John Brown: Domestic Terrorist or National Hero?

150 years after the violent abolitionist's execution, some are calling John Brown a national hero. Why his legacy still matters.

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His legacy is as unsettling today as it was 150 years ago, when he was hanged at the gallows for treason. While John Brown's anti-slavery crusade is seen as a moral cause, his violent tactics--which culminated in a failed raid on Harpers Ferry in which no slaves were freed but many people died--is decidedly less celebrated. In history books, Brown is often portrayed as a mentally unstable religious fanatic, but on the anniversary of his execution, columnists are painting a different picture. They argue that Brown proves it possible to be both a domestic terrorist and national hero. Why John Brown's legacy is more relevant and complex than previously imagined:

  • A National Hero  In The New York Times, David S. Reynolds says few American heroes are purely righteous, including Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. "It's important for Americans to recognize our national heroes, even those who have been despised by history." Reynolds wants Brown to be officially pardoned. And, "unlike nearly all other Americans of his era, John Brown did not have a shred of racism," Reynolds writes. "He had long lived among African-Americans, trying to help them make a living, and he wanted blacks to be quickly integrated into American society. When Brown was told he could have a clergyman to accompany him to the gallows, he refused, saying he would be more honored to go with a slave woman and her children."
  • When Terrorism Causes War  In The New York Times, Tony Horowitz says that "in 1859, John Brown sought not only to free slaves in Virginia but to terrorize the South and incite a broad conflict. In this he triumphed: panicked whites soon mobilized, militarized and marched double-quick toward secession. Brown’s raid didn’t cause the Civil War, but it was certainly a catalyst." Brown, he writes, may have lessons for today's war against terrorism. "It may be too early to say if 9/11 bred a similar overreaction. But last night President Obama vowed to increase our efforts in Afghanistan — one of two wars that, eight years on, have killed nearly twice as many Americans as the hijacked planes."
  • Ghandi Wasn't That Popular Either  At The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit reminds her readers that changing the world can be a lonely task. And those we consider to be "fanatics" today, we may consider "heroes" tomorrow. "Though it's popular to think the world gets changed by delightful people, a lot of the saints and agents of change are obsessive, intransigent, unreasonable, and demanding, of themselves and of us," she writes. "That's what it generally takes to change the world."
  • Fanaticism Is Wrong. Period.  The Guardian's Julian Baggini says John Brown may have been an example of a fanatic with a good cause, but his tactics were wrong nonetheless. "The rightness of the cause does not in any way negate the wrongness of the fanaticism. We should condemn the blind dedication even of those whose objectives we share."
  • John Brown, Dismissed at Our Own Peril  Historian David Blight of The History News Network says writing off Brown as just a fanatic keeps us "comfortable with our prejudices and our desires" about the history of race in America. He says Brown should unsettle us. "John Brown should confound and trouble us. Martyrs are made by history; people choose their martyrs just as we choose to define good and evil.  And we will be forever making and unmaking John Brown as Americans face not only their own racial past, but the ever changing reputation of violence in the present."
  • A Seminal American Figure  At The Hartford Courant, William Hosley says Brown is a pivotal figure in American history, regardless of how we feel about him. "Aside from Abraham Lincoln, no individual and few events led so decidedly to the Civil War. Brown transformed a stalemate on race, law and American values in a way that made Southern succession, civil war and the election of Lincoln inevitable."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.