The Father of American Terrorism


Second: He killed in cold blood. Brown was a violent man, but he lived in increasingly violent times. Slavery itself was of course a violent practice. In 1831 Nat Turner led seventy slaves to revolt; they killed fifty-seven white men, women, and children. A few years later a clergyman named Elijah Lovejoy was gunned down for speaking out against slavery. By the 1850s another distinguished clergyman, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, could lead a mob to the federal courthouse in Boston and attack the place with axes and guns. “I can only make my life worth living,” Higginson vowed, “by becoming a revolutionist.” During the struggle in Kansas Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was blithely shipping Sharps rifles west; “there are times,” the famous preacher said, “when self-defense is a religious duty.” By the late fifties, writes the historian James Stewart, even Congress was “a place where fist fights became common … a place where people came armed … a place where people flashed Bowie knives.” On February 5, 1858, a brawl broke out between North and South in the House of Representatives; congressmen rolled on the floor, scratching and gouging each other.

Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre was directly connected to this national chaos. On the very day Brown heard about the sacking of Lawrence, another disturbing report reached him from Washington: A Southern congressman had attacked Sen. Charles Sumner, a fierce abolitionist, on the floor of Congress, caning him almost to death for insulting the South. When the news got to Brown’s campsite, according to his son Salmon, “the men went crazy— crazy. It seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch.” Brown ordered his men to sharpen their broadswords and set off toward Pottawatomie, the creek whose name still stains his reputation.

So it is that “Brown is simply part of a very violent world,” according to the historian Paul Finkelman. At Pottawatomie, Finkelman says, “Brown was going after particular men who were dangerous to the very survival of the free-state settlers in the area.” But Dennis Frye has a less analytical (and less sympathetic) reaction: “Pottawatomie was cold-blooded murder. [It was] killing people up close based on anger and vengeance.”

To Bruce Olds, the author of Raising Holy Hell, a 1995 novel about Brown, Pottawatomie was an example of conscious political terrorism: “Those killings took place in the middle of the night, in the dark—that was on purpose. In his writings, [Brown] uses the word ‘terror’ and the word ‘shock.’ He intended to produce both of those, and he did.”

Maybe Pottawatomie was insane, and maybe it was not. But what about that Harpers Ferry plan—a tiny band attacking the U.S. government, hoping to concoct a revolution that would carry across the South? Clearly that was crazy.

Elements on both the far left and the far right are at this moment vitally interested in his story.

Yes and no. If it was crazy, it was not unique. Dozens of people, often bearing arms, had gone South to rescue slaves. Secret military societies flourished on both sides, plotting to expand or destroy the system of slavery by force. Far from being the product of a singular cracked mind, the plan was similar to a number of others, including one by a Boston attorney named Lysander Spooner. James Horton, a leading African-American history scholar, offers an interesting scenario. “Was Brown crazy to assume he could encourage slave rebellion?...Think about the possibility of Nat Turner well-armed, well-equipped....Nat Turner might have done some pretty amazing things,” Horton says. “It was perfectly rational and reasonable for John Brown to believe he could encourage slaves to rebel.”

But the question of Brown’s sanity still provokes dissension among experts. Was he crazy? “He was obsessed,” Bruce Olds says, “he was fanatical, he was monomaniacal, he was a zealot, and...psychologically unbalanced.” Paul Finkelman disagrees: Brown “is a bad tactician, he’s a bad strategist, he’s a bad planner, he’s not a very good general—but he’s not crazy.”

Some believe that there is a very particular reason why Brown’s reputation as a madman has clung to him. Russell Banks and James Horton make the same argument. “The reason white people think he was mad,” Banks says, “is because he was a white man and he was willing to sacrifice his life in order to liberate black Americans.” “We should be very careful,” Horton says, “about assuming that a white man who is willing to put his life on the line for black people is, of necessity, crazy.”

Perhaps it is reasonable to say this: A society where slavery exists is by nature one where human values are skewed. America before the Civil War was a violent society, twisted by slavery. Even sober and eminent people became firebrands. John Brown had many peculiarities of his own, but he was not outside his society; to a great degree, he represented it, in its many excesses.

The past, as always, continues to change, and the spinning of John Brown’s story goes on today. The same events—the raid on Harpers Ferry or the Pottawatomie Massacre—are still seen in totally different ways. What is perhaps most remarkable is that elements at both the left and right ends of American society are at this moment vitally interested in the story of John Brown.