…in terra aliena…(2015)

Lewis Nielson

in terra aliena deals directly with the structure and demeanor of the trial of the American revolutionary John Brown in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia).  After a series of all-too-predictable events in the US involving race relations and issues, I asked myself if there had been even one white American male in the history of the country who believed in and manifested a truly egalitarian approach to all people regardless of their physical characteristics.  I had to reject the more commonly-cited people (i.e., Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others) because their views did not envisage full citizenship or economic equality, let alone a real sense of equality in justice, freedom, and opportunity.  Finally, I identified one name–John Brown–who fought and died for these values; I decided, as it were, to verify his credentials through research of his writings and the words of those who knew him.  Some very interesting trends became evident.  First, his writing and all the anecdotal evidence (from supporters, followers, family, etc.) showed him to be absolutely true to the principle of equality for ALL men and ALL women; his attitude toward Native Americans was the same as toward African Americans, as well as any other ethnicity with which he came in contact.  Interestingly, the more contemporary white historians (that is, from ca. 1940 to the present) were the most likely to paint Brown as a fanatic, a lunatic, a fanatical lunatic, a devious power-seeker, or some other equally unsavory characterization.  In contrast, EVERY BLACK WRITER of his time and later extolled Brown as a martyr, a beacon for freedom and liberty, and a very prominent figure in the area of social relations in general.  For example, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and WEB DuBois, in particular, reflect an admiration for Brown that is in sharp contrast to what any modern writer has written.  DuBois’s views became even more radical as he aged, the additions to his biography of Brown showing his view of Brown as a real revolutionary hero, a view shared robustly by Karl Marx himself.  Finally, there was the loyalty felt to Brown not only by his main New England supporters but also his family and the African-Americans who followed him to death, realizing that through this sacrifice more might be accomplished than by conventional military or insurrectionary success, however remote that might have been.  I felt that there was, in fact, one white male who practiced what he preached and was willing not to back down over principle.
After reading the trial record–recognizing that the trial was fair in the form but not in the application of it took though I decided to center upon the trial itself.

The actual court record is most revealing.  While following the forms of the law of the state of Virginia, Brown was clearly rushed to judgment and denied many options for defense—including any semblance of a meaningful appeal—and denied due process as we understand it today.  But this record documents the principal views, prejudices, and fears of the time while also showing John Brown at his very best: committed, eloquent, a revolutionary leader among revolutionaries.  There can be no doubt that his execution was fore-ordained to the extent that a guilty verdict would lead inevitably to the gallows (hence the use of percussion throughout the present work) and that the voices outside the courtroom influenced or directed the prosecution in its entirety.  I decided to use the trial and its various contemporary and more modern extensions as a basis from which to conceive of my piece. I drew upon text resources from the time period and, to show how little as actually changed (especially in the minds of whites and white men in particular between 1859 and the present) from more recent figures, many of whom were also martyrs for the cause of equality in social and economic relations.

As a final note, I intend this work as a reflection and meditation upon the much-maligned figure of John Brown, who was (and is in my view) a true hero, a real revolutionary, and a committed social reformer of the kind the US ostracizes and denigrates without actually discovering anything like the truth.  To my way of thinking, John Brown’s example is one to follow far more than the internally conflicted “Founding Fathers,” who espoused freedom while owning slaves and seeing people, men and women, as property.

I would call attention to John Brown’s final address to the court prior to receiving his death sentence.  It stands as one of the most eloquent speeches regarding slavery and human freedom in American history, though it has been unjustly over-shadowed by oratory by more savory figures.  It can be accessed at:  http://www.nationalcenter.org/JohnBrown’sSpeech.html
Additionally, all of John Brown’s letters and other writings are available online generally and compiled in the excellent John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary, Louis Ruchames (ed.), Grosset & Dunlap: New York, 1969 (2nd printing, 1971).

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