor Hugo pleaded for the United States not to take Brown’s life:

“Viewed in a political light, the murder of Brown would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a gaping fissure which would lead in the end to its entire disruption. It is possible that the execution of Brown might establish slavery on a firm basis in Virginia, but it is certain that it would shake to its centre the entire fabric of American democracy. You preserve your infamy, but you sacrifice your glory. Viewed in a moral light, it seems to me that a portion of the enlightenment of humanity would be eclipsed, that even the ideas of justice and injustice would be obscured on the day which should witness the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty.

As for myself, though I am but a mere atom, yet being, as I am, in common with all other men, inspired with the conscience of humanity, I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World; and with clasped hands, and with profound and filial respect, I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown, to demolish the threatening scaffold of the 16th of December, and not to suffer that beneath its eyes, and I add, with a shudder, almost by its fault, a crime should be perpetrated surpassing the first fratricide in iniquity.

For — yes, let America know it, and ponder on it well — there is something more terrible than Cain slaying Abel: It is Washington slaying Spartacus!”

Victor Hugo’s pleas for the lives of these thugs were in vain and Brown was hung in December, 1859. He and his men had failed.

The Civil War began just over a year later in April 1861. Union soldiers would march into battle singing “John Brown’s Body“ to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Over two percent of the US population would die in the four years of war that would follow.