The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason-Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South, in preparation to defend their “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. Initially the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles on Kindle.