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Margaret Washington, historian on
John Brown's heroism

Margaret Washington WASHINGTON: John Brown was most definitely a hero in the eyes of African Americans. He was a hero in the eyes of many people who were involved in the antislavery movement. Even the pacifists, the moral suasionists, who did not believe in violence, saw John Brown as a hero because he was willing to die for his convictions because of the loftiness of his cause. And so they saw him as a hero, even though they did not condone what he did and would not have done it themselves. But they felt that the times had created the mood that allowed John Brown to do what he did. And above all, they felt that slavery was so wrong that anything that was done to end it was justified. So he was a hero, and he was certainly a hero to African Americans because he paid a supreme price for their freedom.

The representation of John Brown in the painting where a Black woman is holding up her baby for him to kiss is the personification of what John Brown meant to the black community, and what he meant was the ultimate sacrifice. The price of freedom for African Americans has often been death, and John Brown was willing to make that sacrifice, not for himself, but for black freedom, and that painting represents what African Americans actually thought of him. The idea of a black woman holding up her black child to be kissed by a white man represents almost the fusion of the races in John Brown's life, and represents certainly what John Brown tried to do in his life, which was to live it, so that there was no difference between black and white. And I think that that's one of the important meanings of that painting, both symbolically and in terms of what the painter was trying to represent.

In some ways, John Brown transformed America. His statement as he was being led to the gallows that "the sins of the nation would only be purged with blood" really sent a chill through the nation, and many people thought that this was insanity. And even at the beginning of the Civil War, this idea of the war having a direct affect on slavery was not accepted, even by the president, by Lincoln himself. Toward the end of the war, however, you find even people like Lincoln essentially rephrasing John Brown's words. John Brown said that he did not think that the sins of the nation would be purged except by blood, the sins of the nation that he meant was slavery. Lincoln, in his second inaugural, in March of 1865, even though he says that he hopes that the scores of war will quickly pass away, if it does not pass away until every drop of blood that the bondman has shed has been absolved, then let the war go on. Now that sounds very much like John Brown, and it's completely different from what Lincoln said at his first inaugural, and certainly quite different from what he said when John Brown was executed.

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