The Long History of ‘Progressive’ Radicalism

Support for the radical terrorist John Brown (1800–1859) of Harpers Ferry fame has a long and storied history among liberals. Trevor Loudon at the New Zeal site makes some interesting connections that include President Obama:

Why would Barack Obama choose to give a controversial speech attacking American capitalism in Osawatomie, Kansas? Hang on? Where have I heard that name before? Osawatomie? . . . back in the ’70s? Weather Underground terrorists… Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn. Didn’t Obama used to hang out with those guys? I remember! Osawatomie was the publication of the Weather Underground!

In his December 6, 2011 economic policy speech that he delivered in Osawatomie, President Obama distorted the meaning of capitalism. He stated that capitalism “doesn’t work. It has never worked” unless government is given the power to control the marketplace by smoothing out its inequities.

It’s true that President Teddy Roosevelt also spoke there. It seems that the location is a platform for “Progressive” (liberal) views. Roosevelt, often viewed as a conservative, was a “‘trust-buster’ who arbitrarily decided which trusts promoted the national interest and which ones were adverse to it.”

The most radical of them was John Brown whose violent actions against the unrighteousness of slavery began in Kansas. By the time that Brown and his men moved east, the many skirmishes became known as Bleeding Kansas, a term coined by Horace Greeley. The so-called Civil War where more than 600,000 Americans died was a direct result of Brown’s recklessness and violence.

Brown viewed himself as the self-appointed avenger of God who was fond of quoting Hebrews 9:22: “All things are by the law purged with blood, and without shedding of blood is no remission” (KJV). If it took the blood of Americans to purge the sin of slavery from the land, so be it, Brown argued. For his actions, as PBS reports, Brown was regarded as a hero by many in the anti-slavery movement of his time:

Although initially shocked by Brown’s exploits, many Northerners began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. “He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .,” said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . .”

What were the exploits that “initially shocked” Brown’s supporters but later were overshadowed by his “righteous” intention to rid the land of slavery? “On the evening of 23 May 1856, he and 6 followers, including 4 of his sons, visited the homes of pro-slavery men along Pottawatomie Creek [in Franklin County, Kansas], dragged their unarmed inhabitants into the night, and hacked them to death with long-edged swords.” (source)

Brown and his men were Progressive vigilantes. The Pottawatomie Massacre was the first act of savagery that caught the attention of the anti-slavery movement and instilled fear in supporters of slavery. “God is my judge,” Brown said.  “It was absolutely necessary as a measure of self-defense, and for the defense of others.”

In 1859, Brown hoped to start an armed slave revolt by seizing a United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan was to use these weapons to arm slaves who would then strike terror in the slaveholders in Virginia. Federal troops eventually arrived under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was later tried, convicted, and executed for his act of terrorism.

How has history treated John Brown? William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), editor of the anti-slavery The Liberator, had a lot to say about Brown’s exploits on the day of his execution. Although he was still “an ‘ultra’ peace man,” he thanked God “when men who believe in the right and duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take those weapons out of the scale of despotism, and thrown them into the scale of freedom.”

Such righteous violence was “an indication of progress, and a positive moral growth; it is one way to get up to the sublime platform of non-resistance.” Brown’s violence was “God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant.”1

In 1863, businessman George L. Stearns held a “John Brown Party” where he unveiled a “marble bust of John Brown, the antislavery martyr who had died on a scaffold three years earlier after his doomed, heroic effort to free the slaves by leading a twenty-two-man raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.” The comments by Richard Ellis offer a helpful commentary on the adulation given to John Brown:

The radical abolitionists’ response to John Brown and General Benjamin Butler also attests to the primacy of the hypocrisy within radical abolitionist political thought. Brown was canonized by abolitionists precisely because he embodied the idea of putting hypocrisy first. Brown’s moral zeal and uprightness exposed the hypocrisy of the shuffling and timid compromises made by politicians. Brown’s own acts of cruelty were forgiven, excused, or denied on account of his authenticity and candor.2

Brown remains a sainted figure. On Bowdoin College’s website under “Abolitionism” you will find the following:  “John Brown led a righteous crusade against slavery, born of religious conviction — and carried out with shocking violence.”

The Progressives follow a different approach to social change. They don’t need bloodshed to frighten the opposition. They use the power of government to force compliance to laws and regulations that bring about the same result.

  1. William Lloyd Garrison, “John Brown and the Principle of Nonresistance,” The Liberator (December 16, 1859). Quoted in Richard J. Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America [Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998], 36. []
  2. Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left, 42. []