Law in Contemporary Society
What form can resistance to government by private individuals properly take?

Thoreau called John Brown, “the most American of us all.” This made me wonder what type of obligation he was trying to imply that we have to act on behalf of our fellow human beings. What form of civil disobedience and protest for injustice is appropriate in society? Do the means justify the end or should we be viewing Brown's actions not from a modern moral perspective but within its historical context?

I admire John Brown greatly and I am a realist about what type of action can actually achieve results. His dedication to such a worthy cause seems to counterbalance any reservations over his use of violence. I still cannot help thinking that what he did is qualitatively different than marching on Selma, Alabama, however. Further, I find it troublesome that he was an individual acting violently, rather than the state.

I understand that the state condones violence every day, and I believe in Browns case the individual was right and the government wrong. Faced with such a terrible institution, like slavery, and the belief that ‘moral suasion’ and political action would never achieve results, to what level should an individual be allowed to express his views through violence. What type of protest should society, or does society, continence, and what form that would take today as opposed to then.

Thoreau said, "Be not simply good -- be good for something." How can we take a man like Brown, who was extremely courageous and principled, and translate his idea of action into a modern context? One has to question whether the individual killing fellow citizens of America is a form of protest that is ever acceptable to society. Is this intellectually different than the government declaring war, or non-violent civil disobedience.

This is undoubtably a very important question to pose. That being said however, our president has pointed out (and I believe correctly) that nonviolent movements are often more efficacious than their violent counterparts. Between moral considerations and the desire to do what achieves a more just social order, I personally find it difficult see how anyone can justify using violence to achieve justice. Tools like political action and moral suasion may seem useless, but when a skilled person (like a smart lawyer) use them, they can produce revolutionary change. So although I think its fruitful to debate the actions of John Brown and question their propriety, I believe that when we really weigh all the facts, it will be evident that Brown was right in fighting injustice, but wrong in how he conducted that fight.

-- TaylorMcGowan - 28 Feb 2010

I had a similar reaction to Thoreau’s adulation of John Brown – I admired it, and Brown, but I found his use of violence to be extremely unpalatable. That being said, I think John Brown is a hero, as I think MLK is a hero and Gandhi is a hero. I spent much of Thursday’s class attempting to pin down how I could mentally group these three together. The best I could come up with is that the latter two used non-violence because (morality aside) it was the most effective route to their respective finish lines; the former used violence for the same reason. Violence, like non-violence is a tactic. I can only assume John Brown used violence because non-violence would or could not work, or because he viewed the pace at which the work of his fellow abolitionists was diffused (Walker’s Appeal, etc.) and found it unsatisfactory. From a pure political theory perspective, then, his decision was contextually rational, which offers a decent explanation for the effectiveness of his results (effective insofar as they spread international awareness and spurred political change).

-- AerinMiller - 01 Mar 2010

The South preferred to fight and kill than entertain the idea of ending slavery. It's a difficult and perhaps a losing battle to fight violence with nonviolence.

-- WendyFrancois - 05 Mar 2010

It's interesting to note that it was still violence in the Civil War that ultimately led to an end to slavery in America, as I think Wendy was alluding to. It made me wonder about the abolishment of slavery in Great Britain, which occurred much earlier. My knowledge of history isn't great so I had to refer to wikipedia. :-/ In Great Britian, it seems that there were some judicial opinions early on, as well as public opposition (and the fear of slave revolts in the colonies... seems like these decisions are never made solely on morality alone) that led slavery to eventually be declared illegal throughout the British Empire. Slavery never got a chance to be really accepted and institutionalized in Great Britain as it was in the South.

I drew a small lesson from the comparison. As lawyers, our words can indeed have an effect, in that we are able to change judicial and public opinion against moral wrongs before they become entrenched and accepted as a natural consequence of society to be tolerated. It's even possible to overturn institutionalized wrongs through the political process, though that's a much harder task to accomplish.

As for John Brown, is there any place for violence when trying to achieve justice? There were a lot of interesting factors mentioned above trying to determine if our 'hero' was doing the right thing: the difference between state/private acts of violence; achieving just ends through violent means; the morality of his objective to end slavery. I'm not really sure which side of the fence to come down on for John Brown, but I agree that his intentions were in the right place. Wars can be 'just', but on the other hand private acts of violence in the name of justice are bad (some would call it terrorism). To me, the distinction between the state/private act of violence isn't that persuasive. After all, aren't state acts of violence in punishment of criminals, or in war, still violence? Doesn't that boil down the violence to a question of political legitimacy?

Further to that, I submit that since Brown didn't have that political support, and his failed raid never gave him a chance to gain it, his legacy is mixed. My question is, if he had succeeded in his grand plan to end slavery (as unlikely as that may have been) would he still be wrong in how he conducted the fight? Can violence be legitimized by politics, or success?

-- JeffKao - 06 Mar 2010

I liked Moglen's point that John Brown and MLK both used violence, but in different ways. Martin King put people in situations where the moral depravity of the state could be graphically expressed through violence against them in the form of dogs, fire hoses, and police brutality. The advance made by King over the tactics of Brown was not the avoidance of violence, but the turning of violence inside out as a tool to arouse moral fervor, exposing the true nature of the evil hidden from the eyes of many in society, rather than using it as a vent or escape hatch through which moral rage burned itself out. For violence to be effective, it must go through to the end, and solve the problem with finality, as the Civil War did; Brown's violence was too weak.

Gandhi used a process similar to King's, but in his case it was violence against the self, both against his own body through starvation, and against the bodies of his countrymen through long marches. But, again, the resulting moral suasion was powerful and effective. I think we should remember, though, that the normal American response to injustice is not nonviolence, historically, but either inaction or war. We are still trigger-happy, if our own interests are at stake, as the wars in the Middle East illustrate, but much less trigger-happy when it's the interests of others that are on the line. Any of the many brutal, genocidal third world dictatorships that we ignore while taking aim at Iraq and other such targets could serve to illustrate. I think, though, in general, violence is not something that most people in law school are able to confront with honesty, either because it is too foreign or too intense. But, this is exactly why it's so powerful if turned inside-out and used for good.

-- SamWells - 09 Mar 2010

After reading up a little on Gandhi, I now realize that he also encouraged his followers to take actions that led to violence. In India during WWII as a part of the Quit India movement, which was dedicated to resistance against the British government and its final overthrow, thousands of members of his political party were killed, even as the movement was ultimately successful in convincing the British to turn over power to India. Violence seems to be pervasive in struggles for justice.

-- SamWells - 10 Mar 2010


-- SuzanneSciarra - 24 Feb 2010


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r7 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:56:10 - NonaFarahnik
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