“How long shall these things continue?”

Wilson Shannon

William Barbee wrote Governor Shannon that proslavery families fled the Osawatomie area for fear of John Brown’s murdering band. He and the rest of the Kansas militia needed arms and reinforcements to keep what fragile peace remained. They could get the latter from the United States Cavalry out of Fort Scott, but the militia still needed more guns than it had. So if the Governor could shake some loose, everyone would appreciate it.

Barbee wrote from a camp he shared with William Heiskell, who also commanded a militia brigade. Heiskell wrote himself, probably on the grounds that the two of them writing would more likely get a good response. He informed Shannon:

All here is excitement and confusion. We have just heard of the murder on Saturday night of Allen Wilkinson, Doyle and his two brothers, and William Sherman; all living in Franklin county, near Pottawatomie creek. The body of another man has been found at the ford of the Pottawatomie. These murders, it is supposed, were committed by the abolitionists of Osawatomie, and Pottawatomie creeks, on their return from Lawrence.

Like Barbee and Cato, Heiskell wrote with imperfect information. He thought that three Doyle brothers died, rather than two and their father. He seems to have heard that someone died in the creek, but not that Dutch Bill Sherman did.

Basic facts conveyed, as he understood them, Heiskell moved on to the point:

How long shall these things continue? How long shall our citizens, unarmed and defenseless, be exposed to this worse than savage cruelty? Wilkinson, it is said, was taken from his bed, leaving a sick wife and children, and butchered in their sight. The two young Doyles were unarmed, and shot down on the prairie like dogs.

The Free State leaders at Lawrence made similar pleas to Shannon, which he brushed off. They too could claim a trail of bodies left by their foes, if one rather more spread over time and space. Shannon favored slavery for Kansas and disliked armed strife, at least when he would have some accountability for it, but also blamed the antislavery side for causing all the problems. That some free state militants escalated things to a massacre would suit his preconceptions and convictions exactly, even if the horrifying events of the weekend didn’t justify a strong response all on their own. Shannon had to do something, from his own convictions, out of his official responsibility for Kansas, and likely also if he expected to remain its governor.

 

Advertisements

“Families are leaving for Missouri.”

Wilson Shannon

Sterling Cato sent along a report of John Brown’s murders for Governor Wilson Shannon, who duly forwarded it to President Franklin Pierce. Cato dated his missive from Paola May 27. Shannon seems to have received it at the same time as a separate letter, dated the previous morning, from William Barbee of the Second Brigade, Southern Division, of the Kansas Militia. At any rate, he offered up Cato’s letter before Barbee’s in the attachments to his letter for the President. Barbee wrote

We were all surprised this morning by the sad intelligence that W. Wilkinson, (late member of the Legislature,) was, together with a Mr. Sherman and three Messrs. Doyle, on Saturday night taken from their beds by the abolitionists, and, in the hearing of their families, ruthlessly murdered and hacked to pieces; also, a man found dead at the Pottawatomie. There were some twenty in the gang. All is excitement here; court cannot go on.

John Brown

Barbee had Brown’s numbers inflated, but in the dark, dispersed, and in rumor eight men can easily turn into more than twice as many. Barbee didn’t see any of the bodies himself, but he did speak to Wilkinson’s widow and reported as much to Shannon. He also gave the Governor news that would have pleased John Brown:

Families are leaving for Missouri. Yankees concentrating at Osawatomie and upon the Pottawatomie, also at Hickory Point, where they have driven off the inhabitants without even provisions or clothing, save what they had on.

Brown hoped to provoke general strife and drive the proslavery side from Kansas. If Barbee had the right of it, killing those men got him off to a great start. For Barbee and Shannon, this meant they had to do something to restore order. Obviously that would involve armed force, so Barbee listed what he had to hand:

We can, perhaps, muster to-day, including the Alabamians, who are now encamped on Bull creek, about 150 men, but will need a force here. I have dispatched to Fort Scott for 100 men. The men will come from Fort Scott under Major Hill. There will be more men in readiness, if needed, at Fort Scott. We are destitute of arms; send by wagons for both my brigade and General Heiskell; we are together; we have scarcely any arms.

Barbee tells Shannon, and we who get to read over his shoulder, a great deal in a short paragraph. He has the Alabamans, Jefferson Buford’s men, all lined up and ready to kill abolitionists. He sought support from the US Cavalry out of Fort Scott and received word already at time of writing that they would come, so either the commander there acted on his own authority or Shannon had given him some prior order to come to the militia’s aid in such a situation. But contrary to our stereotypes of the American West, the militia and Buford’s Alabamans didn’t come with a small arsenal in every backpack. They would need more hot lead than a hundred or so cavalrymen could provide in order to join them as a credible peacekeeping force, or to embark on the long-feared purge of antislavery Kansans. Either would probably suit most involved, save for the soldiers.

Governor Shannon Receives News from Pottawatomie

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murders along the Pottawatomie got out fast. We’ve followed it reaching his son’s militia company and through the arrest of his uninvolved sons, John, Jr., and Jason. That necessarily gave us a look at word reaching Sterling Cato, who ordered up the arrest of the Browns and so consummated one of their longstanding fears. But news also reached further in Kansas, as the general alarm indicated. Proslavery men feared that Brown would continue his murders night by night. They could dream up legions of bloody-minded abolitionists coming for them and their families. Governor Shannon learned of the massacre thrice over, in letters he copied to Franklin Pierce as part of his explanation for all that had gone wrong at Lawrence. He explained to the president that “Comment is unnecessary.”

Shannon presented Cato’s letter from Paola first:

DEAR SIR: You will have learned, perhaps before this reaches you, that Mr. Allen Wilkinson, Mr. Doyle and two sons, and Mr. Sherman, all of Franklin county, were on Saturday night last most foully and barbarously murdered. There can be no doubt of the fact that such murders have been perpetrated, and that the community, as I understand, generally suspect that the Browns and Partridges are the guilty parties. I shall do everything in my power to have the matter investigated and there seems to be a disposition on the part of the Free-State men in Franklin to aid in having the laws enforced.

I have never elsewhere heard of the Partridges, Gentle Readers. No one by that name played a role in the killing, though their inclusion speaks to the general confusion about who had done what in the immediate aftermath.

Wilson Shannon

Cato did not delude himself here. The murders shocked many free state men, who felt obligated to denounce them and commit themselves to bringing the guilty to justice. Probably most of those felt a combination of genuine abhorrence toward the brutal murders of men taken unresisting from their beds and fears that the proslavery hammer would come down on everyone. More on this in future posts.

The judge told Governor Shannon that he would get the evidence he needed and issue warrants forthwith, promising the officers bound to serve them “all the aid necessary to execute the law.” In other words, Cato might have made promises that Shannon would need to keep or share some responsibility for. He had no army himself, nor delegated command of the United States Army in the area. He had to, the Governor should understand, because

These murders were most foully committed in the night-time by a gang of some twelve or fifteen persons, calling on, and dragging from their homes, defenseless and unsuspecting citizens, and murdering, and, after murdering, mutilating their bodies in a very shocking manner.

Everyone involved denied that the Browns mutilated bodies, but no one in Kansas had CSI to put the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Dutch Bill Sherman into a magic machine and cough up a neat dating of the injuries. Hacking people up with swords makes a mess regardless of one’s intentions. Shooting someone did not leave them less dead, but did tend toward a less gory spectacle. Though Brown chose the blades for stealth, the ruin they worked served better than bullets might have in his goal of spreading general terror among proslavery Kansans.

For the fear of John Brown

John Brown

Jason Brown blundered into a posse out to arrest him on his way to Lawrence. He meant to stop at Ottawa Jones’ and then proceed to surrender himself in friendly circumstances. That would, he must have hoped, spare him the fate of Reese Brown. Instead, he walked right up to a group of armed Missourians. Expecting that they wouldn’t know him, he asked directions and got what may have been the final surprise of his life in learning that they did. Some quick questioning confirmed it, at which point they collected his money and a revolver before ordering him out in front of the group for a clear shot.

With nothing left to lose, and probably more than a little of his father’s forthrightness, John Brown’s second son declared himself an abolitionist, bared his breast, and dared them to shoot. That took things too far for some of the Missourians, who put their guns down. Others would have gone ahead, but their leader called it off and took Jason prisoner instead. The combination of bravery and a revulsion toward killing unresisting white men likely did the trick.

The Missourians marched Jason off toward Sterling Cato’s court at Paola. He had more rest than his elder brother had the night before, but after several days with the Pottawatomie Rifles on little sleep, then the stress of learning what his father and brothers had done, proved too much for Jason’s body. During a rest, he sat down and fell dead asleep. That prompted a new round of threats on his life after the Missourians roused Jason, but he kept on making antislavery speeches and it seemed to have an effect on a few of them. They saw to it that Jason had a good bed and gave back his money and gun once the group arrived in town.

At Paola, Jason found his older brother, John. He also got to see firsthand the fear that his father’s murders had spread among the proslavery party. The day after he and John got put into a room with two guards, after spending some time playing cards, Jason hit the hay. John remained up a little longer, then climbed in with him. John Junior woke to

the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie-knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, ‘Which are they?’ they crowded around our bed with uplifted knives.

Telling the story afterward, Junior has Jason still dead asleep. Confronted with murderous men and fearing a torturous death for his brother, Junior opted for a novel solution:

I opened the bosom of his shirt, and pointing to the region of his heart, said, ‘Strike here!’

Maybe Junior meant it just as he said; others have made such terrible calculations. His fragile mental state must have played a part too. Either way, he dared them to do it quickly. Such challenges rely on people not ready to do what they propose, a dangerous gamble given the circumstances and the stakes. The presence of testimony from Jason tells us that he survived the night, but it may have come down to fear rather than an attack of conscience:

At this moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch caused a most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack was ended without a blow.

The proslavery men had a note from the boys’ father, or at least what purported to be one. It came to them from the hands of one of their own and therein Brown declared that he knew they had Junior and Jason. When the dogs raised the alarm, they believed John Brown had come and raced to defend themselves. They left the brothers in peace for the rest of the night.

 

The Arrest of Jason Brown

John Brown

The posse took John Brown, Jr., not far from the home of his aunt and uncle. He came up and approached a group of soldiers, with the Missourians and federal marshal out of sight. They appeared in due course, making for a most unwelcome surprise. Judge Sterling Cato, informed of the murders that Brown’s father and brothers committed, issued warrants for everyone’s arrest. He even swept up an unrelated man named O.C. Brown. Brown deemed resistance “out of the question” in the face of professional soldiers and “a large number” of Missourians. The group took him back toward Paola, where Cato had his court. Along the way, the soldiers split off to make for a separate camp, leaving John Brown’s eldest in the hands of the proslavery men. There he met some familiar faces. Cato issued warrants for H.H. Williams, who had replaced Brown in charge of the Pottawatomie Rifles, and he arrived at Paolo ahead of Brown. So had his brother Jason.

Jason Brown parted ways with his father on the morning of May 26, rejoining his family at the Adair’s just as John Junior had. The murders his father and brothers committed on the night of May 24-25 weighed on him. The Adairs almost didn’t give them shelter and told him and Junior that their presence put the family at risk. All that in mind, Jason set off on foot on the morning of the 27th, hoping to reach Lawrence by way of Ottawa Jones’ and turn himself in to United States troops. In a friendly setting and in the hands of a neutral party, he might not have much to fear. According to Sanborn’s Brown biography, he first saw trouble when he looked off in the direction of Paola and spotted a dozen Missourians riding toward Brown’s Station.

The Missourians’ course intersected with Jason’s. He went right up and asked the way to Jones’ place, apparently gambling that they wouldn’t know him.

The leader of the party with an oath exclaimed: “You are one of the men we’re hunting for;” and levelled his rifle at him. Jason stood still, and the men began to question him rapidly. “What is your name?” “Jason Brown.” – “the son of old John Brown?” “Yes.” – “Are you armed?” “Yes, with a revolver.” – “Give it up. Have you any money?”

Jason had a few dollars and handed it over to the Missourians. All of this seems to have put Jason amid the party. After they collected his gun and money, they ordered him out in front of them. There they could get a clean shot, which Jason realized.

so he stepped backward, facing them, opened his bosom, and said: “I am an Abolitionist; I believe that slavery is wrong, and that Kansas ought to be a free state. I never knowingly harmed any man in the world. If you want to take my blood for believing in the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, do it now.”

The dramatic show of courage and conviction, which they would probably have understood as “manhood,” moved a few of the Missourians to lay down their rifles. The others remained trained on Jason, but their leader felt otherwise. Martin White told Brown:

“Well, we won’t shoot you now, but make a  prisoner of you.”

The Arrest of John Brown, Junior

John Brown

John Brown’s namesake son hid out in the woods. There Junior’s frayed nerves made him a man, by his own account, not quite in his right mind. Mounted on a horse he might have suspected belonged to men his brother’s and father killed, knowing that men already hunted him as a likely conspirator on the killings, the whole world must have seemed set against him. The arrival of his brother Owen, who had hacked men to death with their father the night prior, can’t have helped with the strain. Owen came, rejected at his Aunt’s home, his own stolen horse wet with swat, and carrying urgent and further traumatic news:

he told me of the narrow escape he had just had from a number of armed proslavery men who had their headquarters at Tooley’s, -a house at the foot of the hill, about a mile and a half west of Mr. Adair’s. Their guards, seeing him in the road coming down the hill, gave a signal, and at once the whole gang were in hot pursuit.

Not only did men hunt the Browns, they had come within two miles and nearly caught one. Only superior, purloined horseflesh kept Owen from their grasp. Owen traded his spent animal for John Junior’s and rode off to rejoin their father. Junior spent a sleepless night in the woods and came out in the morning, seeking the Adairs again. He

was there but a few moments when there suddenly rode up a number of United states cavalry, whom I was quite willing to see; but while in conversation with them a large number of mounted Missourians came up also, and with them the United States Marshal, whom I knew, but did not wish to see.

Given how Missourians and posses had worked for Lawrence, which Junior had seen the aftermath of only days before, nothing about that meant good news to him. Less still when the Marshal read him a warrant that charged him with treason. With that formality taken care of, the cavalry informed John that they had not come in their official capacity as soldiers, but rather as members of the same posse. The warrant came from the court of Sterling Cato, now at Paola, thus realizing one of the fears the Browns had when he opened up shop at Osawatomie: he meant to have them behind bars after all.

News of the Pottawatomie murders threw Paola into a chaos that disrupted Cato’s court. He questioned militia members who had visited the sites, wrote a report for Governor Shannon, and launched a proper investigation of his own. Free state militia men answered his questions and all fingered the Browns, Weiner, Thompson, and Townsley. Once he got going, Cato decided to make a clean sweep of things and also indicted the Browns and several others for resisting the collection of the bogus legislature’s taxes.

A Vile Murderer and Two Stolen Horses

John Brown

 

Deeply troubled, to the point where he considered himself insane, John Brown’s namesake son left his Aunt Florilla, Samuel Adair, and his brother Jason to vanish into the woods and hide. Word had reached them that proslavery men wanted the Brown’s locked up, at best, and a general manhunt had begun. Jason remained behind at the cabin. Samuel Adair only granted the two Browns temporary shelter on their word that they had nothing to do with their father’s murders and impressed on them that that he and his wife risked their lives doing it. From him, we learn that a third Brown boy called at the Adair place that night, Owen.

Owen Brown, unlike his brothers, had committed bloody murder beside the Pottawatomie. His and Salmon Brown’s hands wielded the swords that claimed the lives of James, William, and Drury Doyle at least. Owen wept afterwards, but his tears could not undo the killing. He knocked at the cabin door around two or three in the morning. Jason informed Samuel Adair of everything he knew about the murders, so he did not receive a warm welcome:

“You are a vile murderer, a marked man!” said he. “I intend to be a marked man!” shouted Owen, and rode away – on one of the murdered men’s horses.

Jason told it that way and his version makes sense in light of everything else he and John say about the Adairs that night. Blood and general compassion counted for a lot, but they would not share their roof and fire with killers. John Junior adds a bit more:

I took my rifle and horse and went into the ravine on Mr. Adair’s land, remaining there through that day (May 27 )and the following night.. About four o’clock P.M. I was joined by my brother Owen, who had been informed at Mr. Adair’s of my whereabouts. He brought with him into the brush a valuable running horse, mate of the one I had with me.

According to Jason, Owen rode a horse taken from the Shermans. John Junior has both their mounts seized by Free State men up toward Nebraska, so in proslavery country, and swapped for other animals, apparently on the grounds that someone nearby would recognize them. John came to his horse just the previous day, not far from Ottawa Jones’. Except for the notion that the horses came down from near Nebraska, that all would fit for John Junior to have with him one of the horses that his father and brothers stole. Probably he did and they didn’t tell him the whole truth about where it came from or Junior couldn’t put it together with all the strain.

“Can’t keep you here.”

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murder spree got out quickly, reaching his son’s militia company before Brown and the others could return to it. The fallout from John Junior’s inconsistent response to the word and his freeing of two enslaved people turned his men against him and the Pottawatomie Rifles elected a new captain before everyone dispersed. Brown had two sons in Kansas not with him for that bloody night, the aforementioned namesake and Jason. Jason pressed the matter with his brother, Frederick, and then told his father that he could not approve of such killing. Brown took that hard, but refused to reconsider. His band of avengers broke off from the rest of the group near to Middle Creek and set off toward Junior and Jason’s cabins. They themselves set out for Osawatomie to collect their wives and children from Samuel Adair’s.

On the 26th of May, according to Junior, he and Jason arrived at Adair’s. They stayed the night and on the morning of the 27th got more disturbing news:

a pretended Free-State man, was heading a party to capture us, Mr. Adair did not consider it prudent for us to stay longer, and advised us to secrete ourselves in a ravine on his place well filled with small undergrowth. He told us he had received word that the United States Marshal had warrants for us and all of our family.

Jason has people out to make a name for themselves by nabbing John Brown already thick on the roads, but it seems that news first reached them of the fact at the Adair claim. In his version, related in Villard’s biography, they come to the cabin around nine at night. Adair answered the door, armed, and asked who knocked. The Browns identified themselves:

“Can’t keep you here. Our lives are threatened. Every moment we expect to have our house burned over our heads.”

Jason begged shelter, offering to take even a berth in the outhouse. The conversation drew Mrs. Adair, the boys’ Aunt Florilla. She asked if they had anything to do with the killings. They had not, so she agreed to let them in but told them that the Adairs hazarded their lives by doing it. They took a pair of mattresses on the floor, beside the bed, and talked until midnight. Jason told them all he had learned about the killings while John groaned.

Up for a few days by this point, just deprived of his command and seeing his political friends turn on him, plus news that his father and brothers committed an already infamous crime, pushed John Junior past his breaking point. He confided to his Aunt that he felt himself going insane. He couldn’t sleep, despite his fatigue. Jason repeated Adair’s advice that Junior take to the timber land and hide, which he did.

“The most terrible shock that ever happened to my feelings in my life”

John Brown

John Brown, four of his sons, his son-in-law, Theodore Weiner, and James Townsley went into the Kansas night and took five lives with broadswords. Satisfied, the antislavery terrorists returned to their camp. There Owen Brown, who got his own hands bloody at least with the Doyles, wept. Around dawn, he came up to Townsley and told him that the group had finished killing proslavery men in the night.

Sunday afternoon, barely twelve hours after killing Dutch Bill Sherman, Brown and his band rode out of their camp and down the California Road. They rejoined the Pottawatomie Rifles at the home of Ottawa Jones, a member of that nation on good terms with the Browns, around midnight. Rejoining the Rifles reunited Brown with his sons John Junior, in command, and Jason. News of the murders beat them to the camp, complete with word that Old John Brown did the deed.

Jason recalls word of the killings as “the most terrible shock that ever happened to my feelings in my life; but brother John took a different view.” The Rifles, outraged, demanded explanations from Junior. He first claimed the murders as “good news” and then later insisted he could neither endorse nor repudiate them; he believed the old man must have some good reason. This did not impress his command one bit, however much we might understand disbelief and confusion at the news that a dear loved one committed a grievous crime. His compromised position, plus earning the ire of his men by freeing a few slaves, made Junior’s captaincy untenable and he resigned it the next morning. The company, under instructions from the US Army, thereafter dispersed from Jones’ place.

On the way home, just east of Middle Creek, Jason raised the issue with his father.

I did not, but I stood by and saw it.

 

Someone else in the party, who Jason didn’t name, argued self-defense and defense of others. Jason didn’t buy it and said his piece:

I did not fully understand the cause of it then, and told him I was very sorry the act had been done. I said to him: ‘I think it was an uncalled for, wicked act.’

Jason recalled that this

seemed to hurt father very much; but all he said was, ‘God is my judge, -we were justified under the circumstances.’

Hurt or not, John Brown didn’t back down. He did what he thought right, end of story. Jason didn’t think so and asked Frederick if he knew who did the killing. Frederick did, but refused to tell him. Jason pressed: had Frederick done it?

No; when I came to see what manner of work it was, I could not do it. The tears rolled down Frederick’s face as he spoke.

The group broke up soon after crossing Middle Creek, with Brown and his band going to Junior’s cabin. John and Jason, who had his own cabin nearby, went to Samuel Adair’s instead to collect their wives and sons.

 

 

Some Thoughts on John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, despite occasional appearances, historians are human. Just like the people we study, we come to the past with our own set of values, inclinations, and biases. None of us can produce an objective history, any more than we can produce the final, complete history of anything. We cannot pretend to neutrality and you ought to take a skeptical look at any recent historian who tries. But we must approach the past as fairly as we can and try to understand the mores, motives, hopes, fears, and cultural backgrounds of the people we study. Perhaps we don’t communicate this well, but history is an exercise in empathy.

That brings us to John Brown. Biographers have painted him as a Christian warrior saint and a deranged madman driven by paranoid obsessions. The most recent work I’m familiar with credits Brown as a vital precursor to civil rights. People love and hate Brown, often intensely. As must surprise no one, I find him intensely admirable. Though not as immune to the white supremacy of his era as one biographer would cast him, he does have a far smaller helping of it than most. He fought slavery, which puts him right up there with a soldier liberating a concentration camp in my book. Brown felt an obligation to black Americans that he cast in cringe-worthy paternalistic terms, but demonstrated a remarkable willingness to let them guide the course of his own life. He believed them ignorant and lacking in necessary discipline, but also saw both traits as situational and cured through good examples and education rather than innate in their race. In that, he differs little from many black leaders of his era. Far more than most white Americans, he treated non-whites as his equals. He would even fight and kill white men for their freedom, something he intended as early as the 1840s and finally consummated, twice, in the last decade of his life.

For the most part, historians don’t debate the facts of Brown’s life. Some have pathologized his antislavery, just as they have that of most whites, as a kind of mental illness. Brown and the rest had an unnatural fixation on slavery, which posed no danger to them. They reacted with intolerable offensiveness and hostility to a harmless, dying institution. Abandoning those ideas, as recent generations have, presents us with newly revised, more generous take. Brown’s violence may still discomfit us, as all violence should, but in the end he proposed killing enslavers to free the enslaved. How can we celebrate George Washington, who put a lot of white, British soldiers into their graves for what we consider, at least in principle, the cause of freedom and damn Brown for the same? If we are consistent and fair, we must count them as similarly heroes for freedom. The fact that Brown might well have killed George Washington for the same cause should say more to us damning of Washington than of Brown.

The idea of the hero abolitionist John Brown drowns in Pottawatomie creek, next to William Sherman’s brains. On that terrible night, Brown killed unresisting men who owned no people. He did it in what he imagined as self-defense and specifically targeted those who worked for an illegitimate and oppressive government. Some of them may have made dire, credible threats or posed a threat to Brown and his family through their connection to the bogus legislature’s courts, but Brown killed them in anticipation. Had the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Sherman come at him armed and dangerous, Brown would have done no worse than anybody else. By taking them at night, ripping them from their beds and their families and ordering them hacked to pieces in the dark, he went beyond any reasonable understanding of self-defense. He acted like an enslaver lynch mob, protecting his community from what he deemed a vile, dangerous element. That we agree with him on slavery, or even farther that proslavery whites themselves count as a serious danger, should not blind us to that.

Furthermore, self-defense does not tell the full story even if we grant it to Brown. James Townsley reported that his motives extended further than the simple murders of threatening elements and, unlike his claim that Brown wanted a general purge of the area, this makes sense in light of all Brown did:

Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free States settlers; that the pro-slavery men party must be terrified

and consequently that

the pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified

Brown valued consistency in most things, following his convictions where they led him, whatever the hazards. We have a word for political violence directed at civilian targets to create fear among the enemy. Let us honor Brown’s values by calling the Pottawatomie murders he, his sons, and a few others committed by their right name: terrorism.

We usually imagine terrorism as something that someone else does, for goals we oppose. Calling Brown a terrorist does not come easily to anyone sympathetic to him. It associates his cause with those which shock our conscience. We might view it as discredited by such methods. But what else can one call a man who pulls people from their beds at night and murders them to set an example for others?

We can make excuses and claim Brown doesn’t qualify if we want, and some have, but this serves us poorly for understanding Brown. The past does not exist to make us comfortable and we are poorer for not confronting the difficult parts. We imagine terrorists, for the obvious reasons, as utterly evil. They do wrong for bad causes, like Nazis. In John Brown, we have a terrorist who may have done wrong for the best of causes. I don’t want to say that; I still admire him. My own convictions are such that I view the murder of an enslaver by the enslaved as inherently just, even praiseworthy, but Brown did not murder an enslaver and so his killing freed no one. Nor did he suffer slavery and so we might grant to him a right to revolutionary violence against his oppressors as a class, unless we recognize his act as one of solidarity with black Americans as well as white and so as an extension of their struggle. Brown would probably have agreed with that but his immediate motives involved protecting white freedom, which puts a hard limit on how far we can take that line of reasoning.

At Pottawatomie, Brown did much the same, on a vastly smaller scale, as the men who flew planes into buildings seventeen years ago. If we take slavery seriously and if we care about understanding the past in all its complications, we must grapple with that. John Brown presents us with a terrorist who feels like one of us. I don’t have a neat answer for that, which resolves all the contradictions and gives us a capsule understanding of Brown that we can put on a shelf and take for granted. Right now, I feel confident that Brown did wrong for a good cause. After I spend some time reading about slavery I tend to feel that everyone involved in enslaving others and defending the business have no rights the rest of us should feel bound to respect. Neither position sits easily with me. Both feel right at the time but not on more distant reflection.

Gentle Readers, please forgive me for the poor form of not ending with a conclusion for all of this; I don’t think there is one.