John Brown: Saint, Guerrilla Fighter, or Domestic Terrorist?
On the night of October 16th, 1859, John Brown and a group of twenty men made their way into the small town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Inspired by a sense of radical abolitionism, this motley crew gathered in an attempt to overthrow the shackles of slavery through the creation of a large-scale slave revolt. Although ambitious in their goal, the ill-conceived plan proved disastrous as Brown and his men were quickly overwhelmed within days by a group of U.S. Marines led by the future southern general, Robert E. Lee. Only a few weeks after his capture, the local court of Charlestown, Virginia, found Brown guilty on charges of murder, insurrection, and treason. In response, the court sentenced him to death on December 2nd,1859. Although his trial’s outcome inspired widespread controversy in regard to its fairness, the Virginia court carried out its sentencing, thus, ending Brown’s long career of violence; a career that first emerged in 1855 with the murder of pro-slavery advocates in Kansas. Unbeknownst to those present at his execution, Brown’s death would, in turn, forever alter American society and culture in the years that followed.
Although Brown’s attack in Kansas and Virginia did not immediately resolve the issue of slavery, the trial and execution of Brown served as a rallying cry for the abolitionist cause and helped draw the battle lines for the Civil War only a year later. As a result, his attacks in Kansas and Virginia served as major catalysts for hostilities between the North and South. Although it is clear that Brown’s attacks provided an atmosphere of great tension for the nation at large, one aspect analyzed by professional historians is the question over John Brown’s public image in the days, months, and years following his execution. Why did so many people herald John Brown as a saint and hero for the cause of abolition when his actions involved the killing of numerous individuals and the destruction of both private and public property? Is it fair to label Brown as a saintly figure? Or does the evidence suggest that John Brown was nothing more than a domestic terrorist? This article seeks to address these questions through an examination of current (and past) historiographical trends surrounding this highly contentious issue in American history.
Positive Perceptions and Early Historiography
The controversy surrounding John Brown as a saint or villain is nothing new within modern historiography. Attorney and independent scholar, Brian McGinty, argues that this discrepancy emerged as early as his trial proceedings in 1859. But what explains the rise of Brown’s saintly image? Because of the publicity garnered by the trial across the nation, McGinty claims that the attention generated by the press served to infuriate individuals on both sides of the slavery spectrum: those for and against the institution of slavery (McGinty, 17). As McGinty demonstrates, however, Virginia’s mishandling of Brown’s court proceedings helped to generate sympathy and reverence for Brown and his raid among Northerners and abolitionists. This sympathy, McGinty asserts, directly resulted from the bold and courageous stance that Brown took in defending himself during his trial. As McGinty states: “Abolitionists were inspired by his eloquence and by his willingness to lay down his life for his convictions” (McGinty, 17). Similarly, historian Charles Joyner proclaims that “nothing solidified Northern opinion so powerfully as the image of John Brown on the gallows” (Joyner, 308). As one might expect, however, this reflection of Brown also served to vilify his image across the Southern states, who viewed him as both a murderer and great threat to their slave-centered way of life (McGinty, 262).
Although Southern sentiments obviously reflected a negative view of Brown, a wave of historical research attempted to undo this image in the early 1900s by portraying Brown’s actions in a more positive manner. At the turn of the century, historians W.E.B. Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard both reflected these positive sentiments in their biographical accounts of John Brown. Du Bois, for instance, argued that John Brown’s actions embodied all the ideals of an American hero since his actions were “in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow man” (Du Bois, 267). While Du Bois acknowledges that “Brown was legally a lawbreaker and murderer,” he counters this sentiment by arguing that Brown’s actions served as a necessary evil in delivering slaves from bondage, and ending the institution of slavery once and for all (Du Bois, 267).
In his 1910 biography of John Brown, Oswald Garrison Villard largely builds upon the earlier interpretation proposed by Du Bois. In his biographical account, Villard portrays the attack on Harpers Ferry in a semi-heroic manner as well. While he argues that “one may dislike the methods he [Brown] adopted or the views he held,” he suggests that Brown’s attack on slavery was “mighty and unselfish” in its overall aims (Villard, 78).
Interpretations such as Du Bois and Villard’s continued unabated until the Sixties and Seventies. In an attempt to produce one of the first unbiased accounts of John Brown, historian Stephen Oates’s biography, To Purge this Land With Blood, portrayed Brown as neither a saint nor a villain. As Oates proclaims, his goal was “neither an indictment nor a eulogy of Brown” (Oates, vii). Rather than “trying to destroy or defend Brown,” Oates attempts to answer the question of “why he performed his controversial deeds” (Oates, viii). By taking this newfound approach, Oates set the stage for future historical research, and helped shift the story of Brown away from the biased renditions that dominated earlier research.
What image fits John Brown the best?
Modern Debate: Saint, Guerrilla Fighter, or Terrorist?
As the debate over John Brown’s actions continued over the next few decades, a new and more controversial theme emerged by the end of the twentieth-century. This new debate involved the clash of historians over the issue of John Brown and domestic terrorism. In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, historians started to question the positive portrayals of John Brown made by historians like Du Bois and Villard. As the new millennium dawned, historians shifted their analysis of Brown to reflect modern concerns and fears facing the United States and the world at large. One particular concern of historians involved whether Brown’s actions in Kansas and Harpers Ferry constituted acts of terrorism? If not, then by what definition does Brown’s actions truly belong? Was Brown a martyr and saintly figure like Du Bois and Villard portrayed in their interpretations? Or do the actions of Brown illustrate a far more sinister theme? Additionally, if Brown fits the definition of terrorist, another problematic and controversial question arises. As historian David Blight suggests: “Can John Brown remain an authentic American hero in an age of Timothy McVeigh, Usama [sic] Bin Laden, and the bombers of abortion clinics?” (Blight, 44).
Historian Ken Chowder’s article, “The Father of American Terrorism,” addresses these issues directly with his claim that Brown’s actions clearly demonstrated aspects of modern terrorism. Even more alarming, Chowder proclaims that clear “parallels” exist “between John Brown and virtually any leftist who uses political violence” today (Chowder, 91). In this sense, Chowder argues that Brown served as a “precursor and hero” to modern day terrorists, and that his actions made him the “founding father of principled violence” in American society (Chowder, 91). But does this make Brown a terrorist himself? Chowder suggests that Brown’s actions, while violent in nature, reflected the chaotic culture that surrounded him in the 1850s. As he states: “a society where slavery exists is by nature one where human values are skewed” (Chowder, 90). Although Brown’s actions follow current models of terrorism today, Chowder points out that Brown’s adherence to violence “was not outside his society; to a great degree, he represented it, in its many excesses” (Chowder, 90). Thus, Chowder concludes that Brown’s actions do not constitute terrorism when one considers the time period and social ills facing America in the nineteenth-century.
Taking an opposite approach to Ken Chowder, historian James Gilbert’s article, “A Behavioral Analysis of John Brown,” argues that Brown’s actions in Kansas and Harpers Ferry are quite similar to the terrorist attacks of the Nineties and early 2000s (Gilbert, 108). As he argues, however, Brown’s actions are often excluded “from the definition of terrorist” since he aimed to destroy a generally accepted evil: slavery (Gilbert, 108). While Gilbert admits that it is often difficult to define terrorism, he asserts that its basic definition involves the targeting of “both property and people…with the necessary presence of illegal actions and social or political motivations as the causative agent” (Gilbert, 109). Given this definition, Gilbert asserts that Brown’s actions are “consistent with the terrorist model” (Gilbert, 112). Brown’s attacks in both Kansas and Virginia not only resulted from personal religious convictions, but they also involved the systematic murdering of multiple men for the expressed purpose of change in America. Taken in this light, Gilbert argues that Brown’s actions run parallel to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, and domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh.
English professor, David Reynolds, in his biography, John Brown, Abolitionist, does not deny the assertions made by Gilbert over the issue of terrorism. As Reynolds states: “He [Brown] was an American terrorist in the amplest sense of the word” (Reynolds, 503). One distinction that Reynolds makes in regard to Gilbert, however, is that “it is misleading to identify John Brown with modern terrorists” (Reynolds, 502). Why is this the case? Reynolds points out that no political means existed for Brown to initiate change within the United States during the buildup to the Civil War (Reynolds, 501). Although Brown expressed his sentiments regarding slavery on numerous occasions throughout his life, Reynolds states that slavery was “cemented in place by law, custom, and prejudice” (Reynolds, 503). As a result, Brown’s only hope for bringing change to America involved the systematic use of violence and destruction to alter the perception of the slavery debate. In this sense, therefore, Brown’s actions clearly fulfilled the definition of what constitutes a terrorist. However, in comparison to modern terrorism, Brown differed significantly in that he desired “a democratic society that assigned full rights to all” (Reynolds, 503). In keeping to this spirit of the “founding fathers,” Reynolds asserts that Brown’s goal was not death and destruction, as espoused by modern terrorists, but freedom and “human equality” (Reynolds, 505). As a result, Reynolds concludes that Brown certainly embodied terrorist tactics in his desire to end slavery, but that his actions reflect that of a “good” terrorist rather than one with evil intentions (Reynolds, 166).
Intent on dismissing prior interpretations of John Brown, historian Nicole Etcheson largely counters the notion of Brown’s association with terrorist principles. While she admits that “Brown did employ terrorist tactics” in his raids within Kansas and Virginia, Etcheson points out that Brown’s actions are more aligned with that of a guerrilla fighter rather than a terrorist (Etcheson, 29). Why is this the case? Etcheson suggests that fundamental differences exist between what constitutes both a guerrilla fighter and a terrorist. Guerrilla fighters, according to Etcheson, wage war against forces much larger than themselves in an attempt to generate change. While this characteristic equally applies to terrorists, Etcheson points out that guerrilla fighters, more often than not, are highly selective in their targets and often avoid “indiscriminate” killing (Etcheson, 32). Terrorists, on the other hand, do not make distinctions and employ mass-terror as a means of eliciting change. Such sentiments go directly against Brown, she claims, as “Brown himself was far more targeted in his use of violence” (Etcheson, 29). Similar to Brian McGinty’s portrayal of Brown in, John Brown’s Trial, Etcheson states that Brown “never openly embraced violence, sensing that to do so would hurt the antislavery cause” (Etcheson, 29). The raids in both Kansas and Virginia were both calculated strikes, she argues, that never deliberately targeted innocent by-standers. Thus, Etcheson concludes by stating that John Brown’s raid was a “guerrilla strike against slavery,” and nothing more (Etcheson, 29).
In 2011, Historian Paul Finkelman’s article “America’s First Terrorist?” calls into question the assertions made by Reynolds and Gilbert regarding John Brown’s terrorist connections. Like Gilbert before him, Finkelman argues that it is difficult to define the concept of terrorism. However, Finkelman points out that all terrorists gravitate towards one universal aim: “to terrify people and strike fear in the minds of those whom their terror is directed” (Finkelman, 18). Terrorists, as he describes, possess no other goals except to “kill, destroy, and terrorize” those they oppose (Finkelman, 19). Political change is often their ultimate goal, but “indiscriminate killing,” masking their identities, and the avoidance of traditional “political processes” to elicit this type of change are all key concepts of terrorism (Finkelman, 19). Understanding these points are crucial, Finkelman believes, as they help to differentiate John Brown from the terrorist model defined by historians such as Gilbert and Reynolds. While Finkelman does not deny the fact that Brown’s actions in both Kansas and Harpers Ferry were violent, he argues that Brown and his men do not fit the terrorist model due to the manner in which they carried out their raids. Specifically, Brown “ordered no killings; he did not wantonly destroy property; and he cared for his hostages” throughout his siege at Harpers Ferry (Finkelman, 26). Moreover, Finkelman argues that Brown’s attack on pro-slavery advocates in Kansas, only a few years earlier, do not fit the terrorist model either since “there was a violent civil war being fought over slavery there” (Finkelman, 26). With no political means at his disposal to end slavery, Finkelman makes the point that Brown’s actions were more or less a reaction that resembled the American revolutionaries during the War of Independence (Finkelman, 27). Rather than following terrorist ideals, he argues that Brown resembles more of a guerrilla fighter, or revolutionary in his approach to end slavery (Finkelman, 27).
Offering a counter argument to the points made by both Etcheson and Finkelman, Brenda and James Lutz’s article, “John Brown as Guerrilla Terrorist,” takes the middle ground in their assessment of Brown. Rather than picking between guerrilla fighter and terrorist, the Lutz’s assert that Brown’s actions in Kansas and Virginia are representative of both. As they state: “in many respects, Brown was a terrorist who aspired to be a guerrilla fighter or insurgent” (Lutz, 1049). Countering Etcheson’s assessment that Brown avoided the targeting of innocent bystanders, the Lutz’s argue that Brown’s actions in Kansas territory suggest otherwise. As they point out, Brown specifically targeted “innocent” people within Kansas in order to provoke a larger engagement between pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists (Lutz, 1044). By recognizing and incorporating the “pervasive” qualities of “fear,” Brown’s strategy successfully elicited “a response by the pro-slavery forces,” who later “burned a free soil town in retaliation” (Lutz, 1044). While the Lutz’s agree with both Finkelman and Etcheson that Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry represent more of a guerrilla tactic, they assert that his actions in Kansas are clearly representative of terrorist principles in that Brown murdered innocent civilians for the sake of promoting his cause (Lutz, 1043-1044).
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that the controversy surrounding John Brown and his raids within Kansas and Virginia are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Why is this the case? One particular problem facing historians is that a universal definition of “terrorism” does not exist. Until a comprehensive definition is constructed, Brown’s portrayal as a terrorist is likely to continue sparking widespread debates. When historians are forced to develop their own definitions of terrorism, they construct meanings that fit the desires of their own particular research. More specifically, this creates a biased rendition of Brown’s actions since the definition of terrorism is artificially constructed around the needs and biases of each historian.
Finally, as definitions of terrorism and guerrilla warfare continue to change over time, David Reynolds is correct to question the idea of using a modern definition of terrorism on a nineteenth-century event. Just as wars have evolved from the eighteenth-century to the present, so too has the concept of terrorism and political violence. In this sense, it appears wrong to apply modern definitions of terrorism on an event that occurred well over a hundred years ago. To combat this discrepancy, historians need to develop an acceptable definition of terrorism that fits the political and cultural environment of nineteenth-century America, rather than relying on a definition of terrorism that applies solely to the twenty-first century.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Carton, Evan. Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. New York: Free Press, 2006.
Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2011.
Nelson, Truman. The Old Man: John Brown at Harper's Ferry. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.
Blight, David. “John Brown: Triumphant Failure.” The American Prospect 11, no. 9 (2000): 29-48.
Chowder, Ken. “The Father of American Terrorism,” American Heritage 51, no. 1 (2000): 81-91.
Du Bois, W.E. Burghardt. John Brown. New York: International Publishers, 1972.
Etcheson, Nicole. “John Brown, Terrorist?” American Nineteenth Century History 10, no. 1 (2009): 29-48.
Finkelman, Paul. “John Brown: America’s First Terrorist?” Prologue 43, no. 1 (2011): 16-27.
Gilbert, James N. “A Behavioral Analysis of John Brown: Marty or Terrorist?” in Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown, ed. Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
"John Brown's Raid (U.S. National Park Service)." National Parks Service. Accessed April 29, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/articles/john-brown-s-raid.htm.
Joyner, Charles. “Guilty of Holiest Crime: The Passion of John Brown,” in His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, ed. Paul Finkelman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Lutz, Brenda and James M. Lutz. "John Brown as Guerrilla Terrorist," Small Wars & Insurgencies 25 no. 5-6 (2014): 1039-1054.
McGinty, Brian. John Brown’s Trial. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
"Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight." Alexander Boteler's Account. Accessed April 29, 2017. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/jbrown/boteler.html.
Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "John Brown." Encyclopædia Britannica. March 14, 2011. Accessed April 29, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Brown-American-abolitionist.
Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown: 1800-1859, a Biography Fifty Years After. London: Constable, 1910. https://archive.org/details/johnbrownfiftybio00villuoft (accessed: November 15th, 2015).
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Larry Slawson