The United States is still the world’s hyper-power. No other state on the planet can challenge its combined economic and military might. But take a closer look and the observer will notice that despite the bluster and arrogance of imperial grandeur, it is a country that seems to be losing its way, or at any rate its self-confidence. Abroad that’s easy to see in the wars it keeps losing, from Iraq to Afghanistan, but at home, too, the story is the same and has come sharply into view through recent events. Mention Mike Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, and you start to get the picture. At the heart of the beast is a sickness that has been with the republic since its birth: a searing contradiction in the land of the free.

America became the world’s dominant power in no small part because of its original sin, and its Achilles heel is sourced from the same root: slavery and the racism it developed to justify it that still flourishes today. And racism continues to live and thrive precisely because it was formative to the revolution that freed white Americans from tyranny but went on to fasten the chains ever more tightly to the limbs and minds of African-Americans. Another revolution was needed to uproot the evil of slavery if the ‘free republic’ was ever to live up to its name. That revolution did eventually come, after 300 years of slavery – and the timing of that second coming was in no small part assisted by the work of one man: John Brown.

You may know his name from the civil war song John Brown’s Body – a song whose tune was adopted by both North and South, but with distinctly different lyrics. After two years of war John Brown was transformed in the public psyche of the Northern populace from villain to prophetic hero. His body indeed still ‘lies-a-mouldering in the grave but his soul went marching on’ and as for one of his tormenters after his capture, Jefferson Davis, the massed ranks of the Union army sang ‘they will hang to a tree as they march along!’

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