Barry L. Clark
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John Brown: Prototerrorist
John Brown is a man that has been analyzed variously by historians at different periods.
However the reality is these various views have often been tempered by the social climate
of the time. His enduring legacy seems to be a man vindicated by the march of history;
he has therefore been spared the label terrorist in most modern observations. To many he
represents a necessary evil that spurred positive social change. This of course assumes
that he played more than a bit part in the events that lead to war in 1861.
A more realistic and honest assessment of the man paints him as an individual driven by
religiously inspired ideology. A man that distrusted the government to do that which he
thought was right; a person willing to do violence, commit crimes, and foment terror to
achieve his aims, all for what he believed to be a greater good. In this sense he is really
no different than any terrorist we might compare him to.
In another real sense John Brown cannot be compared directly to 20th or 21st century
terrorist, as these individuals and groups have the benefit of an evolutionary method of
resistance, violence and warfare. John Brown probably considered himself a guerrilla
fighter or a revolutionary however his methods and tactics do not fully fit this mode
either. It is safe then to state that John Brown was in fact a prototerrorist, an
amalgamation of the guerrilla fighter/revolutionary he envisioned and the terrorist that
would evolve in the 20th century.
The question of whether Brown and was a terrorist or not is best answered by analyzing
his actions. For this purpose his raid on Harper’s Ferry is sufficient. Suppose that today
a group of armed men raided a government arms depot, killed innocent civilians, took
hostages and engaged the police and military all with the intent of using the arms they
hoped to steal to start an open insurrection. Would the media not term this group as
terrorist? (Jenkins, 1996) These actions and the actors that perpetrated them would
certainly be labeled as terrorist, no matter which side of the right-left divide their
The assertion that John Brown was a terrorist is supported by analyzing three factors;
advocacy of terror to achieve political objectives, ideology-based action, violent acts and
intentions. I will examine each of these factors in establishing my conclusion.
Advocacy of Terror to Achieve Political Objectives
One of Brown’s apologists, quoting him at a Utica anti-slavery meeting, establishes
Brown’s proclivity to proclaim violence and a necessary solution to the problems he
perceived. Rev. H.D. Fisher quoted Brown thusly; “without shedding of blood, there is no
remission of sins”. (Fisher, 1897) Here we have a succinct and clear picture into the mind,
ideology and objectives of Brown. The symbolism of blood remission of sins we shall
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discuss later. Taken in the context of the purpose and intent of the meeting, it is clear that
Brown saw only violence as a solution to the slave issue.
In 1857 Brown contracted with a forgemaster in Connecticut to construct 954 pikes that
he apparently intended to issue to his army of slave insurgents. (National Museum of
History) There can be no doubt that these weapons were intended to conduct violence.
Brown’s actions in Kansas in 1856 and 1858 were violent acts intended to cause terror in
his real and perceived enemies for the express purpose of influencing the population to
achieve a political objective. His actions involved many of the elements common to
modern domestic terrorist and included; murder, robbery and kidnapping.
It is clear that the sole and express purpose of Brown’s activities in Kansas were related
to his desire to influence the outcome of the slave versus free-state vote. His violent acts
were directed against slave sympathizers, those he assumed to be sympathizers and in one
case politicians. His efforts were successful, as shown in The Congressional Globe,
families did move out of Kansas after Browns attacks. (Rives, 1859)
Brown’s terrorist organization existed in two forms, one in the physical world and the
other in his hopes, dreams and plans. Brown’s sons and son-in-laws preceded him to
Kansas in 1839 and were, as Fisher described, “doing valiant battle”.(Fisher, 1897) In the
context of the events occurring at the time in Kansas it is impossible to assume he meant
anything other than violent acts.
It is impossible to state positively that Brown ever had an organization of supporters that
fully understood his grand intentions. In fact, his approach to organization building
seems rather pragmatic and calculating. He used various anti-slavery and abolitionist
organizations in New York and Ohio to raise funds and procure weapons prior to his
actions in Kansas. He relied almost exclusively on the company of men that his sons had
gathered in Kansas to perform his acts of violence. The core of his original group was in
fact his family. Later he was supported by men that may or may not have known his full
After the Kansas murders Brown returned east and set about raising money from several
sources to fund his future plans. Eventually six wealthy individuals came to provide the
bulk of his funding. In a sense Brown’s organizational acumen, building support in small
measures across a wide range of sympathizers is akin to techniques used by the IRA and
many Middle-Eastern terrorist groups. Not everyone that supports various political or
charitable groups that ultimately support terrorist groups fully understands the bigger
plan, they simply agree on the portions of the plan with which they are presented. Brown
was very successful at garnering support in such a way. It is insightful to read Brown’s
own words during his fund raising tours. The picture that he painted for those that would
listen was of a Kansas torn by aggression and violence committed almost exclusively by
pro-slavery supporters. Brown’s pleas for support and money to continue his efforts in
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Kansas excluded any real mention of the true activities he had and would pursue there.
Brown’s actions were also very similar to the IRA during the period 1916-1922 in
another significant way. Brown attempted to establish credibility for his eventual actions
by establishing a shadow government in 1858 complete with a provisional constitution
and a Declaration of Slave Rights, with Brown himself named as the commander-in-chief
of the provisional army.(Landon, 1921) These are the acts of revolutionaries when
enough of the population openly supports the cause to allow for a guerrilla campaign, in
the case of the IRA in the early 20th century and John Brown and the Chatham
Convention in 1858 these actions were more hopes than reality. While a comparison of
the Chatham Convention to the Irish Provisional Republican government is at times a
stretch if conducted point by point, it is not unreasonable to accept that the IRA was
eventually successful in achieving de jure status for their formerly shadow government
by means of terrorism. The road John Brown had to travel from dream to reality was
indeed much longer but not outside the real of possibility.
It is interesting to note that while Brown had many things in common with the IRA,
particularly in his approach toward seeking legitimacy by establishing a shadow legal
body, he also has something in common with the Aryan Republican Army, ARA.
Brown’s ideology was based upon a vision of good and evil and tempered with a
concentration on race. The ARA based its model on the IRA, which perhaps was in some
way influenced by Brown. This is of course unproven but terrorism is an evolutionary
phenomenon, perhaps Michael Collins and his compatriots read of Brown. In any event
the ARA certainly saw the world through a narrow lens, they operated in the same areas
that Brown carried out his Kansas work and they styled themselves as an army although
they were merely a small group.
The ideology that drove Brown is inexorably tied to his interpretation of his religion.
Symbolism of blood sacrifice and atonement filled his speeches and played directly to the
Christian nature of many abolitionists. Brown perverted the Christian religion into a
pragmatic ends justify the means ideology. He fully accepted that it was not only
permissible to commit a little evil to achieve a greater good; he saw it as a duty.
Brown was a Congregationalist and as such a Calvinist. It is not a tremendous leap of
faith to accept that the path between a dogmatic belief in clearly articulated theological
points helped in the development of Brown as a man that saw the world in terms of good
and evil. This is a common requirement for ideologies that support terrorist activities.
Performing evil against evil is a form of good. The combination of a fundamental,
dogmatic view of the world and religion combined with his demonstrated capability to
see evil around him in many ways puts Brown in the same category as pro-life terrorist
that perceive violent acts against abortionist as a form of good.
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During the closing statements of his trial John Brown spoke about the religious ideology
that drove him to action
I see a book kissed which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New
Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men
should do unto me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to
remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act
up to that instruction. (Brown, 1859)
Brown twisted the words and the meaning of certain passages of the New Testament
related to the “Golden Rule” principle into an aggressive meaning. The passages that
Brown bases this ideology on are from the books of Luke and Matthew:
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do
ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12
"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."
(Luke 6:31 KJV)
A key divergence of Brown’s interpretation of these passages and most theologians is the
word “should”, which read in context, makes these passages more a command to treat
others as you would yourself want to be treated. Certainly Brown stood bravely at the
hour of his death and acknowledged that he should die. It cannot also be said that he
thought that all men should die violent deaths, not based upon further readings of the
teachings he based his ideology on. Clearly his ideology was religion based but cherry-
picked at best.
We see a clear example of one point in which Brown’s divergent interpretation of
Biblical principles enabled him to further develop and entire ideology that separated the
world in to good and evil, allowed him to determine who should and should not die, and
provided justification for the broader campaign of terror he wished to unleash.
Violent Acts and Intentions
John Brown put ideology into violent action first in Kansas. Affidavits presented in
Congress show that Brown led a party that robbed and murdered several individuals in
May of 1856.(Rives, 1859) While these acts alone might be enough to certainly proclaim
Brown a murderer they are not enough to elevate him to the level of a terrorist; for these
same sorts of actions were occurring all over Kansas on both side of the ideological
divide. What separates Brown from his contemporary purveyors of Kansas mayhem was
his vocal declarations of his intent to go to Kansas specifically to incite bloodshed. It
could fairly be said of most others that contributed to the chaos of Bloody Kansas that
they moved to the territory for other reasons and were engulfed in the violence by virtue
of their particular political persuasion.
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The actions of Brown’s company at Harper’s Ferry were certainly an insight into the
mind of Brown and the degree to which he separated the guilty from the innocent. The
first person killed at the arsenal was a free black man; potentially presenting a foreboding
image of the depth and breadth of carnage that would have ensued if Brown’s
insurrection had gained any traction at all. One can only assume that if Brown was
willing to kill a black man that stood in his way, no reservation at all would have been
shown to whites all across the South that in anyway supported the institution of slavery.
Browns vision of justice and his ideological interpretation of right and wrong made him a
extremely dangerous had he actually succeeded at Harper’s Ferry in instigating a revolt..
Little can be concretely known about Brown’s true intention for his insurrection. He had
elaborate plans for mountain fortresses rimming the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
Little else is truly known about his plans of intentions for these fortresses. Brown knew
full well the carnage that ensued after successful slave revolts in the Caribbean. Perhaps
he believed he could bring order to the chaos. On the other hand, perhaps he did not
believe that necessary and instead welcomed the spilling of blood on a monumental scale.
His words seem to indicate the latter; he believed that through blood atonement was
John Brown has been vindicated in the broad scope of historical interpretation as a
terrorist for two primary reasons. One, eventually out of diplomatic and military
necessity, the Union eventually acquiesced to his abolitionist cause in 1863. Subsequent
histories of the war have often cited the desire to abolish slavery as the primary cause of
the war, not the pragmatic aftereffect that it was in actuality. This has contributed to the
notion that if the war was thus fought and if it was a just war, then John Brown must have
been just in his actions. Second, people generally agree that slavery is universally
unethical, particularly if viewed exclusively through 21st century eyes. This ignores the
fact that slavery was a problem that was not easily solved, was an institution that had
existed since the dawn of man and was supported in the very book Brown used as the
justification for his actions. It is too easy to pragmatically apply modern ethics to a
complicated social and economic problem and come to the conclusion that Brown’s
actions were justified. For these two reasons Brown is seldom termed a terrorist and
often called a hero.
Laying subjective ethics aside and ignoring the socio-economic realities of 19th century
slavery, and the potential reality that slavery would and was slowly disappearing via a
natural death based solely on economics we can clearly establish that Brown was in fact a
terrorist. His actions in Kansas were akin to many other terrorist groups we might
compare his group to. Brown himself declared that the express purpose of his work in
Kansas was to influence the political process and it is undeniable that that “work”
involved terror and violence. His grand plan for a massive slave insurrection began with
an event that if it occurred today, by any group right or left, with similarly stated
objectives would certainly be deemed as that of terrorist.
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The matter is simple, whether Brown was the spark that lit the fire of secession and war
and eventual abolition of slavery is debatable. Other potential outcomes and ways the
institution of slavery might have ended are debatable. What is not really debatable is the
application of the term terrorist to John Brown, right or wrong, vindicated by history or
not, his actions were that of a terrorist.
Jenkins, P. (1996)
Armies of God John Brown and the American Terrorist Tradition
Pennsylvania State University
Retrieved 26 February 2007
Rev. Fisher, H.D. (1897).
Gun and The Gospel: Early Kansas and Chaplain Fisher (Electronic Version)
Medical Century Company
The Price of Freedom: John Brown’s Pike, National Museum of History
Retrieved February 26 2007
The Congressional Globe The Official Proceedings of Congress, Published by John C.
Rives, Washington, D. C. Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1st Session, New Series...No. 7,
Tuesday, December 13, 1859, pages 105-106 (Electronic Version)
Fred Landon (1921)
The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Apr., 1921), pp. 174-182 (Electronic
Brown, J (1857)
Territorial Kansas Online John Brown Collection, #299, Box 1,
Folder 21 (Electronic Version)
Address of John Brown (1859)
Retrieved 24 February 2007
(Electronic copy of original)
Bible, King James Version