October 16, 2012 marked the 153rd anniversary of John Brown’s infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry. The raid, conducted by Brown and twenty one fellow abolitionists, is often considered one of the major points leading up to the Civil War. Though Brown’s raid ultimately failed, the abolitionist message had been broadcasted to the entire nation that liberty is an issue worth fighting for.
Brown, a veteran of Bleeding Kansas who was renowned for his brutality in that conflict, may not be the ideal model of a classical liberal instigator of social change, but the extent to which he went to bring out liberty ought to give us perspective. Influenced heavily by the arguments of Lysander Spooner — such as the Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, which called for the arming of slaves by northerners and the subsequent armed rebellion against and flogging of slave masters — Brown died fighting for the liberty of others. Indeed, Brown’s contemporary liberals praised his actions and the man himself. Ralph Waldo Emerson went as far as to say that he “will make the gallows as holy as the cross,” and Henry David Thoreau delivered a speech titled “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in Concord, Massachusetts, two weeks after his capture and then several times after his execution.
Financed by a group of wealthy abolitionists, the Secret Six, Brown and the Spoonerite abolitionists were fighting to prevent civil war, not encourage it. Their radical actions were taken in conjunction with reasoned discourse and argumentation in the public sphere (for example, Spooner used reasoning that the Constitution forbade slavery). These were not fighting solely against any specific state for any right of their own. Rather, they fought against an evil social institution (supported by the state). They fought for the rights of others. They were not solely political reformists, but social reformists as well.
Slavery was only a legitimate realm for the state in that people recognized it as legitimate. Without the backing of public opinion, without the explicit and tacit consent of the population, many of whom recognized that slavery was wrong, but tacitly accepted its existence as a legal right of the state for many northerners and explicitly accepted by many southerners. The radical abolitionists, particularly those of Brown’s crowd, recognized this tyranny of public opinion and worked primarily in the public forums to support social change, not the back halls of Congress. John Stuart Mill, British predecessor to the American abolitionists and philosopher, recognized the horror that the tyranny of public opinion brings with it in accordance with the state in his book On Liberty. Mill went as far to note that oppressive public opinion may, in fact, be “more noxious” than an oppressive state. Only a strong moral bulwark, built by education, opposition to tyrannical social institutions, and, if need be, armed rebellion against those social institutions, can bring about liberty.
While we live in one of the freest times to ever exist and the social and political manifestations of slavery are dying out across the globe, tyrannical institutions, political and social, still persist. Democratic institutions (akin to the policy of popular sovereignty) only work to blur the line between political and social oppression. Take the example of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that stripped the rights of same-sex couples to marry. This was neither proposed by any vicious embodiment of the state, nor was it the public choice failure of a well-meaning legislature. Instead, Proposition 8 was the manifestation in the state of tyrannical social values. The failed campaign of Proposition 19 was just another example of the tyranny of public opinion becoming manifest (or rather, staying manifest) in the state.
Like slavery, these oppressions only become legally manifest because of the tacit and explicit acknowledgement of the power of the state over these realms of our lives. Evil builds up evil. One is not possible without the other. A despotic state with a populace that rejects its legitimacy is without power; a dictatorial public without the apparatus of the state to carry out its commands is simply a bandit gang.
With this tyranny of public opinion in mind, supporters of liberty ought to reflect upon the actions and history of these great liberal abolitionists, from Spooner to Mill to Brown to the Secret Six, and take their conviction against all forms of tyranny to heart. We ought to reject the false dichotomy of Murray Rothbard’s classic question, “Do you hate the state?” Instead, the question should be, “Do you hate all tyranny, regardless of the state?” If yes, what would would you do for it? Would you fight for your liberty? Even more pertinent to the question of slavery, would you fight for the liberty of others? Dedication solely to the abolition of state-based abridgements to freedom is a dangerous set of blinders if not combined to a simultaneous dedication to the abolition of social totalitarianism.
Am I advocating armed rebellion against tyrannies of public opinion and the state? Hardly. Instead, I am advocating that we take perspective, take a step back, and become more than political advocates. We should follow in the footsteps of men like Spooner, Mill, and the classical liberal abolitionists. We should work to build up what Mill called, “a strong barrier of moral conviction,” against the dual mischief of the state and social institutions. As philosopher Aeon Skoble notes in his book Deleting the State, “Deleting the state means something more effective than violence: it means deciding the state is not necessary. It means deleting the notion that we have no choice but to submit.” I am suggesting we become social advocates. Do not advocate solely for a free government. Advocate for a free society.