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Paul Finkelman, historian on
politics of the day

Paul Finkelman FINKELMAN: The world that John Brown lives in is a world that politically is dominated by the South and by slave owners. There are three non-slave owning presidents between 1800 and 1850. They each only serve one term. Congress is almost always dominated by Southerners and by Southern politicians who hold leadership positions. This is true even though, in fact, the majority of the House of Representatives is from the North, but because of the nature of the politics. The Democratic Party is almost always in control, and the majority of the Democrats are from the South, so, Northern Democrats team up with the huge block of Southern Democrats controlling Congress and Northern Democrats are forced to do what Southern Democrats want on slavery. So, when John Brown looks at the world he's in, he's looking at a world where there are slave holders seeming to dominate everything. And radical slave holders, extremists on the issue of slavery, are found in the cabinet of people -- like Jefferson Davis is secretary of war during the Kansas troubles. It's impossible to find a Northerner of anti-slavery views who is ever in a position of power in Washington.

Brown withdraws from politics pretty early on in his life, thinking that it's futile. He is initially a Whig, but the leading Whig politician in the country is Henry Clay, who is a slave owner, and if you really are opposed to slavery, then you can't be voting for people like Henry Clay for president. And there's really nowhere to turn. John Brown is not a follower, he's not a joiner, so he doesn't get involved in the Liberty Party, and he pretty much stays out of politics. When Brown gets to Kansas, of course, there is no democratic process in Kansas. The overwhelming majority of the settlers in Kansas are from the free states. They would like to have a free state government, no slavery, in Kansas. The Pierce Administration and then later the Buchanan Administration try to thrust slavery down the throats of these Northerners, and, so, when John Brown is involved in a Civil War in Kansas, it's in part because the democratic process simply doesn't work. In one sense Brown is fulfilling the American revolution notion that you only fight a revolution when there are no other means for political change. And, in Brown's case, in Kansas, there is no political process that would allow the free state majority to ban slavery.

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