"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Osawatomie Notebook--
John Brown, "Presentism," and the Notion of "Terrorism"

Grady Atwater

John Brown is either labeled a terrorist or a freedom fighter, and Brown’s choice to utilize violence to work to abolish slavery in the United States is central to the debate over whether he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter. It is important to note that the word "terrorist" is mainly a modern term that is commonly used today to describe a private citizen who utilizes violence to combat a real or perceived evil in society. John Brown was not viewed necessarily as a terrorist by his contemporaries, but slave holders and proslavery advocates primarily viewed John Brown as a violent bandit; peaceful abolitionists viewed Brown as a morally incorrect extremist, and Brown’s supporters viewed him as a freedom fighter.

“Presentism” is a term that means applying the standards of the present to the people and situations of the past, and to label John Brown a terrorist is to use a mainly modern term to describe John Brown’s 19th century abolitionist crusade. Certainly, John Brown’s militant abolitionist crusade was condemned by slaveholders and proslavery advocates, but Brown was viewed as more of a violent bandit than a terrorist by his contemporary detractors.

Peaceful abolitionists worked to end slavery via political means, and when John Brown engaged in violence against slaveholders and their supporters, he brought unwanted negative press and the militant wrath of proslavery militia down on them in Kansas Territory. Peaceful abolitionists constantly tried to convince Brown to cease his violence against slaveholders and their supporters. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., was the final death knoll for the peaceful abolitionist’s efforts to abolish slavery, and thus peaceful abolitionists viewed Brown as a morally incorrect extremist when he utilized violence as part of his abolitionist crusade.

The author Grady Atwater, is
a life time scholar & lecturer
on the John Brown theme
John Brown’s admirers viewed his militant abolitionist crusade as a morally justifiable action because he was committing violence against slaveholders and proslavery advocates, who in the moral view of Brown’s admirers, were so obstinately morally corrupt that violence against them was morally justifiable. Brown’s admirers believed that the only way to convince slaveholders and their supporters to give up their slaves and the idea that slavery was a morally viable concept was via intimidation and violence. Therefore, when John Brown engaged in violence against slaveholders and their supporters, Brown’s admirers viewed him as a freedom fighter.

John Brown was not a terrorist by the standards of his day. To label John Brown a terrorist is to view a 19th century militant abolitionist by 21st century standards. Whether or not John Brown’s use of violence during his abolitionist crusade was morally correct was and is a fair debate, but to label John Brown a terrorist is a presentist error that fails to address the reality that John Brown’s world and the present world are different, and it is invalid to label Brown a terrorist.

— Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator in Osawatomie, Kansas.  This article was originally published in The Osawatomie Graphic, 8 Aug. 2012, under the title, "Brown--Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?"   It is used by kind permission of the author.--Ed.

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