FINKELMAN: Following real estate, slaves are the largest single value of privately owned property in the United States. Slavery is very valuable. Slavery produces enormous wealth for the south, and enormous wealth for the country -- slavery's a very profitable institution. Slavery is never going to end except by force because slave owners are making too much money owning slaves, and Brown understands this. Brown also understands the Constitution doesn't allow the national government to end slavery, it has to be done through either a revolution or through force in some other way, or through changing Southerner's minds, and he knows that's absolutely hopeless and a waste of time. So, again, his plan to go into the South and steal slaves is part of a guerrilla war against an institution that, in the end, can only be destroyed by war.
The Southerners in this period always talk about cotton as king. And, of course, with King Cotton are the rest of the royal family of sugar, tobacco, and rice. And the Southerners are, in one sense, right: they are producing most of the exports for the United States, they are generating vast wealth for themselves and for the country, and so they say you may not make war on cotton. Brown says, "I have to make war on slavery because, only by making war on slavery, is it endable." In that sense, of course, history proves him right. The difference between John Brown and William Tucumsah Sherman is that Sherman has a bigger army and Sherman's a much better strategist and tactician than Brown, but, in the end, they're both doing the same thing -- attempting to liberate slaves with force of arms.
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