Terrorism in America from the colonial period to John Brown

Authored by: Matthew Jennings

The Routledge History of Terrorism

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415535779
eBook ISBN: 9781315719061
Adobe ISBN: 9781317514879


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As far back as we can see into the North American past, terror-inducing tactics are present. They were one piece of a larger toolkit that featured violence of various kinds in Native America. The arrival of Europeans challenged Native ways of violence and brought new technologies and styles of terrorism to bear. There is no shortage of provocative and symbolic acts of violence associated with European colonization; an attempt to catalog all of these acts would run to an absurd length. On colonial plantations, Europeans relied upon terror to keep a large enslaved population in check and at work. When the seaboard colonies rebelled against British authority in the late eighteenth century, both sides relied upon acts of violence to terrorize their adversaries. As the newly independent United States established itself as a continental power, it relied on something akin to state terror to stake its claim to a wide swath of North America, and Native people and the Mexican republic responded in kind. Finally, as the fight over slavery and slavery’s expansion became the consuming political passion, pro-slavery and anti-slavery partisans used terror tactics to advance their cause. The fact that “terrorism” as a term is of comparatively recent vintage presents some difficulties when it comes to applying the concept to the distant past, and many of the incidents below do not fall into neat categories. 1 For example, the European and later US genocide against Native peoples could be considered “state terror” from the perspective of the United States, since Native land claims were seen as invalid. Native nations perceived the conflict between themselves and colonizers as between sovereign entities, so the use of the phrase “state terror” would privilege the US perspective. Other terminological problems arise because few people in early America drew the same lines that contemporary commenters might between public and private violence, or state and non-state violence. Rather than dissect each violent act which follows to figure out which specific brand of terrorism it may constitute, this chapter focuses on events which provoked controversy in their own time or seem striking for some other reason, in an effort to show that violence intended to provoke terror has been present from the very beginning of American history.

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