Criminologist James N. Gilbert, in contrast to the foregoing, states that Brown clearly employed terror tactics and possessed a psychopathic personality consistent with those found in terrorists. Quoting the FBI, Gilbert defines terrorism in strictly contemporary terms from the perspective of state authority: terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence” to “further political or social objectives” (109). “Unlawful” is the key word in Gilbert's definition. States define legal and illegal behavior, and protect the former and punish the latter. Brown believed that the daily terrorism of plantation slavery—what was slavery if not the use of violence to instill fear in order to achieve the planters' objectives—could not be overcome but through violence, a belief seemingly validated by federal support of often illegal actions taken to bolster slavery (e.g., presidential support for pro-slavery forces in Bleeding Kansas). While appeals to the transcendent—God, and Natural Law, for example—have been used to justify horrors, Gilbert's perfunctory dismissal of Brown's justifications for his actions denies historical context and robs of its sting his criticism that historians sympathetic to Brown have failed to label him a terrorist. Going beyond Brown, the author also mentions other “terrorists” who believed that entrenched state power justified violence to further their causes. Interestingly, he mentions mostly labor and radical groups, such as the Molly McGuires and the Weathermen of the 1960s, yet fails to cite the most widespread, successful, and clearly terrorist like group in American history: the first Ku Klux Klan, which arose in response to the success of Brown's struggle—the end of slavery. Despite these shortcomings, Gilbert's essay underscores the point that who one considers a terrorist depends upon how one defines terrorism. Gilbert's psychological profile of Brown as a psychopath also seems somewhat simplistic and legalistic since it is based solely on a few violent actions without any historical contextualization.
Kenneth R. Carroll offers a more sophisticated analysis of Brown's mental state in his essay, which most Ohio readers will find of particular interest for its references to Brown's family in the Buckeye State. After carefully analyzing Brown's writings and the affidavits of Ohio witnesses who knew the Brown family, Carroll concludes that Brown suffered from bipolar disorder, which made him susceptible to obsessions, and manic and irrational behavior. Carroll also asked three Brown scholars to answer a commonly used clinical diagnostic survey as they thought Brown would; the results strongly supported his conclusions. While not a “madman,” Brown's mental health may very well have shaped his response to the slavery. As Carroll notes, if Brown indeed suffered from mental illness, it probably led him to undertake a violent attack on slavery, and further explains the erratic, ill-planned nature of that attack. Carroll is careful to note, however, that Brown's mental health has nothing to do with his commitment to abolitionism and should not figure into any appraisal of the “righteousness of his purpose” (130).
Although this collection should not be the first for readers wishing to learn about Brown and his war on slavery, it does provide new insights into the man from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. It should serve well as a complement to traditional biographies of John Brown and is invaluable to readers who wish to look more closely at how the man and his legacy have fared in our collective memory.
Cleveland State University
<<Back Page 2 of 2