At this point, expecting consistency from PragerU is like expecting a cat to bark — it’s just not in their nature. On 12/21/2020, PragerU released a video on Twitter defending Robert E. Lee against the claims his statues should be taken down. The video was written by Michael Medved, of The Golden Turkey Awards fame, and contained various claims that have brought them much criticism. The most controversial of their “facts about Lee that remind us why his statue should remain” is the following:
After thirty years of military service, Lee led U.S. Marines to crush the attempted slave rebellion by radical abolitionist John Brown in October 1859.
(Fun Fact: Not only was Robert E. Lee present at the hanging of John Brown, but so were Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, who became a well known Confederate general until his death from pneumonia in 1863, and the famous actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later kill President Lincoln in 1865. Truth be told, if you wanted to make an argument for statues of any Confederal general, Jackson would be the one with the strongest case. Had Jackson not died, it’s very likely the Confederacy would have won the war considering they were at a notable advantage at the time of his death.)
PragerU is known for presenting a one-sided and simplistic view of the Civil War, it was about slavery, the Republicans were the good guys, and the Democrats were the bad guys. They have denied that “states rights” or “economic differences” were a factor, instead going back to the basic explanation of slavery. Facts like slave states fighting in the Union, or the fact that various states citied “northern aggression” as their reason for joining the Confederacy are irrelevant to this basic outlook.
(To be clear: I’m not denying that slavery was the biggest (I’d go so far as to say only) factor leading the first handful of states to leave the Union and therefore starting the Civil War, I’m denying that slavery was the reason for every state leaving, what every Confederate solider fought for, and what every Union solider fought against. Everything came back to slavery in some form, but that doesn’t mean it was on the mind of everyone during any given part of the war — if that makes any sense.)
Would the same Abraham Lincoln who was skeptical of capitalism, worrying that an industrial revolution like the one that was occurring in Europe would lead to conditions near identical to what he was fighting to abolish, and a pen-pal of Karl Marx (who was also the biggest supporter of the Union one could find in Europe at the time) supported the party of free market enterprise? Would the man who was on the verge of signing full-on Civil Rights legislation in 1865 have supported the party that had three of its Presidents (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) come out against desegregated busing? Would the man who inspired much of left-anarchist thought of the late 19th and early 20th century (wage labor being compared to slavery was a common taking point in left-anarchist publications during the Industrial Revolution and socialist and communist parties loved presenting themselves as the heir of Lincoln) been a member of the party of HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, and Cold Warriors? According to PragerU, the answer is obviously yes.
Calling John Brown a “radical abolitionist” is actually a rather meaningless statement. Ignoring the fact that most abolitionists were anarchists (left-anarchism was heavily inspired by abolition and right-anarchism started with abolitionist Lysander Spooner) the movement itself was on the extreme end so calling one abolitionist “radical” is rather silly. Even among those who opposed slavery, abolition, or the idea that slavery should end everywhere with no compensation to the slaveholders, was the most “radical” position. The more moderate positions were stopping slavery from expanding to the west and convincing slave owners to give up slaves voluntarily. (The first one was seen as impossible after Dred Scott v. Stanford, and the second one became increasingly unrealistic as new slave imports became rarer and rarer and slaves increasingly became something you inherited.) Calling someone a “radical abolitionist” is like calling someone a “radical anarchist” — what exactly is a “moderate anarchist”? Truth be told, it’s the same as a “moderate abolitionist,” a living oxymoron.
In order for Brown to be a “radical,” he’d have to be a fringe figure among abolitionists. Was he? Well let’s see what abolitionists were saying about him at the time. Here’s what Henry David Thoreau wrote about Brown after he was hung for treason:
Some eighteen hundred yeas ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without links. He is not Old Brown any longer, he is an angel of light.
Comparisons to Christ were not uncommon (Brown himself believed God had sent him to end slavery), Ralph Waldo Emerson said his hanging “will make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Basically, if John Brown was some “radical abolitionist,” someone should have really told the abolitionists, who he fit right in with and who many considered a hero.
Frederick Douglas, who PragerU has a whole video praising, called him “One of the most marked characters, and greatest heroes known to American fame.” Despite Douglas being a former slave, he believed that Brown’s “zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine.”
The only thing left one could call Brown “radical” on was his desire to kill in order to achieve his cause. Well, it is true that John Brown killed ten people in the name of abolition, Abraham Lincoln, however, killed 620,000. Brown killed a small group, Lincoln killed the entire population of Vermont — which one is supposed to be a massive radical?