We already know that the mass murderer in Vegas can’t be a terrorist because he was white. It’s hard to imagine anything that gets closer to the deep, dark heart of racism in America than the automatic exclusion of mass murder by whites as “terrorism,” making that an inherently racialized word. And while this modern discussion of terrorism is recent, the term has always been politicized in American culture to mean foreign scary other people.
Originally, the term terrorism referred to a specific kind of foreign political violence. From the beginning, however, using the word terrorism or terrorist in the United States meant staking a position in domestic politics. It was never a neutral term. (A warning: This is a blogpost, so what follows is a preliminary and impressionistic discussion.)
The earliest use of terrorism I’ve found in an American newspaper appeared in Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States in April 1795. This story described a Parisian crowd celebrating the fall of the Jacobins as rulers of revolutionary France. The anti-Jacobin crowd burned an effigy, which held “a poignard, the emblem of terrorism” in its hand. This article was reprinted in the Baltimore Federal Intelligencer, the Boston Federal Orrery, the Stockbridge Western Star, the Bridgeport American Telegraphe, and the Brookfield Moral and Political Telegraphe over the next three weeks. Notably, all of these newspapers were associated to some degree with the developing faction we know as the Federalists.
As the first American symbol of terrorism, the poignard—or dagger—also tells us a lot about the concept. The poignard was the archetypical instrument of assassins, as iconic as France’s guillotine. These two weapons, representing mass political violence (in private and in public, respectively), seem to have defined Americans’ image of terrorism in the 1790s. Another article passed around by American editors in the summer of 1795 compared the “the axe of terrorism,” i.e., the blade of the guillotine, with the old hangman’s gallows—”the gibbet of royalism.” Perhaps the availability of these powerful symbols helps explain how terrorism later became a widely used label.
For now, terrorism had a very specific meaning. It referred to the violence and repression of la Terreur, the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), when a French revolutionary government led by Jacobins, including Maximilien de Robespierre, set out to purge France of all traces of counterrevolution. Allies of the Washington administration, alarmed about the course of the French Revolution, introduced the term terrorism to the United States by using it in this technical sense. It did not take long, however, for American editors to start flinging the label at their domestic political rivals.
As early as September 1795, the Gazette of the United States declared that if President Washington had given in to pressure from Democratic-Republican societies on the subject of Jay’s Treaty, then “Jacobin clubs would have followed to regulate the government on every important point” and “terrorism would have been established” in America—probably complete with “a Robespierre and a guillotine.” In June 1798, conversely, Philadelphia’s Republican Aurora complained about “the systems of despotism and terrorism imposed by the tories”—that is, repressive measures adopted by Federalists.
Later, terrorism lost its specificity and consistency as the French Revolution receded into memory. In 1805, a correspondent of the New London Connecticut Gazette denounced the Republicans as being “in fact jacobins and terrorists“; in this case, the term may refer to ideological radicalism more than to violence or repression. In 1810, the New York Public Advertiser warned about “a renewed reign of federal [i.e., Federalist] terrorism” from “the enemies of the people.” Four years later, the Philadelphia Democratic Press vaguely denounced the Hartford Convention as a manifestation of “the melancholy madness of uninfluential individuals, or a trick of terrorism.” The term was in danger of becoming a generic term of political abuse, like tyranny. The concept may also have had less potency as the French threat to America seemed to recede and as the Federalists lost power. For three decades, its appearances in the press seem to have been infrequent.
In the 1830s, though, the term seems to have taken root again in the American press, perhaps because of stories about new foreign revolutions. By the late 1830s, talk of terrorism was once again common in American newspapers. Now, however—to judge by a cursory examination of these articles—the term rarely meant anything more specific than organized political coercion or intimidation. The term has been part of the American political lexicon ever since.