It was October of 1859 when the fateful event of John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry took place, turning a politically tense nation into one of mutual distrust, fear, and misunderstanding. The attack on federal property with the intention to create an armed, violent insurrection alarmed the nation.
Since its founding, the country had often engaged in heated, intense, and even personal political feuds. Citizens need only think of the battles between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, or that of Andrew Jackson and central banker Nicholas Biddle, for reminders of how pressurized these contests of wills and intellects could be. However, at the end of the day, despite who “won or lost,” Americans viewed it as a natural, healthy part of the political discourse and an organic process of national growth.
Brown’s raid, however, was far from that — it was an avocation of violence, of blood, and an assault on the peaceful institutions of their Founders they so revered. A tumultuous election followed by a bloody civil war ensued, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, cities were razed to the ground, and citizens of all regions of the country were faced with the question of whether such catastrophe could have been avoided. Regardless, post-1865 America was reunified, the ancient evil of slavery had been rectified, and Americans could be American — not Unionist or Confederates — once again. This reunification lasted for nearly a century and a half — until the country seemed to witness another outbreak of John Brown–style rage across its cities beginning in the summer of 2020.
In his gripping biography of legendary Virginian general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, author S.C. Gwynne ponders how Jackson, a West Point graduate, a noted veteran of the Mexican-American War, a deeply devout Christian man who opposed secession and war, and a man who personally provided time and resources to help educate blacks in his community, came to become one of the Civil War’s most accomplished Confederate commanders. His conclusion may be surprising: he posits that it was the North’s reaction to John Brown’s bloody raid on Harpers Ferry that ultimately determined the divided nation’s fate. Virginians believed that the North’s “presses, pulpits, public meetings and conversations, disclosed such a hatred of the South and its institutions as to lead them to justify the crime” and that it was “wealthy Northern benefactors who had helped Brown finance his enterprise” (Gwynne, p.26). The result, Gwynne argues, was that Virginians felt that, more than anything, they had to repel hostile, violent invaders from their lands; it was, they believed, the North’s “maligned intent” that drove them to war (31). For the average man, it was not politics that motivated him to fight, but fear of unchecked civil unrest and violence spreading to his towns and cities. These people feared, at the root, the destruction of principles that they believed the country was founded upon. For the average man today, the recent events in cities Portland, Seattle, and numerous other places may not seem so different from what the 19th-century man saw in Harper’s Ferry.
In a recent speech at Hillsdale College, prominent historian Victor Davis Hansen made the case that the “2020 election is about civilization vs. anarchy.” It’s no accident that he discusses heavily how media, academic, and political institutions have sided with, funded, or simply attempted to justify the looting, violence, and the suppression of competing ideas is effecting not just the election, but the culture. The goal, he states, is to transform “the structure of America so that it can’t revert back to America.” He clarifies the statement by predicting that should the radical left take control of the presidency and Senate, the abolishment of the Electoral College, the packing of the Supreme Court, removal of the filibuster in the Senate, and perhaps even altering senators to be redistributed via population instead of two per state would soon follow.
Unlike previous political epochs in the last half-century or longer, this one is effectively driven by raw, unabashed ideology. When an individual, or a well funded group, becomes so possessed with his ideology that he believes that their pursuit of power with the subsequent use of that power justifies any action they are taking, they create the situations that, if not checked, lead to political upheaval, civil violence, and destruction.
The situation seems strikingly similar today; most Americans actively want to live among each other peacefully and prosperously and be able to work out their differences in a politically non-destructive, non-venomous manner. Yet divisiveness has reached a fever pitch, and continuing violence looms over the nation. The crux of the issue, both for the observers of Harpers Ferry and for the modern rioting, therefore centers on two central concepts: fear of being hurt, punished, or ostracized for political philosophy and, secondly, the inability to adequately articulate one’s political and moral philosophy to combat the possessed ideologues’ hostile approach due to incomplete education. Both can be remedied.
Philosopher Edmund Burke famously opined that “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Truly being effective in overcoming the aforementioned fears faced by the American citizenry has to begin with learning about virtues — from Marcus Aurelius and the Romans from Benjamin Franklin and Washington, from ethical philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Ayn Rand. Only from the foundation of ethics can we properly teach our people about its history and the political systems that logically derive from the code of ethics a people holds. If men are properly trained in virtues and ethics, they cannot so easily be deceived by events like Harpers Ferry or the 2020 urban destruction. On the contrary, they will be able to utilize their education of ethics, history, and politics to prevent the fear of violence and ostracism and will be able to articulate a defense of virtuous living within the framework that the Founders devised, all the while being able to acknowledge its faults and limitations.
If one is to battle the ideologically possessed, then he cannot cede them any ground in the arena of virtue. In Gibbon’s epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he warns that the end of the empire was marked by “minds corrupted by education, luxury, and despotic power” that depended on one or two virtuous people for their survival, oblivious to their internal and external dangers, and mostly notably ignorant of the virtuous nobility of their ancestors (Gibbon, p. 527). For the Romans, the result was corruption and decay, with inevitable subjugation and humiliation. To avoid such an end, the United States would be wise to avoid losing touch with its virtuous roots.
Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by D.M Low. 1960
Gwynne, S.C. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2014.
Hansen, Victor David. “Plague, Panic, and Protest — The Weird Election of 2020.” Hillsdale College. Sept 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6L5C0uLFjE