Saturday, December 17, 2011

Consciousness of Guilt

I am reading a book now called, Midnight Rising. It is about John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.

John Brown has been--for thirty plus years at least--an intriguing historical character to me. About ten years ago I was driving through Lake Placid and saw a sign indicating that his home was nearby. I hadn't known that he had lived there (according to the book he spent very little time in that home, leaving his wife to fend for herself while he pursued his mission). I pulled off the road and took a tour of the farm.

We all know the song John Brown's Body that we sang as kids, and most of us know about his role in the abolitionist movement. For me, though, what made John Brown a riveting character was the speech he gave just before he was hanged. I read it about thirty years ago when I was looking for important speeches for students to read. In the speech, Brown said at one point that he "felt no consciousness of guilt." It is this excerpt that I thought to be singularly powerful, meaningful (and apparently) memorable.

Of course we in 2011, know that Brown's goal was more than just admirable. Can there be anything that is more of a blight on American history than the fact that once slavery was a lawful institution. Why should Brown have felt any consciousness of guilt for trying to free individuals horrifically subjugated like subhumans.

But the excerpt stuck with me not only because of how right he was to feel no consciousness of guilt for fighting against slavery. The line has stayed with me because I thought that whenever one took any action, consciousness of guilt might not be a bad meter to use when considering whether the action should be done. Will there be consciousness of guilt? If so, then don't do it.

I have not finished the book--just half way into it--but I find it interesting to read about how quirky Brown was and how impossibly unsuccessful he was in almost any business enterprise he pursued. And certainly the raid on Harpers Ferry was a wild, myopic attempt to reach his goal. The raid we now know was a bloody failure--at least in the way it was designed to be successful.

I don't plan to be hanged, but I do hope that when I face some arbiter, I can say that I feel relatively little consciousness of guilt.

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