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.