Link to eXplorations Main Menu Link to John Brown Main Menu Link to John Brown: In His Own Words Link to John Brown  in Kansas Link to John Brown  and the Secret Six Link to John Brown  and Frederick Douglass Link to Planning the Raid Link to the Raid Link to the Interrogation of John Brown Link to the Trial of John Brown Link to Was John Brown Insane? Link to the Execution Link to the Public Response

Teacher Resources

Entire Unit |Lesson Plans

John Brown: In His Own Words | John Brown in Kansas
John Brown and the Secret Six | John Brown and Frederick Douglass
Planning the Raid | The Raid | Interrogation of John Brown
The Trial of John Brown | Was John Brown Insane? | The Execution
The Public Response

Entire Unit

History Professor Michael Eric Dyson once noted that, "America was founded on breaking the law." Ask students to describe the process to change a school policy that they don't like or disagree with.

Then discuss how to change governmental policies. Discuss and evaluate the ways in which policy is shaped and set, specifically including special interest groups. Issues that are relevant to your students should be used - for example, a local town sets a 10 pm curfew for teenagers, the state is considering raising the age for a driver's license, or the Federal Government decides to ban all skateboards in public places.

Ask students: Is it ever right to break the law? If so, when? If not, why not? Under what circumstances would students approve of breaking the law?

Vocabulary: insurgency (an armed rebellion against a constituted authority, by any irregular armed force that rises up against an enforced or established authority, government, or administration)

Frederick Douglass said of John Brown, "I could live for the slave, but he could die for him…" Today, Brown would be labeled a terrorist for his tactics in a bloody personal war against the South's "peculiar institution." Was John Brown a terrorist?

During the Civil War, many people became abolitionists. Why did these people - many of whom were white - become zealots and devote their lives to the anti-slavery cause?

Vocabulary: zealot: a fervent and even militant proponent of something

What causes, if any, do students believe are worth devoting one's life to? What causes, if any, are worth risking one's life or the lives of others for?

What issues today would arouse people's passions as seriously as John brown's raid on Harpers Ferry? Ask students to compare and contrast John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry with a contemporary religious conflict. They may present their findings in a presentation or report. Such conflicts might include Sikh terrorism, the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Christian—Muslim battles in Kosovo, or the Taleban vs. the Afghani government. Ask students to consider the following in analyzing and comparing conflicts: What is the cause? What groups make up the two sides? What does each want? How do the goals of each side affect the other? What are each group's methods? Do the goals justify means? How are innocent bystanders affected? What are outcomes of each conflict? Are these outcomes, in students' opinions, positive or negative? Ultimately, was each fight worth it? Is one fight more worthy than the other?


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John Brown: In His Own Words

This activity asks students to explore who John Brown was through a variety of media.

Music: Ask students to read the history of the John Brown song. Play a recording of the song in class, if possible.

A version of the song are available from the PBS website:
John Brown's Holy War

RealAudio [2min 7sec]
wav [472K -- 43 seconds]
wav [1.4MB -- 2min 7sec]

Then ask students to research historical songs of their choosing from our Historical Music page.

Here are some questions to begin:

  • What is the songwriter saying about the subject?
  • Why might this subject be worth featuring in a ballad?
  • What place in history does the subject hold?
  • How does the music make listeners feel about the subject? The lyrics?
  • Is the ballad a positive or negative portrayal?
  • How does the music relate to the life and times of the subject?
  • What do students learn about the subject from the song?
  • How is listening to a ballad different than reading about a subject or watching a filmed account?

Newspapers: John Brown's national notoriety was largely due to extensive newspaper coverage of his raid, trial, and execution. As an extension, ask students to write a fictional account of a meeting with John Brown. There are a variety of different types of articles: for example, profiles, news stories, features, and essays.

Students may write from a variety of viewpoints as well: Northern abolitionist, Southern anti-abolitionist, Free Soiler, freed slave, slave, neutral observer.

What was the Free Soil Party? The Free Soil Party merged with the Liberty Party in 1848. Their title clearly states their platform: no extension of slavery outside the boundaries of the Wilmot Proviso. Whigs attracted to the party nailed an internal improvements plank to the official platform. The party's campaign slogan was, "Free Soil, free speech, free labor, and free men."

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John Brown in Kansas


Bleeding Kansas: Aantislavery (Free State) and proslavery (Slave State) settlers rushed into Kansas to claim land and to ensure future status of slavery. Violence erupted in early 1855, and reached a climax in 1856. On May 21, 1856, 800 proslavery men, many from Missouri, marched into Lawrence, Kansas, to arrest the leaders of the antislavery government. The posse burned the local hotel, looted a number of houses, destroyed two antislavery printing presses, and killed one man. One member of the posse declared: "Gentlemen, this is the happiest day of my life. I determined to make the fanatics bow before me in the dust and kiss the territorial laws. I have done it, by God." No one was killed, though newspapers incorrectly reported that five free state settlers killed. John Brown heard this, and in retribution he and his followers murder five proslavery settlers a few days later with broadswords.

Bleeding Sumner: In May 1856, Charles Sumner (Sen, R, MA) gave a speech called “The Crime Against Kansas.” He says that proslavery settlers are outlaws, and are aided by southern politicians such as Sen. Butler of South Carolina. He also attacks Butler’s character. A few days later Butler’s nephew Preston Brooks (HR, D, SC) enters the Senate Chamber and beats Sumner with a cane while Sumner is trapped behind desk.

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John Brown and the Secret Six

Activity 1: Who Were the Secret Six?

Ask students to research each member of the "Secret Six":

  • Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe
  • Thomas Wentworth Higginson
  • Theodore Parker
  • Franklin Sanborn
  • Gerrit Smith
  • George Luther Stearns

Here are some resources:

Activity 2: The Trial of the Secret Six

In this activity students, students re-enact the trial of the six men who helped John Brown. This activity was written by Steve Pacheco, Tahanto Regional High School, Boylston, Massachusetts, and used with permission of the Museum of Massachusetts History.

The Trial of the Secret Six (PDF format)

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John Brown and Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass remarked, "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic."

Do students think that with Frederick Douglass was correct? Was John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry the first step towards the Civil War and ultimately the end of American slavery?

There were certainly positive and negative effects of the Harper's Ferry raid. In small groups, students can respond to the following questions:

  • What were immediate positive outcomes?
  • What were the immediate negative outcomes?
  • What were repercussions for the future?
  • What groups benefited from the raid?
  • What groups were negatively impacted?

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Planning the Raid

Use "John Brown's Movements, from June to December, 1859" at and an historical map to trace the route John Brown used to travel to Harper's Ferry in 1859.

You can use the National Atlas website to create and print maps for students to annotate. (

The interactive map at the PBS website, John Brown's Holy War, provides an example that maps Brown's life. (

Possible places to include with links to websites:

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The Raid

In this activity, students read three different accounts of the raid and compare them using a Venn diagram. Download a Venn Template (PDF format) to use in your classroom.

1. Have students read and take notes on “Recollections of the John Brown Raid by a Virginian Who Witnessed the Fight” at

2 . Have students read and take notes on “Charles White’s Account of the Raid at Harpers Ferry” at

3 . Ask students compare the two accounts. In what ways were they similar? In what ways were they different? Why are they different?

4. Ask students to read the newspaper account and note how it differs from the first two accounts, “Harper’s Ferry Tragedy- Mad Brown’s Insurrection at

5. In small groups, have the students produce a VENN diagram showing similarities and differences. Outside of the circles, have students list reasons why these differences might have occurred.

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Interrogation of John Brown


After students read the transcript of the interrogation, they could role play the events, then develop questions that they would have asked John Brown when he was captured.

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The Trial of John Brown

Activity 1: Were John Brown's actions just or unjust?

The class can reenact the trial of John Brown. Students should be assigned the role of those people quoted in the section "The Trial of John Brown" (John Brown, Mahala Doyle, Frances Ellen Watkins, Henry David Thoreau, a Richmond "Whig" reporter) and give testimony from each viewpoint. The judge, the prosecuting attorney, and his lawyer should also be chosen.

Prosecutors Charles B. Harding, assisted by Andrew Hunter, represented the Commonwealth of Virginia; and Lawson Botts and his assistant Mr. Green, were the original defense counsel for the prisoners. On the fourth day of the trial, when both Botts and Green resigned from the defense, Samuel Chilton, of Washington City, and Henry Griswold, of Cleveland, Ohio appeared as additional counsel for the prisoner.

The rest of the class can act as the jury, and vote by written ballot. Ballots should include a paragraph justifying each student's vote.

Read the account of the trial in the Life, Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown; 1859, Robert M. De Witt, publisher.

Activity 2: What if...?

This activity is from the National Park Service Study Guide, Harpers Ferry and the Story of John Brown

Ask students what they think would have happened if any of the circumstances surrounding the raid and the trial had been different. For example, what do they think would have happened if...

  • John Brown had escaped during the raid?
  • John Brown had been killed during the raid?
  • John Brown had succeeded at Harpers Ferry?
  • John Brown had pleaded insanity?
  • Women had been included among the raiders?
  • John Brown had been tried by the Federal Government instead of the Commonwealth of Virginia?
  • John Brown's jury had included African-Americans?
  • John Brown had not been given access to the press?
  • John Brown had not received support from the "Secret Six"?

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Was John Brown Insane?

Brown's defense counsel wanted to use insanity as a defense to prevent him from being sentenced to hang. But because of Brown's determination to represent his own opinions in his own words, his lawyers were restrained in their own speeches on his behalf, saying they "could only declare their belief in the nobility of John Brown's intentions and indicate some of the atrocities which he might have, but had not committed."

What is the definition of insanity as used by doctors and lawyers? How has this definition changed over time?

Ask students to debate both sides of the question. Should a plea of insanity be used to defend a murderer? Should an insane person be tried in the same manner as a sane person?

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The Execution

On the day Brown was hanged, William Lloyd Garrison, America's best known Abolitionist, delivered a passsionate tribute honoring Brown by advocating that the North should secede from the South to end slavery.

Students can compare this speech to the speech given by Andrew Hunter, one of the prosecutors at Brown's trial.

Garrison's speech | Hunter's speech

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The Public Response

Activity 1: Meanings

Ask student to complete a chart on what the attack on Harpers Ferry meant to specific groups of people. Students should also find a quote that represents this point of view.

See an example.

Activity 2: Names

During his life, John Brown was given a number of names. Here are a few of the names he was called during his life. Discuss which of these descriptions students think are most appropriate and why. Are there other names the students can think of?

  • Captain John Brown: The abolitionist zealot
  • Commander-in-Chief: The leader of the Provisional Army of the U.S.
  • The Lunatic: The insane defendant
  • The Martyr: The man who died for his antislavery convictions
  • Ossawatomie Brown: The man who led the bloody massacre in Kansas
  • Old Devil Brown: The man who terrorized Kansas and Virginia
  • Old John Brown: The business failure who fathered 20 children
  • Saint John the Just: The martyr who was willing to sacrifice his life to rid the country of slavery

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