Thanks to the misinformation and harping of writers who actually know very little about Brown, he is all-too-often remembered first and foremost as the man who led the Pottawatomie killings—massacre, as they call it--in the Kansas territory, which took place overnight on May 24-25, 1856. The story of the killings of five pro-slavery Southern settlers has been recounted ad nauseam and often in an unbalanced and even distorted fashion—always to John Brown’s disadvantage. In these narratives, the men who were killed by Brown and his party are typically presented as having been guilty of nothing more than holding proslavery sympathies. In some narratives, they are “innocent victims.” In other narratives, they are portrayed as having been almost randomly chosen as targets of Brown’s alleged vendetta strike against proslavery people. We have heard it and seen it time and again: they say John Brown is the original “American terrorist”—as if terrorism in this nation originated in 1856, rather than in the violent and intentional acts of racist aggression unleashed by whites upon indigenous and African people in North America. As the legal historian Paul Finkelman has observed, no, John Brown was not a terrorist. John Brown did not fight against human freedom. He fought people who were trying to deny democratic and human rights. I prefer to put it this way. John Brown was not a terrorist. He was a counter-terrorist.
“No, the war [in Kansas] is not over. It is a treacherous lull before the storm. We are on the eve of one of the greatest wars in history, and I fear slavery will triumph, and there will be an end of all aspirations for human freedom. For my part, I drew my sword in Kansas when they attacked us, and I will never sheathe it until this war is over. Our best people do not understand the danger. They are besotted. They have compromised so long that they think principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth.*
*William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879): 743-44.]