“Considering his Harper’s Ferry raid, was John Brown a terrorist?”
Last Saturday Lisa and I visited the Adair cabin and John Brown museum in Osawatomie, Kansas. There isn’t a lot to the two-room cabin and the shelter that surrounds it, but we enjoyed the diversion. In one room, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Adairs recounted stories about John Brown and her progenitors while in period dress. In the other room was the middle-aged amateur horistorian with extensive knowledge of weaponry and trinkets that every museum seems obliged to have. I asked him my question about John Brown.
I debated whether to ask, since it could be considered inflamatory by people who clearly love him, but it seemed timely to find out how people feel about a man who fomented revolution based on a narrow interpretation of religious scripture, who sought to be a martyr to his socio-political cause, and who had no problem killing civilians for a cause.
I personally think that his actions in Kansas — where he engaged in what we euphemistically call “frontier violence” — could go either way. In 1855, Kansas had two territorial governments that were in active war with each other. Neither side could defends its partisans, and the federal government was reluctant to intervene at the risk of producing schism within the union. Brown saw himself as avenging wrongs against free-staters, blacks, and the laws of God. Some actions were defensive, but he also descended upon and killed five pro-slavery settlers, perpetuating a cycle of violence. The “outlaw” Jesse james did much the same thing for the pro-slavery side.
Seizing the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia, falls into that category that we call “political violence.” These actors are variously called freedom fighters, terrorists, liberators, and mujahedin. Brown endeavored to create a slave uprising, cause the Virginia government to fall, and change the legal landscape through direct, violent action. In our time, this attack has an ideological and emotional equivalent in Timothy McVeigh‘s attack on the Oklahoma City federal building.
“A terrorist? Well, there was so much violence in Kansas at the time, that I don’t think you can single him out as a terrorist. He was a warrior, who employed violence in defending his cause.”
It seems that if we perceive the cause as just, we’re very willing to excuse actions that we criticize in others.