Told  /  Origin Story

“Terrorism” in the Early Republic

Originally, the term referred to a specific kind of foreign political violence.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5]