John Brown – Would You Join Him? A LILI Mini Lesson

If for some reason you haven’t yet learned or taught about John Brown, you are in for an adventure. He’s got it all: controversy, topicality, intrigue, and hair full of secrets. And whether you are an educator, a parent, or a tourist, the greater DC area is the best place (and there’s really no better time) to learn about the man America remembers as both the martyr and the terrorist who sparked the Civil War.

At Live It Learn It, we make history come to life. When we’re out at museums and historical sites, we ask students to travel back in time and consider and weigh issues from our history. Students answer questions like: Why did Martin Luther King reference Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in his “I Have A Dream” speech? Or why wasn’t Marian Anderson allowed to perform at Constitution Hall? When students are given an opportunity to consider these questions face-to-face with the artifacts of our history, they make opinions of their own and learning history becomes relevant and personal.

This Live It Learn It mini-lesson does just that: students imagine what it might have been like to engage with John Brown and consider the consequences of joining him in his infamous raid. While you could run this lesson as a full class, it is designed as an extension opportunity for students to do after-school or on the weekend, perhaps as extra-credit. And while it’s geared towards high school students learning about the Civil War, the material can be adapted for students of all ages to encourage debate and research on the ideologies and sides of the Civil War, and the implications of race and slavery before the Civil War.

A Brief History of John Brown and his Raid on Harpers Ferry

A fierce abolitionist and religious zealot, John Brown believed in the sanctity of racial equality, and ultimately came to believe that the only way to abolish the peculiar institution of the South would be through violence. He was quite a character – a failed businessman (20 times over), a friend of Frederick Douglass, and a father to 20 children (of which only 12 survived past childhood). He fought for abolition throughout his entire life, leading dozens of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, and fighting slavery proponents in Kansas. His final fight began with a plot to raid the South’s largest collection of weapons at the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He planned to take over the arsenal and recruit slaves to join his uprising, which he then believed would continue to spread throughout the South.

John Brown decided to siege Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, despite his humble army of only 21 men (including 3 of his sons). Harpers Ferry, known for its geographic distinction at the convergence of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, proved to be an obvious choice, but also an inevitable death trap. JEB Stuart and Robert E. Lee captured John Brown after 2 days of fighting. John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. These were his final words to the court:

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”

I love this video of John Brown’s final speech. It is eloquent and powerful (and introduced and performed by Viggo Mortensen and David Strathairn, respectively).

John Brown’s raid further divided the North and South. Southerners, while impressed with John Brown’s gall, believed that Brown’s raid was part of a larger secret plan to violently overthrow the South. John Brown’s raid, and the subsequent trials, fueled the upcoming election campaign. Years later, Frederick Douglass would claim, “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery.”

Learning Objective:

Students demonstrate knowledge of the tensions leading to the Civil War by considering the implications of participating in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Site Destination:

Like all Live It Learn It lessons, this lesson is experiential and expeditionary in nature and intended to be facilitated while at a site destination. This lesson is designed specifically for the National Portrait Gallery, but can be adapted for one of the many museums where John Brown artifacts are on display. I also recommend the William MacLeod’s painting “Maryland Heights: Siege of Harpers Ferry”, at the National Gallery of Art, or “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition, at the National Museum of American History, which holds John Brown’s musket. Bonus points if you go to them all and twice the bonus points if you venture out to Harpers Ferry and visit the spectacular and highly interactive John Brown Museum.

Step One: Create Your Character

Before heading to your site destination, imagine you are a slave or a freed African-American living in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in 1859. Give yourself a name, a brief history (where were you born? how old are you?), some family details (do you have a spouse?), and what you do each day (do you work on a plantation? are you a railroad worker?). If you’d like, research the commerce and geography of Harpers Ferry before the Civil War to get a frame of reference. Once you have a solid background on your character, you are ready to head to the museum!

Step Two: Find The John Brown Display at the National Portrait Gallery…

Head to the American Origins exhibition and find the portrait of John Brown. Imagine yourself as your imagined character on October 16, 1859. This man, armed with a musket, approaches you and hurriedly tells you that his name is John Brown. With sweat dripping from his brow, he asks you to join his cause in raiding the Federal Arsenal downtown and uprising against slave owners and the South.

Step Three: Create a Pros and Cons list

As you continue to imagine that you are an African-American resident of Harpers Ferry in 1859, Write a pros and cons list of advantages and disadvantages of joining John Brown. Keep in mind, John Brown is waiting on your response and must keep moving. You have mere minutes to make a decision… what will you do?

Step Four: Make a Decision

Time’s up! It’s time to make a decision. Will you join John Brown? Why or why not? If you cannot decide, what do you still need to know or what do you need to happen in order for you to make a decision? Either write your answer or explain your answer to a friend.

Share your work! Encourage students to share their written work with you, but also with Live It Learn It! We’d love to see what they’ve decided – have them share photos and work with @liveitlearnitdc.


Guiding Questions

  • What were the risks of John Brown’s intended rebellion to the abolitionist cause?
  • Was John Brown a martyr or a terrorist? And was his rebellion the spark that caused the Civil War?
  • What do you think would have happened should he had succeeded?
  • Was Harpers Ferry a brilliant choice or a terrible one, based off of its geography? Was it an inevitable attack point or a recipe for entrapment? Or both?
  • Do you think that violence or passive resolution is a better choice for change?
  • Like John Brown’s Raid, what are some other polarizing events that have happened in recent history and continue to polarize people today?
  • John Brown continues to be considered as a martyr and a revolutionary by many people – why do people continue to see him in this light? Are there any risks associated with idolizing John Brown and his tactics? Why?
  • What might John Brown have written in his diary the day before the raid (consider questions like, “why am I doing this?”, “what happens if I’m captured?”, “what happens if I die?”)?

Additional Resources

This is a terrific podcast about John Brown and it would be perfect to listen en route to your site destination.

A great recap of who John Brown was and how he came to be a legend by Keith Hughes.

Visit # 13 Jacob Lawrence’s “Legend of John Brown” portfolio at the VMFA:

Finally, I love this video from of the polarizing implications of John Brown’s raid.

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