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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2014

Department of History, Boston College E-mail:


The abolitionist John Brown. Freedom fighter? Terrorist? The choice is unsatisfying for any number of reasons, least of all for the anachronistic nomenclature and the moral obviousness of his cause. Of course Brown was right, we can easily say, to take up the fight against that “peculiar institution” of barbarous slavery. Insofar as the federal government stood in the way of historical progress, perhaps he also was justified in striking the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 as the first salvo of the American Civil War, demonstrating by his pitiful action that the Union would have to choose sides and fight. Yet no less clear today is the sheer difficulty of justifying such antistate violence. Since the 1970s and especially since September 11, 2001, with comparable moral obviousness, insurgent and terroristic violence have generally been condemned as threats to social stability and political coherence. The very liberal-democratic traditions that might otherwise superficially heroize someone like John Brown recoil at the disorder he personified. The truth of Brown's adventurism is clearly more complicated than the postcard version, and his crazed biblical prophetism, nasty 1856 murder spree in Kansas, and patronizing wish to play Moses to southern blacks must be read alongside successful efforts by the government and pro-slavery camp to brand him an incorrigible fanatic—a label that Brown himself and other abolitionists embraced as their own. What Brown represents, however, is an access point to the deep history of ideas about fanaticism and terrorism in the modern West, a history filled with paradoxes and ambiguities that nonetheless revolve around the basic fact—avoided with ease by contemporary pundits and prognosticators—that for the past several centuries we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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