Was John Brown the First “Domestic Terrorist”?

John Brown, the famously violent abolitionist, attacked a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. He took possession of its armory, and fully intended to use the weapons from the armory to arm slaves for a revolt. He was stopped by the U.S. Army (led by then Colonel Robert E. Lee), tried in a local civil court, found guilty, and hanged.

As much as people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, ((The father of American Transcendentalism wrote, “John Brown will make the gallows as glorious as the Cross.” Not so much.)) Victor Hugo, ((The famous French novelist wrote an open letter pleading for John Brown’s pardon. He also sketched the famous picture of John Brown’s body hanging from the gallows which I used for this article.)) and the writer of “John Brown’s Body” ((This song has an interesting history. The music for it was eventually used for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but the lyrics were all re-written because many of them were considered coarse and unliterary.)) tried to immortalize him after his death, he died like any common criminal.

Fast forward to now. If John Brown did now what he had done then, what would we call him? A domestic terrorist. And under the Patriot Act, he could be tried in a military court as an enemy combatant. Forget that. They might just drone strike him down. His body wouldn’t be “mouldering in the grave.” It would be smoldering in a crater.

Many modern historians have revisited the John Brown story and re-interpreted it through a modern cultural and political lens. They actually do call John Brown a domestic terrorist—the first in the United States. Civil Rights leaders don’t like this much, as you would expect. John Brown is sort of a hero to them, so it’s hard for them to hear him called a domestic terrorist. But that is basically what he was, especially by modern standards. Ken Chowder outlines the parallels:

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.

John Brown fought for what he thought was a good cause. He also believed God was on his side:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. . . . That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to 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. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done! ((From “John Brown’s Last Speech,” http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html))

And Timothy McVeigh also thought his cause was just. McVeigh was a former soldier, and he considered his act against the U.S. government to be in keeping with his oath to defend the Constitution. He wrote to a boyhood friend:

I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic and I will. And I will because not only did I swear to, but I believe in what it stands for in every bit of my heart, soul and being.

I know in my heart that I am right in my struggle, Steve. I have come to peace with myself, my God and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets, Steve. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.

McVeigh died largely the same way that Brown did. He was tried, convicted, and executed (much less swiftly than Brown). Unlike Brown, McVeigh did not get a public execution, though he asked for one. He wanted badly to be another John Brown. But he wasn’t. John Brown was a domestic terrorist and then became a martyr. McVeigh started and ended as a terrorist—perhaps even merely a criminal.

There is another crucial difference. Unlike Brown, McVeigh was convicted on federal, not local, charges. ((Interestingly, Brown was convicted for “treason against Virginia,” not treason against the United States.)) The state of Oklahoma would have charged McVeigh for the murders, but decided against it because he had already been convicted on federal charges and sentenced to death. Oklahoma would have had her chance to convict and sentence McVeigh if it hadn’t been for the fact that the trial was moved to a District (federal) court early on. The War Between the States had already decided the issue. In 1859, the states and local governments had sole responsibility for the execution of justice. After the War, that power was quickly shifting away from the local government to the central powers in Washington. And we can detect that shift by the transformation of the term “domestic terrorism.”

Both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Harpers Ferry raid happened before 9/11, but you can already see that the groundwork had been laid for a centralization of the American concept of crime. But a fundamental shift occurred on 9/11. The  terms “terrorist” and “enemy combatant” have now been re-defined. “Domestic terrorism” is applied to many acts that have no business being in federal jurisdiction. This shift has had a profound effect on our civil liberties. More on that here.

11 responses

  1. He may be praised on every corner for his dedication and his courage, but imagination the carnage if he had not been stopped.  Many whites would have died but most of the slaves would have been killed and the bondage they were used to would have seem good after this occurred to those who survived. John Brown probably would have died much earlier than he did.

  2. I certainly pray the next administration is able to right the multitude or wrongs being committed against America in the present Obama administration. But whether sooner or later, there will come a time when people will have to decide again if disobeying those currently in charge and potentially being labeled a terrorist for it will be worth it to stand for what they believe in. I pray it doesn’t come to that in my lifetime or my children’s. But history says it will come and this administration and ones like it would see it come sooner than later.

    • LetsFindOut If we survive this four year term, and are able to get a Christian president, it will take us many years to get back to the old America, even if it continual progress with GOD at the helm. Of course HE could do it immediately but I don’t think that is what will happen.

  3. JOHN BROWN helped to end SLAVERY! 
    He gave his life for those who needed saving. 
    Jesus said that it is the greatest thing that you can give…

    By the point of this article it is obvious that it comes from a wanna-be slave owner.
    As for you guys that feel threatened by President Obama.
    It was CHAINY and his henchman that almost sunk us all.
    Oh ye with short memories…

    • A lot of people praise John Brown, I do not know what was in his heart when he attempted to start a war in this country, maybe his thoughts were pure but certainly foolish. Evidently GOD did not approve, because he did not allow success in his attempt and he had to die for it. You may not compare this with JESUS  CHRIST giving of HIS life for us, but he  did die because he trying to cause many lives being lost both for bond and free. It would have a horrible carnage of blood lost. JESUS never promoted blood shed and that would have been a bloodbath.

      • Evermyrtle 
        When did God speak to you and explain what he considered success concerning John Brown? Did he specifically state that He was not happy with Brown?
        Maybe God saw the evil of slavery and decided that one martyr (Brown) would be enough to “get the ball rolling” on that abolishment of the institution, or do you have a memo from God stating otherwise? 
        I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but, apparently you have a direct connection (can I get his e-mail contact?).

        • buzz13 Evermyrtle Do you really have proof that I said anything about GOD speaking to me about John Brown? You should go back to your troll buddy, I think he is lonesome for you, I am not. You remind me of that mosquito that keeps swarming around me, a pest he is. I favor the mosquito!!!

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