John Brown: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter


John Brown was an abolitionist who chose to liberate slaves by force. His actions were extremely controversial, and to this day, they can spark a debate about their righteousness. James McPherson describes this conflict of perception in his essay Escape and Revolt in Black and White. This paper will examine the presented evidence for Brown being a terrorist and a freedom fighter, as well as how McPherson and I view John Brown.

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Evidence of Terrorism

McPherson states that the image of Brown as a Terrorist became most prevalent in the south of the country (37). For example, he presents Robert Penn Warren’s biography of Brown titled “John Brown: The Making of a Martyr.” Warren was a prominent southern writer, and his views on Brown were very negative. He wrote that Brown’s war was only a reason to steal money and property from people of the American South (McPherson 37).

According to a modern expert on criminal justice, James Gilbert, the actions of John Brown, can be considered terrorism due to their unlawful nature and use of violence (McPherson 38).

Evidence of Freedom Fighting

In response to the opinion that John Brown was a terrorist, a more complex line of thinking emerges. Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism presented an argument that not only Brown’s actions would be considered terrorism under the law of the time but so would the actions of Robert E. Lee because both men used violence to fulfill their ambitions. Both saw their own actions as just and not unlawful (McPherson 39). This argument leaves only the ideas they fought for as the differentiating factor between their violence, and Brown’s ideas were much more akin to freedom fighting, rather than terrorism. Brown used violence against a violent and inhuman regime. This, by all accounts, is considered heroic in most cultures.

McPherson’s Opinion

McPherson devotes the majority of the essay to examine the events of John Brown’s actions, as well as both sides of the arguments around him. However, he does not openly write about his feelings on this question. It is possible to assume that McPherson sees Brown as a freedom fighter because he chooses to end the essay on a relatively positive note about him. His final quotes come from an admirer of Brown, and the essay ends with only a few neutral sentences (McPherson 39).

Most Convincing Arguments

I found the arguments presented by David Reynolds to be the most convincing. He is quoted as saying that Brown was a “terrorist for freedom” (McPherson 39), which I find to be a very accurate description of a freedom fighter. Brown’s actions were clearly violent in nature, but its goals were undoubtedly just in their nature. Slavery is not a morally defensible institution. No action in support of it can be seen as a positive, even if it became a tradition in the area. Therefore, I find Brown to be a freedom fighter, similar to those who opposed the Nazi regime in occupied territories during World War II. It is likely that they would also be labeled as “terrorists” by the unjust and cruel Nazi regime.


John Brown is a controversial figure, but perhaps he should not be. The men that he killed were diehard supporters of slavery, and even in the 1800s, their actions were considered barbaric by a large part of the world. McPherson’s essay presents the idea that despite the violence he used, it could be seen as an act of freedom fighting against a regime of bondage and indignity.

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Work Cited

McPherson, James M. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. Oxford University Press, 2009.

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"John Brown: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter." StudyCorgi, 26 Mar. 2021,

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