Analogies: Was Timothy McVeigh Our John Brown?

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By Clayton Cramer. Mr. Cramer, who describes himself as"a software engineer by day, historian by night," holds an MA in history and is the author of several books.

The public perception of John Brown has gone through a quite substantial transformation since his execution in 1859. While there were those like Thoreau who were prepared to publish “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” the more common perception of Brown at the time was that he was a villain, an evil man prepared to commit horrifying atrocities in his fanatic devotion to abolitionism.

Within a few years, he was rehabilitated as a “premature Unionist” (to paraphrase a term used during World War II with reference to members of the Communist-front Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War), and Union soldiers sang “John Brown's Body” before the more lasting words of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were attached to the same music.

By the 1930s, Brown appears in art works as some odd mixture of proto-Marxist revolutionary and Old Testament patriarch. While my own undergraduate history classes tended to portray Brown as a less than heroic figure because of his willingness to murder during Bleeding Kansas, I am somewhat disturbed by a tendency to cast Brown in heroic terms.

It is possible to cast Brown as a hero-and some insist on seeing him in that light. Certainly, John Brown was portrayed in my secondary education as a heroic figure, and it sounds like McVeigh received a similar image of Brown. I am afraid that this portrayal of a wanton killer as a hero persists today.

This concern is not simply a matter of history, but of current events, and the model that John Brown presents for the alienated and disaffected of today. Timothy McVeigh explicitly cast himself as a modern-day John Brown shortly before his execution."One of his big heroes was John Brown, who committed some very violent acts during the 1800s in the effort to eliminate slavery in our country," according to journalist Dan Herbeck.

The analogies are strong: both men saw systems of brutality, and concluded that they were justified in responding with brutality. For Timothy McVeigh, it was blowing up a building filled with people against whom he had no direct hostility; for John Brown, it was murdering people like James P. Doyle and his two adult sons at Pottawatomie, Kansas. There was nothing even close to self-defense involved; Brown threatened to burn the Doyle cabin down if Doyle and his adult sons did not come out. They did so, and then Brown’s men, smashing the Doyles’ heads open with swords, chopped off the arms of one of the sons. It was a crime of enormous brutality.

While some recent scholarly histories indicate that Doyle was antislavery, and was picked by Brown for murder only because of his Catholicism and Tennessee accent, most historians believe that Doyle was proslavery—though I have found no printed source that indicates that Doyle played any part in the murders of Free Soilers in Kansas, about which Brown was understandably upset.

On the other hand, James Townsley's 1882 statement concerning the Pottawatomie Massacre is very clear that Brown intended a general slaughter, based purely on political affiliation:

After supper, John Brown first revealed to me the purpose of the expedition. He said it was to sweep the Pottawatomie of all Pro-slavery men living on it. To this end, he desired me to guide the company some five or six miles up to the forks of the creek, into the neighborhood where I lived, and point out to him on the way up, the residences of all the Pro-slavery men, so that on the way down, he might carry out his designs. Horrified at his purpose, I positively refused to comply with his request, saying that I could not take men out of their beds and kill them in that way. Brown said, “Why don't you fight your enemies.” To which I replied, “I have no enemies I can kill in that way.”

It is interesting to see historians today defending, or at least excusing, this sort of bluntly political murder by John Brown. In connection with the recent PBS documentary about John Brown, there is an interview with Professor Paul Finkelman: “So, wherever Brown goes he is facing the possibility that he might be attacked, that he might be killed. We remember the Pottawatomie killings where Brown is responsible for the death of five pro-slavery settlers, but before Pottawatomie, at least six free-state settlers had been gunned down by Missourians, and the law had done nothing about that. No people who shot free-settlers were ever arrested, were ever tried. So, the law is all stacked against the free-state settlers.”

Now, I understand that this was Brown's perspective. It was also Timothy McVeigh's perspective—that because there was no justice done for crimes at Ruby Ridge and Waco, it was okay for him to engage in an act of war. But what are our schools teaching undergraduates about John Brown?

It is possible to cast Brown as a hero—and some insist on seeing him in that light. Certainly, John Brown was portrayed in my secondary education as a heroic figure, and it sounds like McVeigh received a similar image of Brown. I am afraid that this portrayal of a wanton killer as a hero persists today. When I first pointed out the similarities between Brown and McVeigh on a professional historian email list, Professor Finkelman (who I am sure is not alone in this perception), responded that Brown had showed great restraint: “Had Brown wished to take life for its own sake, as McVeigh did, he would have killed all the people in the Doyle cabin, including his wife and young children. Similarly, had he wished to take life in Harpers Ferry he had enough powder to blow up the town; he carefully avoided taking life unnecessarily, including captured slaveowners like Lewis Washington.” Finkelman also defended the murders in Kansas as, “in Kansas there was in fact a civil war; people were being killed; people had threatened to kill the Browns, including all or some of those killed at Pottawatomie.”

Of course, the problem with this view is that Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie, even if Finkelman is right that Doyle had threatened Brown’s life, would have been unjustified by either civilian laws of self-defense, or by the rules of war. Even in nineteenth century America, while it was lawful to kill someone who made a plausible threat against your life, it was not lawful to wait a few days, come up on their house in the middle of the night, threaten to kill their family, then march your enemy into the woods and hack them to death.

Finkelman also defended the murders in Kansas as, “in Kansas there was in fact a civil war; people were being killed; people had threatened to kill the Browns, including all or some of those killed at Pottawatomie.” While prisoners of war were sometimes executed (as happened to black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow), it was not considered lawful. If three years later, Brown had been a Union Army officer, and did to Confederate soldiers what he did to Doyle and his sons, it would have been a criminal act, and recognized as such.

It is also possible to teach John Brown as a tragic figure, a person who felt that the evil of slavery left him no choice but to do likewise. The tragedy is that a person of good intentions felt so trapped by circumstances that he became evil to fight evil.

Let me be very clear on this: I am not suggesting that the strong parallels to John Brown make McVeigh some sort of heroic figure. But they do suggest that if we teach John Brown as an heroic figure, at least some students may decide that there are no legitimate rules of warfare in revolutionary struggle—with disastrous results in the future.


By Paul Finkelman. Mr. Finkelman is Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Tulsa College of Law.

The comparison of John Brown to Timothy McVeigh is simplistic and lacks any grounding in the history of the 1850s. Moreover, it ignores the nature of McVeigh's actions. Cramer also misinterprets my statements. I do not defend"the murders in Kansas." The very term"murder" implies a legal standard that arguably is inapplicable to war time. The events at Pottawatomie took place in the context of the worst kind of violence: a civil war. But, one need not defend one act of violence to understand that it is not the same as another.

In Kansas there was in fact an on-going civil war. This is a reality that Cramer ignores. A number of antislavery people had already been killed by proslavery forces. A number of those killed in Pottawatomie were involved in killings and had threatened to kill the Browns. The role of the Doyles in these events is contested, but no one contests that the rest of the adult males in the Doyle cabin were heavily involved in proslavery violence. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine who exactly was threatening to kill McVeigh. In fact no one was. No one had shot at McVeigh or his neighbors. None of his neighbors had been killed or threatened. His enemies were distant and remote. Unable to find them, he chose scores of average, unarmed people, including many children in a day care center.

McVeigh claimed to be avenging Waco and Ruby Ridge, but even McVeigh would have admitted that no one killed at Oklahoma City had anything to do with those events. Moreover, his misunderstanding or purposeful reconceptualization of the events at Waco differ sharply from events in Kansas. The tragedy at Waco began when David Koresh began to store weapons and refused legitimate processes of the government. He is the one who began the war against the United States that ended so sadly. These tragedies began when people barricaded themselves in compounds with arms and resisted lawful process of the United States. No one would have been harmed at either place if the people inside these compounds had been peaceful.

This contrasts with events in Kansas, where free staters had been shot down by slave staters, and where armed bands of proslavery settlers and border ruffians had begun the violence in Kansas. Significantly, when Brown's sons moved to Kansas they had very few weapons. In May, 1855 a fearful Salmon Brown wrote his father:"There is a great lack of arms here." Similarly, John Brown, Jr. wrote his father that the antislavery men were"desperately short of guns." John Jr. begged his father to find some wealthy supporters of the cause to buy guns."Give us the arms, and we are ready for the contest." At the moment they had only a few Sharps rifles, sent by some eastern abolitionists. Thus it was that in the summer of 1855 John Brown toured the east and midwest, raising money to buy Colt revolvers, Sharps rifles, powder, caps, and swords. In other words, the antislavery men who came to Kansas did not initially come to fight but to settle and to win at the ballot box. Only when proslavery forces used weapons, violence, and vote fraud, did the Browns and others defend themselves with arms.

An incident that took place shortly after Pottawatomie illustrates the difference between Waco and Kansas. Had David Koresh peacefully submitted to lawful process, no one would have been harmed there. This contrasts with events in Kansas. A U.S. army patrol led by a minister from Missouri encountered one of Brown's sons, who was not armed at the time. He offered no resistance to them and was nevertheless shot and killed by the minister with the Army watching.

No one had ever threatened McVeigh or his neighbors or family. In his fantasy mind he was avenging the death of people at Waco he did not even know. Thus, he took it upon himself to kill indiscriminately people who had no connection to those events, and who threatened no one.

Cramer compares Brown to McVeigh, but without any consideration of the intentions of the two men or the scale of their actions. Had Brown wished to take life for its own sake, as McVeigh did, he would have killed all the people in the Doyle cabin, including his wife and young children. Similarly, had he wished to take life in Harpers Ferry he had enough powder to blow up the town; he carefully avoided taking life unnecessarily, including captured slave owners like Lewis Washington. Indeed, at Harpers Ferry Brown had no desire to kill anyone. McVeigh's only goal was to kill as many people as possible.

The comparisons between McVeigh and Brown, if they exist, are only in that both were executed and that in both cases the government set itself up to allow the men to cast themselves as martyrs. Brown was successful, in part because he was not a cold blooded mass killer, and because he was very bright, shrewd, and sophisticated. McVeigh, it seems has failed. Brown was successful in what sense? He made himself a martyr, and was one of the factors that made any sort of peaceful settlement of the slavery dispute impossible.

There is also one other difference, which is centrally important. Brown was fighting a real institution of evil: slavery. McVeigh's war against the American people and our government seemed to have no purpose, except to take life for its own sake. McVeigh was fighting against a government that had never threatened him or in any way harmed him.

There is another issue here, which focuses on political change. To a great extent, peaceful political change in the 1850s was impossible. In the South there was no free speech for people like Brown and no political debate. While the South was a democracy for whites, it was so only for whites who accepted slavery and the racial status quo. Those who opposed that status quo -- such as James G. Birney, Francis Leiber, Hinton R. Helper -- were all forced to leave the South. When Massachusetts sent former Congressman Samuel Hoar to South Carolina to negotiate the status of free black sailors, the South Carolina authorities sent him backing in a day, saying that it was unsafe for him to be in Charleston. Louisiana authorities would not even let Henry Hubbard land to discuss these issues.

Similarly, in Kansas democratic process had broken down. Fraudulent elections had created an illegitimate government in Kansas that was in the process of criminalizing antislavery speech.

For McVeigh, however, the political process was open. His free speech was not constrained; he was free to run for office, vote, support candidates of his choice. Unlike opponents of slavery in Kansas or Virginia in the 1850s, McVeigh was free to run for office opposing the policies of the U.S. Government. He was free to speak out. No one would have tried to kill him for doing so.

We do not need to deify John Brown to understand his moral and political significance. But, the comparison to McVeigh makes no sense at all. Moreover, one suspects that the desire of those who make the comparison is to somehow wrap McVeigh in the moral righteousness of Brown's opposition to slavery (however one might feel about his tactics), rather than to see McVeigh for what he was: a stone cold killer, willing to take life indiscriminately because of some strange and pathetic notion of political reality he had come to believe.

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Lara Braveheart - 12/8/2008

Mr. Paul Finkelman, Mr. Clayton Cramer; and Mr. Peter J. Herz

CC: Practicing Radical Hon(our)sty Blog

I guess you are either unaware of the article I wrote on this matter prior to Mr. McVeigh's alleged execution (the execution was faked, as confirmed in person for me, by Governor Gray Davis Secret Service Office; as well as Mr. McVeigh's OKC Bombing Special Forces Commanding Officer (with approval from his Commanding Officer at the Pentagon), John Doe #3); submitted to President George W. Bush; requesting Mr. McVeigh be pardoned pending whether the American people/OKC 'victims' would consider resolving the OKC bombing through Radical Honesty Forgiveness; should the American people choose subsequent to the opportunity to get Radical Honesty Forgiveness closure on the issue with Mr. McVeigh; that he should still be executed, then President Bush (or I guess Obama, should he choose to take over the issue from Pres. Bush) would order both myself and McVeigh executed.

The article is titled, "I was, and still am, a co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City Bombing", by Lara Braveheart (www.thomas-j-mcveigh.co.nr); and the only news publication that was willing to publish it prior to the alleged execution, was the alternative news magazine of the NEW ABOLITIONIST SOCIETY, i.e. RACE TRAITOR. (under the title "Tim McVeigh and Me")

FYI: It was submitted to all mainstream media publications, and most alternative (left) and (right) media publications. I am surprised as 'Historian Researchers' you are unaware of it; considering that it is online, and easily accessible. Or would you prefer to simply ignore it's existence? Might it be easier to remain in intellectual la-la-land, than to deal with In Your Face Reality Land?

Apologies for brutal frankness; I imagine you are capable of considering the opinions of a Professor Stephen Malley different kind of trailortrash Ph.D.?

Respectfully Submitted

Lara Braveheart

Peter J. Herz - 10/9/2001

Timothy McVeigh is not a good analogue to John Brown. Better ones might be several persons now incarcerated for the assassinations of abortionists or physical damage to abortion centers.

Like slavery in the 19th century, abortion is highly controversial in the American politics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is also an issue on which a middle ground is either difficult or impossible to find. Further, by targeting indiviual abortionists or clinics rather than engaging in indiscriminate destruction, the violent anti-abortion fighters engage in behaviour similar to Brown's in the Bleeding Kansas episode.

Off topic slightly: isn't it ironic that the first Southerner killed in the Harper's Ferry raid was the local train station's baggage master, a free person of color?