John Brown: Martyr or Terrorist?

October 12th, 2009 in American History by Gerald D. Swick

The little town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, stretches along a steep hillside where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac, where Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia come together. The Potomac is shallow there, with numerous small rapids rushing and gurgling around tumbled boulders between its banks. On the Maryland side, sheer rock faces intrude themselves among the maples on the mountainside, their grays and blacks and browns accenting the thick autumn foliage on a sunny afternoon. Swallowtail butterflies flutter among zinnias and flowering shrubs. Apart from throngs of tourists clogging its streets and quaint shops, the little burg between the rivers is the very essence of the small-town idyll.

Hard to believe that 150 years ago this month, it was the site of an attempted uprising that marked a turning point in North-South relations, an unextenguishable match held to the smoldering fuse of a powder keg that in less than two years would explode in savage fratricidal warfare.

A century and a half later, Americans are still intensely divided over what place the man behind the thwarted uprising should occupy in our nation’s history.

On the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859, a virulent opponent of slavery named John Brown marched a small band of followers, white and black, into the idyllic town and seized the U.S. arsenal there. They seized it, but local militia trapped them inside, beginning a standoff that saw casualties on both sides, including the death of Harpers Ferry’s mayor.

On October 18, U.S. Marines under the command of Army Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee broke down the armory’s door and in less than five minutes, Brown’s rebellion was over. Five days later, he and his surviving followers were found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and on December 2, Brown exited into eternity via a gallows erected in a stubble-strewn field.

It is almost universally agreed that Brown wanted the arsenal’s weapons in order to instigate and arm a slave uprising. He himself, while awaiting execution, wrote, “I never did intend murder or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite the slaves to rebellion or to make insurrection.” He only wanted to help slaves escape to Canada, he claimed (”The Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown,” compiled by Robert M. Dewitt; reprinted in A Documentary History of West Virginia, by Elizabeth Cometti and Festus P. Summers, McClain Printing Co., 1966). Exactly why he needed to accumulate several hundred firearms and 950 pikes, even before attacking the arsenal, in order to lead escaping slaves to Canada, he did not explain.

While many Southerners raged that Brown’s actions were the inevitable outcome of Northern Abolitionist agitation, other Southerners saw him as an aberrant fanatic and were willing to let the matter die with him – until Northern newspapers painted him as a martyr and word leaked out that a number of prominent Northerners had given him financial aid and some had known at least something of his plans. Brown and his Northern supporters seemed to prove the widespread Southern belief that Abolitionists wanted a war of extermination against slave owners (A History of the South, Vol. VI: The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848–1861, by Avery O. Craven, LSU Press, 1953).

The Fall 2009 issue of Hallowed Ground, the magazine of the Civil War Preservation Trust, carries a couple of interesting stories about Brown and the lingering controversy surrounding his actions. One of those articles, “John Brown’s Smoldering Spark,” by Dennis E. Frye, tells of the controversy in 1959 when Harpers Ferry and the National Park Service (NPS), which preserves the only remaining building of the old arsenal, wanted to observe the centennial of the pivotal event. Southern outrage over such a “celebration” threatened to disrupt the nation’s grandiose plans for a five-year observance of the Civil War centennial to begin in 1961.

To this day, Americans are divided on on the question: Was John Brown a martyr to be admired or a terrorist to be condemned? And that raises a larger question – is a martyr a martyr, a terrorist a terrorist only because we agree or disagree with that person’s goals, no matter his or her actions?

What do you think?

About the Author: I regard historic research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt: You never know where you'll find a hidden treasure. Growing up with parents who told stories of family history probably had a lot to do with that. I realized early on that history is about lives already lived. I've met war veterans, early aviators, friends of Abraham Lincoln's in-laws, and a host of others who shared their histories with me – and it was never boring!

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6 Responses to “John Brown: Martyr or Terrorist?”

  1. [...] John Brown: Martyr or Terrorist? What’s your answer? [...]

  2. elijahchapman said:

    Today we consider those who assisted the underground railroad as heros. I think it would be inconsistent not to allow John Brown the same recognition.

  3. nathanaelgreene said:

    John Brown was a martyr. He gets not the credit he deserves for his contribution in helping ending slavery. This book is a great new addition to the historiography of this issue.

    John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
    by David S. Reynolds

    For a college class, I wrote the following how John Brown was memorialized soon after his death.

    “John Brown’s reputation in the white community was one of derision. He is usually regarded as insane and a madman because he advocated the overthrow of slavery by revolution. In the black community Brown was held in high esteem. Frederick Douglass in 1859, said when black people spoke of John Brown: “Voices dropped to a whisper.” Thoreau addressed his fellow citizens of Concord, Massachusetts during the trial of John Brown in October 1859 saying of Brown, “He did not recognize unjust laws, but resisted them as was bid.”

    I think John Brown is not given the credit nor the respect for what he tried to do; to undo an unjust law.

  4. Jennifer said:

    I believe John Brown was both a martyr and a terrorist. He was a martyr with respect to his personal sacrifice for what he believed was right; however, the method to which he put forth his ideals were that of a terrorist. He still should be celebrated as a hero for his contribution to the fight against slavery. I say this not only because I agree with his ideals, but because I believe you have to take into consideration that American morals as well as methods of communication has changed over time.
    Our method of communication is much faster then it was back then. We can have something streaming on the internet as quickly as one can upload the video online. If slavery were in effect today (Thank Jesus it isn’t), then people could show others the travesty that slavery presented at the time. Can you imagine watching a hidden camera of some one beating their slave on Youtube or 20/20? It’s one thing when someone from Mississippi writes his brother in Ohio where it takes 3 months just to get a letter. I may be exaggerating with the 3 months, but whatever the length of time was back then was not as fast as the internet today, not to mention our 24/7 cable news.
    I think that John Brown had to do something spectacular in order for his ideals to be heard. People are more likely to pay attention when there is a terrific event that occurs. The soap box of his day just wasn’t enough to get the word out. How are you to convert hearts and mind if you can’t communicate with them in real time or something close to it?
    Nowadays when something happens to someone or a group of people we gather around and enact a bunch of laws to prevent it from happening again. Especially when there is violence involved. Some examples are the Amber alerts or the differentiation of hate crimes and the punishment of them. Now, the speed of the process may vary from issue to issue, but the system is still there to be exploited by every citizen.
    Many people like to argue life’s issues and conflicts using one or another argument placing their ideals in a nice clean little box, but the reality of life is messy. Why do we have to look at things as one or the other? Why does it have to be Nature vs. Nurture? Why can’t it be nature AND nurture? Why does God have to left out of Evolution? Why can’t Evolution be the mechanism to which God made humans? Why do we have to pick a label for John Brown? Can’t he be both a terrorist and a martyr?

  5. A new online exhibit of original documents from the exhibition “John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legecy,” which is on display through March 25, 2010 at the New York Historical Society in New York City.

    NYHS and the Gilder Lehrman Institute organized the exhibition.

    The online John Brown collection can be viewed at

  6. nathanaelgreene said:

    Timely topic on the 150th anniversary of the Harper’s Ferry Raid on October 16, 1859.

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