The Father of American Terrorism

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On the left is a group of historical writers and teachers called Allies for Freedom. This group believes that the truth about the Harpers Ferry raid has been buried by the conventions of history. Its informal leader, Jean Libby, author of John Brown Mysteries, says, “What we think is that John Brown was a black nationalist. His ultimate goal was the creation of an independent black nation.” The Allies for Freedom believes, too, that far from being the folly of a lunatic, Brown’s plan was not totally unworkable, that it came much closer to succeeding than historians have pictured. Libby thinks that many slaves and free blacks did join the uprising—perhaps as many as fifty. Why would history conceal the fact of active black participation in Harpers Ferry? “The South was anxious to cover up any indication that the raid might have been successful,” Libby says, “so slaves would never again be tempted to revolt.”

Go a good deal farther to the left, and there has long been admiration for John Brown. In 1975 the Weather Underground put out a journal called Osawatomie. In the late 1970s a group calling itself the John Brown Brigade engaged in pitched battles with the Ku Klux Klan; in one confrontation in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, five members of the John Brown Brigade were shot and killed. Writers also continue to draw parallels between John Brown and virtually any leftist who uses political violence, including the Symbionese Liberation Army (the kidnappers of Patty Hearst in the 1970s), the Islamic terrorists who allegedly set off a bomb in the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

At the same time, John Brown is frequently compared to those at the far opposite end of the political spectrum. Right-to-life extremists have bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors; they have, in short, killed for a cause they believed in, just as John Brown did. Paul Hill was convicted of murdering a doctor who performed abortions; it was, Hill said, the Lord’s bidding: “There’s no question in my mind that it was what the Lord wanted me to do, to shoot John Britton to prevent him from killing unborn children.” If that sounds quite like John Brown, it was no accident. From death row Hill wrote to the historian Dan Stowell that Brown’s “example has and continues to serve as a source of encouragement to me....Both of us looked to the scriptures for direction, [and] the providential similarities between the oppressive circumstances we faced and our general understandings of the appropriate means to deliver the oppressed have resulted in my being encouraged to pursue a path which is in many ways similar to his.” Shortly before his execution Hill wrote that “the political impact of Brown’s actions continues to serve as a powerful paradigm in my understanding of the potential effects the use of defensive force may have for the unborn.”

Nor was the murder Hill committed the only right-wing violence that has been compared to Brown’s. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was a frontal attack on a U.S. government building, just like the Harpers Ferry raid. Antiabortion murders, government bombings, anarchist bombs in the mail—nearly every time political violence surfaces, it gets described in the press as a part of a long American tradition of terrorism, with John Brown as a precursor and hero, a founding father of principled violence.

He gets compared to anarchists, leftist revolutionaries, and right-wing extremists. The spinning of John Brown, in short, is still going strong. But what does that make him? This much, at least, is certain: John Brown is a vital presence for all sorts of people today. In February PBS’s The American Experience is broadcasting a ninety-minute documentary about him. Russell Banks’s novel Cloudsplitter was a critical success and a bestseller as well. On the verge of his two hundredth birthday (this May 9), John Brown is oddly present. Perhaps there is one compelling reason for his revival in this new millennium: Perhaps the violent, excessive, morally torn society John Brown represents so aptly was not just his own antebellum America but this land, now.