America's Good Terrorist

John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

Charles P Poland jr

A biography of John Brown, examining his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, and the part his actions played in causing the Civil War.
Date Published :
July 2023
Publisher :
Illustration :
40 photos, 5 maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781612009254
Pages : 336
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : In stock
Binding. : Paperback
ISBN : 9781636243221
Pages : 336
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : Not Yet Published. Available for Pre-Order
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A biography of John Brown, examining his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, and the part his actions played in causing the Civil War.

John Brown is a common name, but the John Brown who masterminded the failed raid at Harpers Ferry was anything but common. His failed efforts have left an imprint upon our history, and his story still swirls in controversy. Was he a madman who felt his violent solution to slavery was ordained by Providence or a heroic freedom fighter who tried to liberate the downtrodden slave? These polar opposite characterizations of the violent abolitionist have captivated Americans. The prevailing view from the time of the raid to well into the twentieth century—that his actions were the product of an unbalanced mind—has shifted to the idea that he committed courageous acts to undo a terrible injustice.

The debate still rages, but not as much about his ultimate goal as the method he used in attempting to right what he considered an intolerable wrong. Are citizens justified in bypassing the normal legal or governmental processes in a violent way when they fail, in the eyes of the dissenter, to correct a wrong that touched so many? Brown’s use of violence was to strike terror in the heart of slave owners, terror that Brown hoped would intimidate them to free their slaves to ensure their families’ safety.

Despite the differences between modern terrorist acts and Brown’s own violent acts, when Brown’s characteristics are compared to the definition of terrorism as set forth by scholars of terrorism, he fits the profile. Nevertheless, today Brown is a martyred hero who gave his life attempting to terminate the evil institution of human bondage. Brown’s violent method of using terrorism to accomplish this is downplayed or ignored, despite being labeled by historians as America’s first terrorist. The modern view of Brown has unintentionally made him a "good terrorist," despite the repugnance of terrorism that makes the thought of a benevolent or good terrorist an oxymoron.

This new biography covers Brown's background and the context to his decision to carry out the raid, a detailed narrative of the raid and its consequences for both those involved and America; and an exploration of the changing characterization of Brown since his death.

About The Author

Dr. Charles Poland has taught history for more than five decades, touching the lives of thousands of students and community members in Northern Virginia. A scholar of the American Civil War, he promotes direct engagement with history and its tools. For example, from 1977 to 2015 he conducted celebrated field-trip courses to the major and minor battlefields of the Civil War. He is the creator of a mobile Civil War Museum with hundreds of artifacts and documents that he toured to public schools across the region. The author of eight books, he has appeared on television and radio and made countless presentations to historic, civic, and educational groups on the Civil War and the impact of unfettered development in Northern Virginia.


1: The Making of a Terrorist
2: Launching the War of Liberation
3: Igniting the Fuse: The Attack on Harpers Ferry
4: Anguish and Travail
5: An Agitated Nation
6: The Rush to Judgment
7: Hemp Justice
8: Rehearsal for War
Bibliographical Comment


"Poland’s account is enhanced by the skill with which he introduces Brown’s followers, whose commitment to their cause was clearly amplified by Brown’s charisma. The stories of their roles in the planning and execution of the raid make the descriptions of their fates read like first-rate fiction, some enduring incredible hardship to escape Brown’s fate, others sharing it on the gallows."

- Patrick Reed, Emeritus Professor of History, Northern Virginia Community College

"...a good book on a still controversial subject."

- The NYMAS Review

This is an interesting and thought provoking read, which is accordingly recommended. It would make an interesting, but uncomfortable, wargame.

- Miniature Wargames

"America’s Good Terrorist is both captivating and rewarding—and a meticulous narrative of Harpers Ferry. It is excellent as history and quite appealing as biography."

- HistoryNet

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