Since the meanings of these words have changed over the years, it is sometimes difficult to be able to apply them across the board throughout history. For example, the modern-day terrorist is an entirely different creature than the terrorist of the 1990s.
But with that being said, could one contend that terrorism is terrorism; no matter how you define it? The ends never justify the means. We often look to history for answers to these difficult questions, but sometimes history can only provide us with more questions.
Such is the case when the National Archives asked the question, “John Brown: America’s First Terrorist?”
Who Was John Brown?
John Brown stands as one of the more controversial figures in American History. Often labeled as a “Radical Abolitionist”, Brown was a staunch anti-slavery advocate and believed the only way to end the violent institution of slavery was with violence against pro-slavery families and politicians.
Brown’s most famous act in the name of slavery abolition was the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. He and 21 of his followers attacked and successfully captured a federal arsenal there. His plan was to use the weapons, ammunition, and supplies housed in the arsenal to arm the slaves to incite a slave rebellion.
Though he took command the arsenal, he was captured during the raid, arrested, and later hanged for the crime. During his trial, Brown alluded to the idea that he was not being executed for the raid on the arsenal, but rather for his anti-slavery beliefs.
“Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends–either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class–and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
However, the raid on Harper’s Ferry was not the only crime Brown and his men committed. In 1856, Brown and his men stormed the homes of several families believed to be pro-slavery. During the attack, Brown and his men killed five men and boys all believed to be unarmed at the time.
Shortly after, Brown and his men stormed the home of a prominent slave owner in Missouri. During the incident, he freed the slaves and killed the owner. Though Brown often referred to his followers as an army, more often than not, Brown and his men targeted civilians in a number of guerrilla-style attacks. It is at this point where historians often disagree on Brown’s place in history.
Hero or Terrorist?
Can Brown be considered as a hero or a terrorist? Historians are divided on how to describe John Brown.
For example, in John Brown: America’s First Terrorist, author Paul Finkelman contends that Brown was not a terrorist due to the fact that he killed only the slave owners and left the women and children alive. “This was not terrorism, but a fact of warfare…” Yet, George Novak of the Workers’ Liberty disagrees and plainly states, “John Brown was a revolutionary terrorist.”
There is no denying that John Brown’s cause to end slavery in America was a noble one. His eye for eye approach toward unarmed civilians often overshadowed this noble cause, but is that enough to label him as a terrorist?