Who Is a Terrorist? “Terrorism” in the Long 18th Century

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. jacques-Louis David, 1812.  [Source]

Who is a terrorist?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston marathon bomber, will be tried as a civilian and not as an enemy combatant.  Tsarnaev is an American citizen, but he’s also a suspected terrorist – hence debate over the mode of trial, and a related controversy over his Miranda rights. We tend to reflexively identify terrorists as international operatives, despite instances of (and increasing anxiety over) “homegrown” terrorists.  But what we call homegrown terrorism – plotting within a target nation – is in fact somewhat closer to the original English use of the word, which dates from the eighteenth century, and which was coined to describe the (potentially violent) thwarting of political participation.

“Terrorist” first entered the English language in Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, written and published throughout 1795 and 1796 –the politician and philosopher’s extended argument against England ending its war with France, and his last reaction to the French Revolution. It came directly from the French “terroriste” and “terrorisme,” both of which came into use in 1794, during the most violent phase of the Revolution. The French Constitution of 1795 had been widely opposed; riots were put down by a young Napoleon Bonaparte.  “Twenty thousand regular Troops garrison Paris,” wrote Burke. “Thus a complete Military Government is formed…To secure them further, they have a strong corps of irregulars, ready armed. Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists…are let loose on the people.” He concluded: “The whole of their Government, in its origination, in its continuance, in all its actions, and in all its resources, is force; and nothing but force.”

Terrorism here is associated with government coercion, with wielding illegitimate power – illegitimate because it had no consent from the people: “This year’s Constitution…is the only one which in its very formation has been generally resisted… It never had a popular choice even in show.”

Burke’s usage was echoed by Jeremy Bentham some twenty years later in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform. Bentham listed “the Terrorist” as a figure “by whom freedom of suffrage is destroyed…The terrorist is he who obtains his seat by the motive of fear…he who repels, quells, subdues, or excludes any competitor.” For Bentham, too, terrorism represented a perversion of the political process.

In this emphasis on the nature of unsanctioned power, however, we can see that the emotional resonance of the word was the same then as now: unpredictability, violence, and fear.


Guns and Austen

The military contrast, print from 1773

The military contrast, print from 1773. Source: ECF Tumblr

Jacqueline Langille, Managing Editor of the journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction, offers a weekly post on the ECF Tumblr that features a thematic collection of articles from the journal’s archives.  The links she posts take you to abstracts of the articles, and from there you can freely download the articles in full.  As many journals charge hefty fees both to institutions and individual subscribers, Eighteenth-Century Fiction must be commended for allowing open access to its articles.  If you are an enthusiast of eighteenth-century studies, you should follow the ECF Tumblr!  This week’s ECF Tumblr post features the entire Special Issue of the journal from 2006 on War/La Guerre, including an essay that is a recurring favorite of my students: Christopher Loar’s “How to Say Things With Guns: Military Technology and the Politics of Robinson Crusoe.”

Susan Celia Greenfield, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, has been writing a series of blog posts for the Huffington Post this fall called The Jane Austen Weekly.  She makes provocative and convincing connections between Jane Austen and contemporary events, demonstrating the continuing importance of the (long) eighteenth century, which is very much our goal at The 18th-Century Common as well.  This week she reminds us that we learn from Austen’s (in)famous narrative reticence to be suspicious of an unironic desire for narrative control such as we heard expressed repeatedly by both sides in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The Jane Austen Society of North America just released its Call for Papers for its Annual Meeting in Montreal in October 2014.  JASNA is famously open to academics and nonacademics alike, and as such is a real-life model for the kind of meeting of minds that we hope to achieve at The 18th-Century Common.  For all you know, we may even be administering The 18th-Century Common in Regency costumes…

Fear and Love in a Revolutionary War

The memory began like a fairytale or Greek myth.  A young soldier walked along a forest road in the Highlands in the summer of 1780, the fifth year of the war.  Turning a corner, about forty yards off, he saw a young woman who had “divested herself of some of her outside garments” in the heat of the day.  As the soldier later recalled, she quickly slipped on her clothes and continued towards him, at first “seemingly quite unconcerned.”  She quickly changed her mind – clearly concluding “it would not be quite safe to encounter a solider in such a place” – and ran off through the underbrush.  The soldier called after her – but she only ran faster.  “She seemed,” he thought, “in a violent panic” (A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier172).

The young woman’s fear was well-founded.  In the War for Independence, King George’s Regulars and George Washington’s Continentals alike robbed houses and barns, drove off livestock, and smashed up fences for firewood.  Rogue soldiers assaulted women – a crime that propagandists either played up or covered up, depending on the predator’s uniform.  Despite deep-seated mistrust, under the right circumstances, soldiers and civilians could get on.  But when?  How?

One answer lay with the soldiers themselves.  As soldiers, young Continentals were outsiders, strangers.  If, however, civilians saw these soldiers as youths – as the overwhelming majority of soldiers were youths – they could fit them into a familiar place in their communities.  Soldiers could win kindness from wary civilians and a warm spot by the fire when they reminded inhabitants of their own sons, when they hired themselves out as labor, and when they courted local girls.

The inhabitants’ existing relationship with soldiers mattered immensely:  had they suffered at soldiers’ hands or did they miss their own lads who had gone for soldiers?  Private Joseph Plumb Martin recalled the kindness of a “good old housewife” who “lamented that we had no mothers nor sisters to take care of us.”  Because her own sons had suffered hunger, cold, and filth in the army, she fed the teenaged soldiers “with as much ease and familiarity as though we had belonged to the family” (A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier217).  Emotional connection helped some civilians see the familiar youth within the soldier on their doorstep.

For their part, young soldiers could ease their relationships with civilians by presenting themselves as helpful and subordinate.  When his Pennsylvania regiment traveled south to Yorktown, Samuel Dewees – who was little more than a boy – was left behind with some fellow musicians, invalids, and raw recruits.  Billeted at a public house run by the Zeiglers, he became an accepted member of the household.  “I drew my rations and handed them to the family,” he recalled.  “I lived here (I may state) at home, for I ate at the table with the family, and was treated as one of the family.”  When he wasn’t practicing his fife, Dewees undertook “many little jobs of work for the family” (A History233).  He lived with the Zeiglers for half a year.  The boy soldier made himself no different from a hired hand or apprentice.

John Robert Shaw, a young British deserter who had joined the Continental army, showed how young soldiers could slip into civilian communities while still serving in the army.  Garrisoned at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Shaw was doubly an outsider as a soldier and an Englishman.  This proved to matter little in the ethnically diverse crossroads town.  Indeed, after “a considerable time” in town, Shaw “began to grow weary of the single life” and “paid addresses to a certain young woman,” Mary O’Hara, an Irish immigrant who worked for an inn-keeper.  After a short courtship, Shaw reported they “were married at the home of Mr. Robert Johnson, a respectable citizen, who gave us a good dinner, and in the evening, I was conducted to the barracks, with my new bride, by a number of soldiers of the first respectability.”  Shaw had to bridge military and civilian spheres to support his wife, getting permission from his officers to work in the town and then scoring employment with a merchant in town “by the recommendation and interest of one Robert Gibson,” a prominent townsman (Autobiography, 57-58).  Work and marriage brought Shaw into the community’s embrace.

Courtship proved fear and fascination could go hand in hand.  As a song from 1778 put it, “Hark! the distant Drum, / Lasses all look frighted; / But, when Soldiers come, / Girls how you’re delighted.”  Sally Wister, a Quaker teenager in Pennsylvania demonstrated exactly these feelings in October 1777.  Her first encounters with Continental soldiers began with the terrifying appearance of dragoons at her father’s door seeking to buy horses.  Though bristling with weapons, they proved polite.  The Wisters were fortunate an American general chose their well-appointed house for his headquarters – “which,” Sally wrote to a friend, “secur’d us from straggling soldiers.”  With no predators to fear, the girls of the household turned hunters:  “our dress and lips were put in order for conquest and the hopes of adventures gave brightness to each.”  With the girls stalking so many young officers, it was not surprising when one “fell violently in love with Liddy at first sight,” while Sally herself swooned over a major from Maryland.  “How new is our situation,” she exclaimed, “I am going to my chamber to dream I suppose of bayonets and swords, sashes, guns, and epaulets” (Journal and Occasional Writings, 43-50).  A surgeon at West Point wryly noted the military side of the battle of the sexes, describing how one young officer had been “mortally wounded – with one of Cupid’s arrows, I mean, shot from the small blue eyes of a minister’s daughter…” (Samuel Adams to Sally Preston Adams, 11 August 1779).

During the Revolution, civilians might see the familiar form of a young man under the threatening guise of a soldier if he presented himself as a potential member of their community.  These positive encounters stand out as exceptions, however.  Historically, civilians suffer at the hands of soldiers – whether they be eighteenth century foraging parties searching for food or twenty-first century sentries at dusty checkpoints searching for insurgents.  And yet non-combatants tend to fade into the background of war stories.  Similarly, in the United States today soldier-civilian tensions are usually beyond our view, either far over the horizon or deep in the past.  For the revolutionary generation, however, the demands of armies on inhabitants – and the burdens of occupation – were fresh memories.  Rather than rely on young soldiers’ interest in work or women, citizens of the new republic insisted on the Constitution’s now-unremarkable Third Amendment, in which their consent and the due process of law would protect them from their soldiers.

(Jake Ruddiman is an Assistant Professor of History at Wake Forest University. His teaching and writing explore Revolutionary America as a hinge between eras.)