Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in a series by Larry L. Rowe on the history of slavery and the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley before the Civil War, and Booker T. Washington’s boyhood heroes after the war.
A powder keg exploded in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on Oct. 16, 1859. It destroyed the nation’s peaceful acceptance of the horror that was slavery.
John Brown, from “Bloody Kansas,” led 21 men on a raid at a large federal armory with major stores of weapons.
John Brown selected Harpers Ferry as a target because Virginia was a leading slave state with a large local slave population. Virginia created American slavery and Brown wanted to start a slave uprising. The raid spread panic and fear throughout the South. From a military perspective, the raid was a folly. But its violence confronted Northerners over their acceptance of the day-to-day, quiet violence that was the reality of slavery for 4 million people.
Slavery began in what would become America in Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1600s. Slaves were brought in as a workforce for the tobacco industry. Eastern Virginians led the republic to protect slavery in each of its three major constitutional epochs: the 1776 Revolution, the 1787 secret Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and the 1861 Civil War.
Virginia was the richest, most populated, largest in area and most influential colony and state with great leaders, all of whom held large numbers of slaves. After two centuries and a downturn in the tobacco industry, slavery turned into a shameful, major livestock industry from 1820 to 1860 with high-profit commodity sales of Virginians “sold South” to booming cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations.
Virginia’s influence in the new republic through the Civil War was remarkable. In the time of the federal Constitution, Eastern Virginia had 42 percent of the Americans held in slavery. By 1860, it had almost half-a-million slaves, which made up one-third of its population. The number of slaves in Western Virginia was very small, in comparison to anywhere in the South.
The Emancipation Proclamation reduced the numbers of slaves. The state auditor filed a report with the first West Virginia Legislature in 1863 showing Kanawha and Putnam counties had the highest numbers of slaves older than 12. They were taxable to slavers. Younger slaves were not taxable. Kanawha County had 1,237 and Putnam County had 345 people over age 12 held in slavery. Eleven of the 32 counties listed in the report had fewer than 20 taxable slaves.
Virginia provided the military leadership and leading general who won the Revolutionary War, and it would provide four of the nation’s first five presidents, each of whom held people in slavery. Important Founding Fathers were slavers in Virginia. Through 1850, Virginia provided seven of the first 12 presidents. John Marshall, the most important chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, was a Virginia slaver. Eastern Virginia presidents attended to the needs of the Virginia slave economy and society.
The cause of the second rebellion in 1861 was in no small part to protect Eastern Virginia’s lucrative slave markets in the rebellious Deep South. They were new agriculture states organized as slave societies. Five states, including Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina, had no cities with populations of 10,000 or more. In 1850, the Kanawha Valley had more than 12,000 people, a number that included about 3,000 people held in slavery, most for the salt and slave industry.
The Civil War was never a war of true equals, but the addition of Virginia to the Confederacy, along with three other strategically located states that waited to see if Virginia would join the rebellion, made the Civil War winnable for the South. Those states included two key Mississippi River states, Arkansas and Tennessee, and a key coastal state, North Carolina, which divided the Coastal Confederacy between Virginia and South Carolina.
As a livestock industry, slavery became too lucrative to end and it set a path to a Civil War that killed more than 600,000 soldiers, which, inflated proportionately to today’s population, would be 7 million people — a carnage of human life unthinkable until it continued for four years.
The leadership of Eastern Virginians almost matched their surprising victory in the Revolutionary War. A victory for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, at the time when Northerners were growing very weary of the war and its extreme loss of life, would have won a peace similar to the peace after Yorktown. Such a peace would have divided the nation and likely set a new path to war for future generations.
John Brown’s pursuit of social justice through violent means makes him one of America’s most controversial figures. His defiance of the rule of law is disturbing and sobering, in light of the history of slavery. Slavery was outside the bounds of the nation’s founding ideas and individual morality.
Cruelty against enslaved people was a social institution in the South.
It later became a slave-selling livestock industry led by Eastern Virginians. The American judicial system had the goal and tradition of treating all white people equally before the Civil War. It protected their individual rights and provided ready access to courts for speedy redress of grievances against the government and private persons. Violence can confuse the moral judgments of a community about its minorities, and can prompt mayhem instead of moral clarification.
That was the great gift of understanding about violence by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It cannot be fairly denied that John Brown focused the nation on the day-to-day violence that was slavery.
Slavery was followed by violent Jim Crow segregation and the confusion and inconsistencies of the nation and its history writers — many from Virginia for more than a century — about the true nature of that day-to-day violence and cruelty, until the ideas of white superiority and separation were overthrown by television reports to a new generation about the evils of both.
John Brown is a frightening reminder that, when social justice and decent treatment of individuals are outside of the control of electoral processes and the courts, violence becomes a law unto itself. Law must direct the morality of community, especially when electoral processes do not treat minorities fairly.
When social justice and civil rights are denied year after year in electoral institutions of government — executive and legislative — the courts must protect individuals and minorities to preserve the rule of law and deny to all that violence can ever possibly, remotely be a reasonable substitute for the rule of law.