David Reynolds used the "t" word, terrorist, in one of the quotes in my previous "heritage" post. Was John Brown a terrorist?
One of the most discussed questions about terrorism is how to define it. I won't wrestle with that one here. But it's something of an anachronism - reading current conceptions into a past where they may not apply - to talk about John Brown as a terrorist. For one thing, political "terror" at that time was thought of more as repressive actions by a government, as in the Terror of the French Revolution. The notion of "terrorism" as somebody who throws bombs and tries to assasinate people became familiar in the late 19th century, largely thanks to Russian anarchists.
If we take a "terrorist" to be anyone commiting an act of political violence who's not part of an official governmental army or other institution, Brown was unquestionably a terrorist. If we take terrorism in the current notion of deliberate, random killing of innocents, he doesn't qualify. Even his most controversial act of guerrilla war, the Pottawatomie massacre, was a planned and disciplined action aimed specifically at men involved in some way with the illegitimate pro-slavery government of Kansas. Brown's guerrilla actions, including Pottawatomie and Harpers Ferry, were disciplined actions with clear political goals and targets. None of them involved random killing.
James Gilbert addresses this question in his essay, "A Behavioral Analysis of John Brown: Martyr or Terrorist?" Gilbert illustrates, surely unintentionally, how problematic applying a contemporary notion of "terrorism" to condition in the 1850s in the US really is. He argues that Brown does indeed count as a terrorist. He also writes:
While the violent acts of John Brown in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry were extreme, the episode is far from the sole example of deadly historical American terrorism. Some suggest American violence against the British before the Revolutionary War was our earliest example of terrorism; other authorities cite crimes committed in the name of the agrarian movement immediately following that war. (Russo/Finkelman; 113; my emphasis)
Uh, dude, what about those acts of violence against Britain that were part of the Revolutionary War? The whole thing was criminal in the eyes of the British. And one of the advantages the revolutionaries had was that they used irregular warfare to attack the British formations, the British soldiers being trained to march against similar armies in the field. If we use "terrorism" as describing techniques - like the sabotage, bombing and assassinations that were standard operating procedure for the pro-Allied partisans in occupied Europe in the Second World War - then it's hard to say that "terrorism" in the abstract is bad. It can be used in pursuit of just wars as well as unjust ones.
Conversely, if we define "terrorism" as inherently evil, as in the Bush administration's global war on terrorism (GWOT), then it's hard to avoid contortions like the one in which Gilbert indulges there to avoid hanging the pejorative label of "terrorism" on a "good war" like the American Revolution.
Gilbert bases his labeling of Brown as a terrorist on three motivations that he takes as three main concepts into which the motivation of terrorists can be grouped:
1. Society is sick and cannot be cured by half measures of reform.
2. The state is in itself violent and can be countered and overcome only by violence.
3. The truth of the terrorist cause justifies any action that supports it. While some terrorists recognize no moral law, otherS have their own "higher" morality. (Russo/Finkelman; 111; my emphasis)
I could think of several ways in which this fails to account for the suicide bombings of recent years, the Stern Gang in the Israeli war for independence, the Palestinians fighting today against Israel, and several other situations more recent than 1859.
Gilbert's arguments fitting John Brown into those three categories are, to put the most generous interpretation on them, excessively restricted. More directly, they seem contrived.
In reference to motivation (1), Gilbert points to the fact that Brown wrote the "Provisional Constitution" in 1858 shows that he held a "solid belief that society, particularly a society that would embrace slavery, was sick beyond its own cure". He claims that the Constitution "utterly rejects the legal and moral foundations of the United States". Hogwash.
In fact, Brown's Provisional Constitution largely modeled the US Constitution. It's most dramatic exceptions were its guarantees of full citizenship to blacks and women. It included a few (to our eyes) eccentric moral provisions, as I mentioned in an earlier post. But it was meant as a protest against the existence of slavery - and, not incidentally, against the denial of full rights to women - and was written in the year just following the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court held that under the existing Constitution that no black person, free or slave, could be considered a citizen of the United States. In fact, Brown was distinct from some of the most radical Abolitionists in that he rejected the idea of the free states sece from the Union, a notion much discussed in the 1850s. His guerrilla war scheme which was aborted at Harpers Ferry was meant ultimately to force the Union to suppress the institution of slavery in the South.
His Provisional Constitution even explicitly stated, in all caps, " THESE ARTICLE NOT FOR THE OVERTHROW OF GOV'M'T" and said that the document "shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State Government of the United States and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to Amendment and Repeal". It also explicitly endorsed the existing American flag, whose current version is such a precious idol to our superpatriots today. Gilbert's example to convict Brown of Count One in his terrorism indictment is just silly.
On Count Two, the idea that the state itself is violent, he cites Brown's famous note handed to one of his jailers on his way to the gallows:
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed: it might be done.
Now, Brown couldn't look into the future, but he prophesied correctly on this point. Nor was it simply bitter outburst on his part that he left as a last testament. He had seen what the agents and leaders of the Slave Power had done in Kansas. They intended to take the Territory for slavery, with violence and stolen elections and anything else they could use. We could make counter-factual speculations about how nonviolent resistance might have eventually prevailed in Kansas. But what did in actual history put the pro-democracy and antislavery Free State partisans in a position to have free and honest elections was the willingness of John Brown and other Free State fighters to violently resist the proslavery partisans.
It's also notable here that Gilbert Count Two carries a strong bias toward existing governments. But as his Union sympathies showed, Brown did not want to overthrow the national government. He wanted to do away with the institution of slavery. He was no abstract dreamer, for all his religious idealism. He was very aware that the Buchanan administration was dominated by the Slave Power. But, apart from the conceptual flaws in Gilbert's Count Two, Brown did not want to overthrow the national government. He wanted to protect its democratic character by ridding it of the slavery that was undermining democracy even for white men in the North. And it's simply not accurate to characterize his activities in Kansas as simply trying to overthrow the Territorial government. As we saw in the posts on Kansas, the Lecompton government was an illegitimate government by the standards of the national laws governing the Territory. When Brown returned to Kansas in 1858, he did not pursue guerrilla violence against the slavery partisans, because he could see that legitimate democratic processes were now being protected there.
As to Count Three, John Brown clearly did adhere to a notion of a higher law. How is he different in that way from any other Christian, then or now? And it can't be stressed enough in this context how strongly the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had affected public opinion in the free states. That notorious law allowed any male citizen in a free state to be drafted into a federal slave-hinting posse, under threat of heavy fines for refusing, to hunt down escaped slaves and return them to bondage in the South. (This law also completely overrode any consideration states rights, something the Slave Power was always willing to do in defense of slavery.) If thinking that such a law was horribly unjust and a violations of Christian principles, the will of God, basic democratic rights (of white men), and an offense to the most basic human decency is a sign of terrorist motivation, then Gilbert should have devoted himself to explaining why numerous cities in the North didn't have terrorist violence on some like the levels of Baghdad today.
Gilbert's essay illustrates the hazards of trying to use "terrorism" as normative concept (terrorists bad, good people not terrorists) instead of a description of a technique of irregular warfare. As a normative concept, it's very fuzzy. Which leads Gilbert to some fairly fuzzy results in trying to shoehorn John Brown into a present-day "terrorist" mold.
(See Sources on John Brown for references.)
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.