Terrorism is often described as a twenty-first-century evil, a form of violence without context or precedent. But the questions that it poses and the responses that it has provoked in recent years are not altogether new. “Terrorism”—as a political tactic, a cultural concept, and a law enforcement issue—has an extensive history in the United States and around the world. This installment of Teaching the JAH introduces students to the historical study of terrorism in the United States. It asks them to think broadly about how to define terrorism and how to situate the history of political violence within the wide context of American history. The primary sources raise a range of questions: How did men and women who committed acts of terrorism explain and/or justify their actions within their own historical circumstances? How did other segments of American society understand and respond to their behavior? How did those particular understandings shape political and legal institutions in the United States? And what, if any, tradition of “terrorism” can be said to exist in—or against—the United States?

Sections Guide

You may use the “Sections” menu on the upper right side of each page to navigate through this installment. Provided below is a summary of each section in this installment.


The full text of the article as it appeared in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of American History.

Teaching the Article

The author’s comments about using this article in the classroom. This installment includes seven exercises designed to be taught over two days:


A set of primary-source documents selected for use in teaching this article.