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John Bown: In His Own Words

Activity 1: John Brown's Letters

Read the letter from John Brown to Henry Stearns, July 15, 1857

Read John Brown Letters from Kansas

To read the letters, double click on each letter; wait a few moments until a button appears in the lower right hand corner of the letter; click on the button to expand the letters to readable size.

Questions to ask:

1. What do these letters tell us about John Brown’s personality and his attitudes toward his family?

2. What do these letters reveal about his motives for going to Kansas, his opinion of the pro-slavery forces in Kansas, his optimism or pessimism about the future of anti-slavery in Kansas, and his attitude toward violence?

Activity 2: John Brown in Art

How have artists and photographers portrayed John Brown?

Daguerreotype of John Brown
(circa 1847)
taken by Augustus Washington
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
John Brown
(before acquisition of beard which typifies him as the stormy prophet of emancipation).
(circa 1850)
Copy of daguerreotype,
National Archives and Records Administration
John Brown
bust-length ,
ca. 1856
Engraving from daguerreotype,
National Archives and Records Administration
John Brown
Photograph by Black and Bachelder. (1859)
Library of Congress.
Lithograph of John Brown
circa 1859)
three-quarter length portrait, facing left, holding New York Tribune, Library of Congress
John Brown,
head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right
Library of Congress.
Inscribed on print: Mrs. Hellen Brodt painted 1864.
John Brown Exhibiting His Hangman

Library of Congress
Freedom's immortal triumph! Finale of the Jeff Davis Die-nasty
(1865) Lithograph  
Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, Library of Congress
John Brown,
The Martyr

New York: Currier and Ives, Library of Congress
The Last Moments of John Brown
by Thomas Hovdenden,
deYoung Museum, San Francisco
Arraignment of John Brown
Drawing by James E. Taylor (1899)
John Brown, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right; reproduction of 1850s photograph(?) (c1899)
The Tragic Prelude
Mural by John Steuart Curry
(ca. 1937-42)
State Capital of Kansas

The Legend of John Brown,
( 1941)
Jacob Lawrence

Picture of John Brown
In the frontspiece of John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After by Villard.
Trial of John Brown
Sketched by Porte Crayon, reproduced from Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. Brown is pictured lying on a stretcher, still recovering from the sword wound inflicted by Israel Green.

Questions to ask:

1. Compare and contrast the various ways that artists have depicted John Brown.

2. Explain why these artists may have depicted John Brown in different ways.

Activity 3: How was John Brown depicted in contemporary newspapers?

Resource 1: Sesssion Era Editorials

Albany, New York Evening Journal [Republican], 18 October 1859
The telegraph during the past twenty-four hours has brought startling accounts of an "insurrection" at Harper's Ferry.

Charleston, South Carolina Mercury [Democratic], 18 October 1859
Our despatches this morning give us some particulars of a serious outbreak among the employees on the government works at Harper's Ferry, Virginia

Richmond, Virginia Whig [Opposition], 18 October 1859
There is at least no cause for uneasiness elsewhere in the State, notwithstanding the reports concerning the complicity of the negroes in the business.

Albany, New York Evening Journal [Republican], 19 October 1859
The leader of the conspiracy is stated to be Captain BROWN, of Kansas notoriety. This fact affords an explanation of some points in it otherwise inexplicable.

Resource 2: Valley of the Shadow Project

Staughton (Virginia) Spectator

  • October 18, 1859
  • November 1, 1859
  • November 8, 1859
  • November 22, 1859
  • December 6, 1859
  • December 20, 1859

The Valley Spirit (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania)

  • August 24, 1859
  • October 26, 1859
  • November 2, 1859
  • November 9, 1859
  • November 23, 1859
  • December 7, 1859
  • December 21, 1859

Questions to ask:

  • How do these accounts differ?
  • How are these accounts similar?
  • Why are they different?

Activity 4: : John Brown in Song

A search on the phrase, John Brown, at the Library of Congress' online exhibit, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets, produces songs that condemn and celebrate his actions.

The song, "The Fright of Old Virginia," provides a sympathetic account of the raid and Brown's fate with the chorus:

"Virginia is the state, you know,
That never feared a mortal foe;
But chivalry was rather low,
When Brown came to Old Virginia."

Read a transcription

Enlarge image

Library of Congress

"John Brown" echoes the sentiment by describing Brown as both a "hero, and a martyr" who "bled for the colored race . . . [and] longed to set them free."

Read a transcription

Enlarge image


Library of Congress

On the other hand, songs such as "John Brown's Entrance Into Hell," imagines Brown's final destination celebrated by Satan.

"John at my left, Abe at my right,
We'll give the heavenly hosts a fight....;
Abe's Cabinet, 'tis very true,

Will soon knock here as loud as you--
In short, the negroizing clan,
Are traveling here unto a man."

Read a transcription

Enlarge image

Library of Congress 

Questions to ask:

  • What words do songs that support John Brown use?
  • What words do songs that condemn John Brown use?
  • Do you think that any of these songs provide an objective account of John Brown's actions?
  • What are the specific targets of the songwriters' support or hatred?
  • How do these songs comment on both John Brown and the general issue of slavery?
  • Do you think that such songs might influence how John Brown is remembered in both the history books and in public memory?

These questions were developed by the Library of Congress.

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