“I Drew My Sword in Kansas When They Attacked Us”:
John Brown as Counter-Terrorist
Thanks to the misinformation and harping of writers who actually know next to nothing about John Brown, he is all-too-often remembered as the man who led the Pottawatomie killings 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, often in an unbalanced and even distorted fashion, always to 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 pro-slavery sympathies. Furthermore, they are portrayed as having been almost randomly chosen as targets of Brown’s alleged vendetta strike against pro-slavery people.
In this distorted scenario, the five men killed become victims and Brown and his men become not only murderers but also terrorists. However, one cannot present this flattened, sterile reading of the Pottawatomie killings without (1) misrepresenting the real facts of the incident; (2) ignoring the historical-political context; and (3) overlooking the moral and political "big picture" as it existed in 1856.
The Real Facts
As to the real facts of the incident, the Pottawatomie "victims" were not killed because they were merely pro-slavery, nor were they killed because they were southern men. While Brown did not agree with pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, he interacted with them peacefully from late 1855 until the heated circumstances of spring 1856, when pro-slavery terrorism was mounting in its bold assaults on free state people. Brown traded with pro-slavery Missourians and co-existed with pro-slavery settlers because, despite his hatred of slavery, he was willing to respect the democratic process that was supposed to have been going on in the Kansas territory through “Popular Sovereignty,” the idea that the future of Kansas as a state would be defined by the ballot.
It is true that Brown went to Kansas with weapons in late 1855; but he did so only to act in defense of his sons and their families who had already settled there in 1854. From his arrival in the fall of 1855, Brown monitored political matters in the Territory with great optimism and with no intention of fighting or attacking pro-slavery people. Indeed, throughout the first six months of his residence in Kansas, he never lifted a finger to oppose, threaten, or harm a pro-slavery person. It was not John Brown who was a terrorist; it was the pro-slavery faction that was anti-democratic and terroristic because they were clearly intent upon imposing slavery one way or another.
But if the “Pottawatomie Five” (Wilkinson, Sherman, and three Doyles) were not killed because they were pro-slavery men, why were they killed? Simply put, the men who were targeted by Brown and his men were part of a circle of Kansas territorial settlers who were actively engaged in conspiring to assist and support the overthrow of the democratic process in the territory; they were also local allies of invading pro-slavery "ruffians" (read: terrorists) who had invaded the territory with the intention of using violence to intimidate and, when necessary, eradicate free state people—particularly pro-black abolitionists like the Browns.
While some of the “Pottawatomie Five” were low-life types, this was not the reason they were killed. Nor was the fact that the Doyles--three of the five who were killed--were former slave hunters the point of their being targeted. Rather, the point of their being taken from their homes and killed was that they were discovered through reliable sources to have been conspirators and collaborators with invading terrorists, or “hordes” as Brown referred to them. Specifically, Brown had good knowledge that these men were connected with locally encamped terrorists, and that these terrorists had real intentions of attacking the Browns because of their pronounced anti-slavery and pro-black views. Indeed, Brown was convinced that waiting passively would only give these men time and opportunity to bring destruction upon his family.
One important fact that is usually overlooked is that the typical free state person was more likely pro-free white labor, not pro-black. Simply compare Abraham Lincoln’s “anti-slavery” views to those of John Brown and you will get the idea: Lincoln wanted the United States to be a white’s first nation (this was Frederick Douglass's assessment); blacks should be free, but he always gave priority to white people. Brown thought this at best was only half-right. He was a “radical abolitionist,” not because he picked up a gun, but because he constantly preached the equality of all people. In Kansas, this made the Browns a minority among free state settlers.
One should also remember that when Brown went to Kansas, he was already deeply connected with the leaders of the black liberation movement. Frederick Douglass was sipping tea in the Brown homestead over a decade before he was invited to Lincoln’s White House. The Browns read black newspapers, entertained black guests in their homes, and hosted a number of major black leaders before they ever thought about going to Kansas. Such openness was not typical of free state people, and the Browns were quite outspoken and even defiant in upholding their social and political views regarding the equality and empowerment of blacks. This is a key factor in understanding the political background to what happened at Pottawatomie Creek—and what might have happened had the Browns not struck first.
The Historical-Political Context
The historical-political context is another reality that is typically overlooked when John Brown's alleged "terrorism" is discussed in popular commentaries and TV documentaries. First, we must remember that by May 1856 a de facto civil war was already underway in the Kansas territory. Although there was no formal political division of the United States until secession in 1861, there was actual political division manifested in the Kansas territory in 1856. In 1856, it was the free state side that was grappling with the federal government, which was dominated by pro-slavery interests. In 1861, it was the pro-slavery side that was struggling against the federal government, now under the control of the Republicans, who wanted to delimit--but not abolish-- slavery. Unlike John Brown and a handful of abolitionists, much of the North was still enamored with the idea of political compromise with the South.
It is no small matter that Kansas in 1856 was a territory, not a state of the union. Given that the Kansas territorial war was technically outside of the United States, the distance, in terms of geography and information, was exploited by powerful pro-slavery forces. In other words, because the Kansas territory was literally on the frontier, on the “outside” of the political United States, pro-slavery terrorism targeting a largely benign and unprepared majority of free state settlers met no initial resistance. In his correspondence, John Brown’s letters reflect the "outside" reality of the Kansas territory. For instance, in a letter to his wife dated January 9, 1856, he wrote: "We get no News from the States of account to satisfy our hunger which is very great"; and again on March 6, 1856, he wrote: "It seems that those of our friends who write us, take it for granted that we know of all that happens in the United States." Free state and pro-slavery settlers alike shared the experience of being removed from the nation in a manner that had practical and political implications. Certainly there was a deficiency in information and communication that separated free state people from the United States. Interruption of and/or tampering with the mail and news reporting enabled pro-slavery interests to work behind a veil of political ignorance and naïveté in the free states of the union. With the support of pro-slavery interests in Washington D.C., the initial siege of the territory by pro-slavery thugs, including the first attempt to seize the town of Lawrence, could be carried out to a significant degree because it was “outside” and away from the ready sight of the free states. To no surprise, the record of Kansas’s territorial governors in this period reflects the power of pro-slavery interests and the relative impotency of free state interests. Indeed, what passed for "law and order" in the Kansas territory was pro-slavery domination at best. At worst, there was such a fragmenting of the rule of law that neither peaceful pro-slavery nor peaceful free state settlers were safe (Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts made this point in his testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1860).
Free state settlers (who were in the majority) went to Kansas without the means of war, being fully confident in the just oversight of the federal government regarding the democratic process. As it turned out the most definitive presence in Kansas was that of the so-called Border Ruffians—armed terrorists from Missouri, as well as other pro-slavery thugs streaming into the territory from the South. As free state settlement increased so did violent and aggressive pro-slavery forces, particularly in the early spring of 1856. Meanwhile, federal and territorial officials failed to insure the civil rights and democratic freedoms of settlers, especially free state people. Brown had brought guns and swords to Kansas, but he never would have broken them out had the threat of terrorism begun to explode after the spring thaw. The notion that he is somehow the prototypical “domestic terrorist” is pure nonsense. If prototypes of domestic terrorism are to be found in the Kansas story, they are found in “Border Ruffians” from Missouri and pro-slavery hordes from the Deep South, some of which carried banners proclaiming “The Supremacy of the White Race.” These thugs threatening free state people before Brown arrived in the territory, and it was the murder, conspiracy, and malicious intentions of such men that constitutes the real prototype of domestic terrorism in the United States.
Pottawatomie and the “Big Picture”
Brown’s lethal response to the plotting and conspiracy of pro-slavery collaborators in his vicinity must be viewed against the backdrop of free state settlement and pro-slavery expansion, which is a vital part of the “big picture.”
Initially, the free state settler movement was politically conservative, somewhat passive, and apparently naïve regarding the intentions of the federal government and the power of pro-slavery interests. Since the free state movement was fundamentally conservative, free state leaders and settlers in the territory were not initially willing to use a militant response to pro-slavery intrusion. First, free state settlers were not political radicals. True enough, their interest in western settlement expressed a political opposition to the expansion of slavery; but free state people were willing to tolerate slavery in the South as long as it did not expand.
In contrast, pro-slavery leaders were about the business of expansion. The whole reason that “Popular Sovereignty” was introduced was to give pro-slavery leaders some hope of furthering their interests in the expanding nation. Pro-slavery leaders would not vote for a transcontinental railroad unless the government included pro-slavery options into the opening of new territories, including Kansas and Nebraska (1854). Actually, pro-slavery interests were determined to expand slavery by any means necessary, but were willing to go along with the democratic process as long as it worked in their favor.
John Brown was a careful student of pro-slavery politics and he believed that the South was not going to relent without militancy, an insight that was proven correct in history. In the 1850s, Brown believed that pro-slavery interests were exploiting federal resources and quietly planning to break out of the union if they were not successful in expanding slavery westward. He understood that Kansas was a watershed in the destiny of the nation as far as slavery was concerned. Journalist William A. Phillips recounted a conversation with Brown in early 1859, when the Old Man told him that civil war was on the minds of some of President Buchanan’s cabinet members; that “for years” the military’s resources had been manipulated and maneuvered to the advantage of the South; and other pro-slavery officials in the military and administration were preparing to ravage the federal government’s resources in the event of secession. Phillips was skeptical of Brown’s gloom-and-doom reading of antebellum intentions in the South, but Brown prophesied:
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.]
We have no reason to doubt the fundamental integrity of Phillips’ reminiscence, not only because the historical framework of his article is trustworthy, but because Brown’s remarks are very consistent with his letters and other recorded words. It is clear that he understood the significance of the territorial civil war in Kansas, especially the fact that it was only an opening skirmish in what he believed would become an unprecedented tragedy in the young nation’s history. Beyond this, he seems to have alluded to Pottawatomie as the jumping-off point of his own activism: He raised the sword in what he perceived as an attack upon himself, his family, and their allies--in conjunction with the larger free state presence.
By pointing out the lack of understanding among the “best” free state people, Brown was criticizing the politically conservative and ill-prepared leaders of the North who were so caught up in political business-as-usual that they did not see the naked reality of the pro-slavery power. Not perceiving them as enemies, they persisted in the belief that the South could be placated and bartered into cooperation with the North. Meanwhile, the South was playing politics while quietly preparing for secession and war.
Brown knew full well that pro-slavery interests were fundamentally violent and hostile to both democracy and human rights. But in the Kansas territory he also had to contend with a large segment of free state people who were “besotted”—muddled and stupefied by their own belief that somehow the nation could find a solution by political compromise. By settling in Kansas, most free state people were not only establishing new lives and expanding the white frontier, but were hoping to bring Kansas into the federal union as a free state based upon the assumption that the South would actually cooperate if defeated by the ballot. Not only were they entirely unrealistic about prospects of “Popular Sovereignty,” they were reactionary and critical of the more militant voices among the free state side. Not a few free state leaders were unwilling to use force and were quite critical of any talk of militancy in the face of pro-slavery aggression.
The conservative, passive, and even timid stance of many free state settlers was matched with one other problematic factor that also made things hard for John Brown. Far too many were fundamentally racists and Negrophobes. The contemporary assumption that “free state = abolitionist” is flatly incorrect. In fact, there was a significant different between free state whites and abolitionists. Free state whites (including Southerners who came to the Kansas territory) did not presuppose black equality or “racial integration.” To the contrary, free state assumptions entailed the legal exclusion of blacks from settlement in Kansas. The black man was persona non grata in free state society. Why would they allow blacks in the new territory? Salmon Chase, an Ohio governor and later a member of President Lincoln's cabinet, once bemoaned the "degrading" moral presence of blacks in his state. "I do not wish the slave emancipated because I love him," Chase declared, "but because I hate his master; I hate slavery; I hate a man that will own a slave." [See letter of W. D. Chadwick dated Nov. 8, 1859, The Valley Spirit (Chambersburg, Pa.) Dec. 7, 1859, p. 1]. Such was the true spirit of the free state movement in John Brown's era.
Yet the Old Man, ever the optimist, preferred to characterize the free state position as “half-right,” for he was happy to find agreement as to the exclusion of slavery from the new territory. However he wanted Kansas to enter the union as a free state for whites and blacks to live together in equality. This was the family philosophy of the Browns, and their determination to see that position triumph was no small sore spot in their relations with free state people. Needless to say, if this troubled free state allies, the Browns’ gospel of black equality was downright infuriating to pro-slavery settlers, including neighbors living in their vicinity. Indeed, the Browns’ reputation as lovers of black people was broadcasted by the Browns themselves in a tone of defiance. Although he had refused to follow his father in the case of the Pottawatomie killings, it is interesting that John Brown Jr. had attempted to liberate a slave by force around the same time. To his disgust, he was obligated by his free state colleagues to return the victim to his master.
It has often been claimed that it was the Pottawatomie killings that incited war in Kansas. This is a frank misrepresentation of the facts. Violence, terrorism, and warfare were the work of pro-slavery thugs—armed men who had no intention of desisting whether or not they met resistance. The shelling and sacking of Lawrence in May 1856 was the natural result of pro-slavery politics in Kansas. Soon to follow was the intended attack on the Browns, radical abolitionists that were marked for removal by any means so that the pro-slavery faction could advance their cause over against the democratic process. Osawatomie, the burgeoning free state community closest to the Browns’ settlements, was marked for assault whether or not Brown had acted. The fact that pro-slavery terrorists attacked Osawatomie three months after the Pottawatomie killings was simply a regrouping of the pro-slavery faction’s original intentions. It is ludicrous to argue that the attack would not have taken place if the Pottawatomie killings had not taken place.
Like matters in the United States several years later, matters in Kansas had to come to the climax of war because pro-slavery interests were determined. There is no “counter-factual” in this regard as much as contemporary historians would like to argue. Blaming John Brown for the inflammation of matters in Kansas is like blaming a surgeon for causing the advance of his patient’s disease, as if the doctor’s scalpel is somehow the source of the patient’s disease. One may not believe in inevitability; one may argue against Brown on the basis of some possibility that the war could have been avoided. The Slave Power could never have been defeated by the implementation of latter day civil rights marches, sit-ins, and non-violent demonstrations as some scholars wistfully speculated at the sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid last year. (Such a rationale amounts to little more than counting stars or staring into one’s navel, and in the case of some historians, somber adventures in “counter-factual” speculation are a demure manner of attacking John Brown’s legacy, while at the same time admitting that he was “on the right side of history.”) In 1856, pro-slavery interests were advancing with determination into Kansas; they saw it as a first step toward achieving the territory they intended to take. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out what would have happened if pro-slavery terrorism had not been checked in the Kansas territory; nor did the Slave Power easily surrender. After Brown was hanged and buried, even the most conservative people in Kansas probably wished that he were resurrected to face off against the likes of “domestic terrorists” such as Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
When John Brown and his men pulled the Pottawatomie Five from their cabins in the dead of night and hacked them to death, their deeds were terrible, bloody acts of a kind that would make any man sickened. There is no way to beautify the Pottawatomie killings: they are a reminder that the advance of evil can sometimes become so great that even good men are driven to extreme measures of violence in order to stop it. John Brown never regretted the Pottawatomie killings, although the episode was probably painful in memory. When the widow and mother of the slain Doyles wrote to him in his Virginia jail cell, perhaps both gloating and grieving in the process, Brown evidently read her letter and said nothing. What could he have said? Had he not also lost sons in the war against slavery? The only difference between the two of them was that he grieved over sons slain in defense of human rights; the Widow Doyle’s husband and sons had died as terrorists caught in a snare of their own making. By her own words at the time, they had fallen prey to their own “devilment.”
Like their leader, none of the killers ever expressed regret for wrong doing in the Pottawatomie incident. It may have broken Owen Brown’s heart to kill his enemies so savagely; but neither he nor Henry Thompson (Brown’s son-in-law) ever reneged on the necessity of the bloody deed because they understood that the lives of their own family were at stake. No doubt speaking for himself as well as Owen, Henry, and the others, Brown wrote to his wife, only slightly veiling their role in the bloody incident: "We feel assured that he who sees not as men see does not lay the guilt of innocent blood to our charge" [John Brown to Mary Brown, June 24, 1856].
The Pottawatomie incident cannot be viewed as a case of domestic terrorism. To the contrary, the awful slaying of five men along the Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856 must be viewed through the lens of political and historical reality. John Brown used blunt but measured force to excise a real threat; his actions were counter-terroristic, surgical, and specific to a particular case where all forms of law and justice had broken down, and where the power of thugs and terrorists threatened to swallow up everything sacred to freedom. "The horrors wrought by his iron hand cannot be contemplated without a shudder," Frederick Douglass (who probably knew the details from Brown himself) would later write in reference to Pottawatomie. "But it is the shudder which one feels at the execution of a murderer" [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass] John Brown saw his family and compatriots overshadowed by a murderous threat and he struck first. He did not lift his sword to initiate terrorism, but to answer terrorism with finely honed steel.
And evil men trembled.