Monday, February 14, 2011

John Brown - Hero or Terrorist?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The John Brown story is well known - I will not get too in to details here. I will in a later Cosmic America's Civil War show, however - thanks to a special request by my friend Lori (@LoriJantzi).

For the sake of this post - John Brown was a white abolitionist who in 1859 attempted to start an armed slave uprising by first seizing the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Virginia. His plan was to then move through the countryside arming black people (that he and his band had liberated) as he went - killing anyone who stood in his way. Suffice to say - his plan failed. Brown was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and hanged on December 2, 1859.

Three cheers for John Brown! He laid down his life for the noblest of causes - abolition. To us - this seems worthy of praise. In 1859, people lauded his actions too. Quite a few northerners - especially abolitionists - came down in favor of his raid. Yes - Brown's attempted slave revolt was of the violent sort - people were killed. But the cause, to some, justified the actions.

But lets take a look - just for a second - at the other side of the coin. Brown violently seized a United States military installation in an attempt to incite insurrection. He broke the law big time - and did it on government property. Now I know that calling Brown a terrorist would be a bit of an anachronism. That is a 20th/21st century term. But what he did, by definition , was an act of terrorism. Brown - in very short order - became a domestic enemy of the United States.

Mine is a tough...and controversial question to ask. Did America need a John Brown to act as a catalyst? Did the era need the spark to push a volatile issue in to war - and ultimately emancipation? Perhaps...but the states may have been heading in that direction - war -  already. We will never know what would have happened had Brown not staged his raid.

We do know this, however. Brown's 1859 raid put the slavery issue in people's faces more so than any other single event - both in the North and the South. And I suppose for that we owe him a debt of gratitude.

I am very interested in your comments - what do you think about John Brown? And by the way - in case you are wondering where I come down on this one, let's just say..."his truth is marching on."




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Harris and Keith Harris, Robin . Robin said: RT @MKeithHarris: John Brown – Hero or Terrorist? [...]

  2. Hero or Terrorist? Whether one considers John Brown a hero, or terrorist, depends in part on how one handles the vagaries of contradiction and hypocrisy [more to come].

    Indeed, the abolitionist cause finds few detractors, north or south of the Mason Dixon line, in the Twenty First century. So, let's say that ending slavery is/was and forever more shall be the righteous thing to do! But, remember first, that slavery in Virginia in 1859 was NOT illegal. However, breaking into an armory, arming citizens [or technically, non-citizens] against one's government for the sole purpose of maiming, or killing one's detractors WAS illegal. To believe that Brown was a Hero might taint one as a hypocrite [again, more to come].

    Was John Brown a Hero or a Terrorist? A Terrorist! I vote, righteously.

  3. That which is legal is not necessarily right, or moral. That's especially true when in it comes to this country's tormented history regarding race. The entire Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was focused around challenging unjust and immoral laws.

    I'm no fan of John Brown, and I cannot condone his violence. But the notion that one has to choose between his being a noble hero or base villain is a fool's errand. Life was far more complex than that in 1859, and it remains so in 2011.

  4. Thanks for the comments! I was really hoping to get something going here....and it appears as though it is just getting started. John Brown is a tough one for me - because I support his cause, but believe him an extremist. The question is - was the time right for extremism? Perhaps. Good points guys :)

  5. Ah, then, Andy. You make my point, actually. One would be a fool to brand Brown a "Hero" - which WAS, after all, the question; i.e. Was John Brown a "Hero" or a "Terrorist"?

    So? We obviously agree...John Brown was a terrorist, and abolition was a just cause. The question wasn't whether slavery is just - or not - we seem to agree that it wasn't or isn't - now or then.

    Let's not forget - the question and ensuring debate is to be centered on John Brown and whether or not he was a terrorist - and - like I said, in MY opinion - he was. ~*~

  6. Emily, your argument that "slavery was not illegal" remains troublesome as a justification for your position.

  7. Oh Dear! I love being the provocateur as much as the next historian - but if you are leading with the assumption that I justifying either (a) slavery; or (b) stealing armaments from the KNOW what they say about 'assumptions'. If you go back to my original statement and put your finger under each word as you read, I think you will be able to deduce that I am for neither. Put another way, I am saying that the UN-righteous Virginians were the ones who made slavery legal and stealing armaments illegal. That 'issue' progressed - i.e. slavery came to its rightful end. The constant is/and remains the illegality of the theft of government armaments - which makes Brown a Terrorist in my book. Attack the question, Mr. Hall! Attack the question!!

  8. So what exactly were you saying when you wrote, "But, remember first, that slavery in Virginia in 1859 was NOT illegal. However, breaking into an armory, arming citizens [or technically, non-citizens] against one’s government for the sole purpose of maiming, or killing one’s detractors WAS illegal."

    I don't understand your contrast here. It really does seem like you're assessing Brown solely on who was breaking the law at that particular time and place.

    In your recent post you added, "The constant is/and remains the illegality of the theft of government armaments – which makes Brown a Terrorist in my book."

    My original point remains -- that which is legal is not necessarily right, or just, or moral. To judge someone a terrorist or a criminal because they broke the law is, again, particularly problematic when it comes to this country's history on race. As I noted earlier, the key events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s were largely based on intentionally breaking local laws that were seen as morally wrong -- lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, and so on. Those actions were, under the law at the time, criminal acts, though obviously of a non-violent sort.

    John Brown was a violent and unstable man; he had been for a long time before Harper's Ferry. I don't condone his tactics at all. He was a murderer, period, full stop. But when it comes to the complex historical nexus of slavery and abolition, simply dismissing him as a terrorist because he broke the law seems deeply, deeply shallow.

  9. I meant that in 1859, in Virginia, slavery was legal. If I'm wrong about that - for goodness sake - correct me. Virginians HAD chosen to ALLOW slavery in their state, right? Stating a fact doesn't cloak one in its cloth - which is your assumption about me and where you might have gone off-track.

    And, One doesn't 'simply dismiss' someone for being a Terrorist.

    But, Congratulations to Keith for bringing together two people who are interested in Civil War history who both agree that Brown absolutely WAS a terrorist...Can you imagine the fur that would fly if someone had stepped up to condone Brown's breaking into an armament and distributing government arms for the sake of unPeace-ably overturning laws that it [seemingly] took a War to expunge? Gosh!

  10. One last thing [if I may attempt to have the last word... ;] Your website is Truly Masterful. Congratulations! ~*~ Emily

  11. thanks Emily :)
    I think the best way to describe JB is to call him a zealot - and I applaud his zeal. I do believe that extreme actions are sometimes necessary. Even when defying what is legal. Many people at the time agreed. Heck - they wrote songs about the guy! So in a certain respect I come down on the side of John Brown. On the other hand - attacking a federal installation is a tough thing to support. And he did commit treason by definition - something that I do not approve of. This is still a tough question - worthy of debate. Perhaps I will revisit it in the future.
    Thanks soooo much and I am really glad you enjoy the blog. Your comments are always welcome :)