Magazine article American Heritage


Magazine article American Heritage


Article excerpt

Freedom Fighter or Murderer?

I find your cover story in the February/March 2000 issue offensive in both title and content. Calling John Brown the Father of American Terrorism not only is untrue but masks the real fathers of terrorism in the United States.

American terrorism did emerge in the Kansas Territory during the 1850s, at least as a national phenomenon, but it came into being as a "state authority crime," in which the U.S. government sponsored Southern whites in a terrorist campaign against the free-soil (Northern) settlers.

The free-soilers constituted the great majority of the territorial population from the very beginning, yet they found themselves with no control over their own destiny. Instead they faced Washington politicians and the politicians' local mercenaries, the Border Ruffians, both determined to impose slavery on Kansas. These criminals stopped at nothing. Their terrorism included arson and cold-blooded murder as well as vote stealing and the total suppression of free speech and civil liberties in the territory.

By the time John Brown, Jr., wrote to his father begging for guns, he and the other Northern settlers had no alternative save to take up weapons in self-defense. In effect they were loyal Americans determined to protect their rights (and lives) against a corrupt regime in the nation's capital.

We can certainly regret the violence in which John Brown and his associates participated. But to label these victims of oppression "terrorists" is to do a disservice to the truth. They were literally fighting for their own lives against their own government.

Stanley L. Swart, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Criminal Justice University of North Florida Jacksonville, Fla.

Ken Chowder expends considerable effort in glossing over some of the uglier aspects of Brown's life and career, but his most offensive passage contains the attempt to justify the Pottawatomie murders by claiming that Brown "was a violent man, but he lived in increasingly violent times." We dwell in an age that is enormously more violent than the 1850s, yet I don't believe any rational person today (including Chowder) would seek to sanctify someone who commits such bloody, heinous acts in even the most righteous of causes.

Chowder quotes the historian Paul Finkelman as saying that "Brown is simply part of a very violent world," as though that somehow mitigated the horror of his deeds. Well, we all are part of a violent world, Mr. Chowder, but fortunately for you, I'm not about to pick up a sword and go off in search of those who offend me. …

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