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John Brown: History's Greatest Hero


A 1907 essay by US socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



From the 1880s onward, labor leaders invoked the memory of John Brown. They cast the Northern worker as the new American slave and the capitalist boss as the new American slave-holder, looking to abolitionism as a model for their own movement. Of all the abolitionists, Brown seemed the “spirit incarnate” of revolution, as Eugene Debs (1855-1926) once explained.For example, on December 2, 1881, members of the Labor Standard American Auxiliary Association commemorated Brown’s execution and proclaimed him a symbol of their struggle. On one placard they announced: “Yesterday—the abolition of chattel slavery. Tomorrow—the abolition of wage slavery. His soul is marching on.”


Debs himself repeatedly invoked John Brown, often describing him as a martyr. In this short essay, Brown’s death is a “martyrdom” and “sublime.” Here Debs was responding, in part, to Brown’s own self-fashioning. Joining social critique to spiritual renewal, Brown had not only entered an abolitionist tradition that analyzed and disproved Biblical authorities on inequality, but also offered himself as a Biblical character. In his widely-circulated prison letters, he compared himself to saints and instructed his family to remember that Jesus (like Brown) was executed as a felon. This self-fashioning enabled abolitionists to repackage Brown’s image for their cause. During his six-week imprisonment and after his execution, ministers proclaimed him a new Saint Stephen and a John-the-Baptist figure, while other commentators—including Henry David Thoreau, quoted by Debs in this essay—took up Brown’s own comparisons to Christ.


Debs was therefore part of a longstanding protest tradition, beginning in 1859, of imagining Brown as a martyr. But Debs’ focus on martyrdom also reflected his broader prophetic voice. In 1894, he was jailed for his involvement in the Pullman strike. He emerged from prison a changed man, embraced Socialism, helped form the Industrial Workers of the World, and began to cite examples of prophets and martyrs. During one of his speeches in 1908, an audience member exclaimed that Debs was God’s spirit on earth.


In 1918 Debs further embraced his role as the John Brown of wage slavery. Knowing that he would likely be arrested on violation of the 1917 Espionage Act, he gave a series of highly-publicized anti-war speeches. He went on trial for sedition in Cleveland, Ohio, and in his courtroom speeches he again drew on the prophetic tradition and summoned memories of the abolitionists. Sentenced to ten years in prison, he served nearly three. In 1920 he ran for United States President from the Atlanta Penitentiary and received a million votes.


Source:Appeal to Reason, November 23, 1907.

- Zoe Trodd