John Brown is no American hero. He is not a martyr or a saint or “an angel of God,” as Thoreau believed. He is simply a vigilante who subverted the law and committed murder. His enlightened end, abolition, does not in any way justify his means.
A posthumous pardon for John Brown would glorify bloodshed. We can’t idolize those who use extralegal and morally wrong means, no matter their noble motivations.
John Brown aimed to provoke a slave insurrection and thereby further the abolition cause. Instead, his raid only convinced Southerners to hold ever more tightly to their “peculiar institution” of slavery.
History has told us, time and again, that violence is never the answer. John Brown brought the nation closer to the carnage and devastation of the bloodiest war in our history. The Civil War was arguably avoidable, but John Brown’s raid eclipsed any visions of alternative solutions to America’s red-hot issue of sectionalism.
A presidential pardon for John Brown would certainly be meaningful. It would condone, even promote violence. Let’s not confuse the morality of the end and the means. Let’s not glorify the vigilante violence that the rest of the enlightened world has shed.