After meeting John Brown, the abolitionist newspaperman William Lloyd Garrison wrote, "For Brown, milquetoast abolitionism had failed; the way to destroy slavery was with principled violence -- holy war."
As it turns out, history would prove both Garrison and Brown right. By the time of Brown's attempted raid on the firearms arsenal (100,000 rifles and muskets), many were ready for what they considered the second Revolutionary War. This documentary from PBS, "John Brown's Holy War" goes up close and personal with a man who launched himself like a Molotov cocktail against the institution of slavery.
Legislative compromises had looked good on paper but were trampled in practice. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act dismayed many Americans; according to one historian on the film, "Many people believed deeply that the United States had turned from its democratic heritage to something evil, corrupt, and despicable."
The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act seemed reasonable; it allowed the residents of those states to vote whether they would be free or slave states. This would have worked except that 5,000 armed pro-slavery advocates (the "Border Ruffians") crossed the border from Missouri to Kansas and then proceeded to seize the polling places and force in a pro-slavery legislature.
John Brown was a stern Calvinist who like his father had been a station-master on the Underground Railroad that smuggled slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. He was at the funeral of the abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy, where he pledged to destroy slavery. He met people like Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau.
Was he a fanatic or a hero, we ask. Was he the model for vigilante justice forever after? Is he the mold that every loony tune like Timothy McVeigh has recast himself as? Have religious fundamentalists taken their cue from this stern Calvinist who believed we have to answer to God for our sins? Or is he the natural result of a democratic system, corrupted and indelibly stained by slavery, requiring his cleansing fire to purify it and make it worthy of the American people again?
There is material to be found in this 90-minute documentary for any number of essays on the meaning and impact of this man's life. He was pictured in editorials and artwork as a new Moses leading people to their God-given freedom. He was seen as an avenging angel administering the flaming sword to a blind, recalcitrant nation. Whatever you see in him is probably more a result of what you last read in the newspapers, than of what you read in a history book.
The documentary provides much fodder for debate and discussion. You may have to provide nerf balls for participants to throw at each other so as to let off steam safely.
A teaching guide is also part of the DVD and may also be accessed through the PBS website. I do not often give out five stars, but I do for this one.
"John Brown's Holy War" from PBS, 2000, 90 min., *****
An enhanced transcript is available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/filmmore/transcript/transcript1.html