John Brown vs. John Calhoun: Some Perspective and an Answer to Kevin D. Williamson

Ryan S. Walters | @ryanswalters73

This evening I read a very interesting piece by Kevin D. Williamson of National Review, an article entitled “We have officially reached peak leftism.” I thought it was pretty good until I reached one sentence: “My sympathies are more with John Brown than John Calhoun,” he wrote.

As a historian I was stunned and could not read the rest of the piece. I immediately tweeted Mr. Williamson about the quote. Here is part of our exchange:

I simply found it a bit creepy that Mr. Williamson feels more sympathy for a maniac like John Brown, a terrorist who committed several gruesome murders and hoped to commit many more, than he does for John Calhoun, who committed no acts of violence in his lifetime and who is regarded as a great American political thinker even by those who have no sympathy for the South or the Confederacy.

He seems to be equating the slave system then in place in the South as a “race war.” Slavery is certainly morally repugnant to us today but to fight back by murdering innocent whites, even if they had nothing to do with it? Women and children who would have likely been victims as well, just as they were in the Nat Turner slave revolt. I wonder if Williamson is in sympathy with Nat Turner? It is a viewpoint that not even Lincoln was in agreement with.

So put this into better perspective, let’s look a little deeper at these two 19th-century Americans, shall we?

John Brown was a fanatical abolitionists who dedicated his life to the “destruction of slavery.” Perhaps for most people today his cause was a good one but certainly not in how he approached it. As he said himself: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”  He was a revolutionary who planned on spilling the blood himself.

Brown was a native of Ohio and a failure in everything in life, including every business he ever tried. His only success was perhaps fatherhood, as he had 16 sons. He was more than likely crazy, or near crazy, for we know that at least 13 of his close relatives, including his mother and grandmother, were considered insane at one time or another.

In the mid-1850s he moved to Kansas, just as that territory was going through a fierce fight over slavery. In May 1856, pro-slavery forces attacked the town of Lawrence and apparently burned down a few buildings, an act the eastern press labeled “The Sack of Lawrence,” to equate it with the “Sack of Rome.”

An outraged Brown led his own retaliatory attack at Pottawatomie Creek a few days later. He estimated that five had been killed at Lawrence, so he and his followers hacked five unoffending citizens to death with swords, supposedly the first five people he saw. He would have fit in well with ISIS.

A few years later, in 1859, Brown organized a force of white followers, along with several free blacks, and decided to march into Virginia to first seize weapons at the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, then move south picking up followers and destroying slavery by murdering whites. In short, he wanted to start a race war. And in his bags he possessed a constitution for a new black republic that Brown would rule as a dictator.  But Williamson apparently thinks this is a good thing.

After entering the arsenal, while killing several people in the process, including the town’s mayor, Brown and his band were finally stopped by a contingent of US troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was put on trial for treason and hanged a few months later.

Lincoln himself condemned Brown’s acts. Even though he believed slavery wrong, Lincoln said, that “cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

How could anyone feel any sympathy with such a psychopath bent on murder?  And make no mistake, it was John Brown and his raid that did more than anything to change the thinking of white Southerners and push them toward secession.  The historical record is very clear on this point.  Why?  Because they believed fanatical Northerners were seeking their murder and destruction!  How else could they have responded?  By sitting around, holding hands, and singing songs?  It was made worse by the discovery that six prominent Northerners backed the undertaking.

Many historians believe Brown was the single most important individual that brought on secession and civil war.  I think that is beyond argument.  And the war did end slavery but at the cost of three-quarters of a million lives.  In fact, the US is the only slave society that ended the institution through war, even though a truer point would be that Lincoln used slavery to end the war, not the other way around.  But in many other major countries, including Brazil (which had one of the most brutal and well entrenched systems), slavery was ended peacefully.

By contrast, John Calhoun served in government for more than 40 years, first in the South Carolina legislature, then as a Congressman, US Senator, Vice President, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. And yes he was a slaveholder, but at a time when the institution was legal.

But as Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson have written, “It is somewhat ridiculous to single out Calhoun as a defender of slavery when no one in his time proposed any serious solution to the slavery question.” That would also include Lincoln.

[As a side note, while president, Lincoln did propose an emancipation plan, which was to pay to free slaves over a 40-year period and ship them all back to Africa. See his 1862 message to Congress. This was a plan he was working on until the day he was assassinated.]

Calhoun, though, was a scholar, not a vile murderer. He did not want war. His ideas on state interposition and the concurrent majority were designed to avert war and bloodshed. And it was Calhoun, unlike other advocates of slavery, who opposed the Mexican War because he knew what it would do to the country.  He foresaw the fight over slavery expansion and the war it ultimately caused.

But if you look at Calhoun’s voluminous writings and speeches, he actually discussed subjects like trade, finance, banking, the currency, and foreign affairs far more than he did about slavery, sectionalism, or states’ rights.

Current scholars even praise his political thought. Charles K. Piehl, of Mankato State University in Minnesota, called him a “foreign policy expert in Washington.” Bray Hammond, in Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, wrote that Calhoun understood the complex issues of banking and the currency better than the experts at the time.

Those in times past also thought well of Calhoun.  Famed conservative scholar Russell Kirk wrote that “Calhoun’s political thought is more original and more closely reasoned than that of any other American statesman.”

In 1950, Margaret Coit’s sympathetic biography of Calhoun won the Pulitzer Prize, while nine years later Senator John F. Kennedy led a committee that voted Calhoun one of America’s five greatest Senators. One of Calhoun’s most famous writings, A Disquisition on Government, is even today internationally recognized and has been translated into many languages, including Japanese.

Yet Calhoun has been around all this time and has received virtually no hateful attention. Nobody has advocated digging him up or burning his house down (although I’m sure the fanatics at Clemson University might consider that soon enough).  But let one evil, crazed fool, who has more in common with Brown than Calhoun, commit a horrible crime and everybody loses their mind.

And now vandals have thrown paint at a monument to Calhoun in Charleston. Why continue feeding this mob?

What Williamson seems to be saying, at least as I understand it, is that because Calhoun owned slaves and defended slavery with thought and words (although not violence), he was on the wrong side and therefore is far worse than the man who used extreme violence, including horrific murders, to try to stop it, because that man, as evil as he was, was on the right side. So all is forgiven.

Such thinking simply flabbergasts me! It’s more akin to the thoughts and musings of the political Left than anything else.

But let me say, I do like Kevin D. Williamson. I’ve read a lot of his work at National Review online, particularly pieces on the police state. I’ve read his great book on Socialism. But I don’t agree with his views on John Brown.

As a Christian, I abhor abortion and think it is an American Holocaust.  I am an abolitionist on that issue. But I would never condone or advocate blowing up abortion clinics or murdering doctors to stop it, as John Brown would likely have done. (In another side note, Williamson has advocated hanging women who have abortions.)

Conservatives and libertarians, though, don’t advocate violence, bloodshed, riots, and mob rule. That’s the liberal (i.e. Socialist) way.

And we can all disagree on the issues currently before the country, and have a reasoned, yet civil, debate about them, but I don’t think citing a murderous fanatic like John Brown, whose unspeakable atrocities are no different than ISIS, is the way to go about it.



  1. David Frazier says:

    Well said Ryan, well said. I too read Mr. Williamson’s essays in National Review. On economic issues, I am usually in agreement. But on social issues like his objections to a woman’s fundamental right to abortion health care and LGBT equality, his opinions are not just wrong–they are radically wrong. As you have stated on the John Brown matter, his views all too often represent the lint that clings to the fringe that surrounds the base of the GOP. His views on social issues continue to confuse and mislead conservatives around the country to the extent that if more members of the conservative press do not expose him for being the social radical that he is, as you have done–and soon, that he and his cohorts will continue to cause the GOP to be viewed as the White, Christianist, Old-Men’s Party. The Republican Party cannot be a viable national party with this perception.

    You are also correct on Calhoun’s “A Disquisition on Government”. It’s still one the best books on the market which discusses in full context the philosophy and application of the federalist system of government as to how the Founding Fathers intended it to operate.

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