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4.6: John Brown

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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As the movement to abolish slavery grew, Southern states became concerned that the addition of new free states would put slaveholding states in a minority and might ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery. In the Compromise of 1850, the people of the Nebraska Territory were given the right to vote on whether or not slavery would be legal. Advocates of both sides moved to Nebraska in order to vote, and violence erupted between them. In response to an episode of pro-slavery violence, abolitionist John Brown killed \begin{align*}5\end{align*} pro-slavery settlers in the Pottowatomie Creek Massacre.

He then went to Virginia, where he plotted the seizure of an arsenal of weapons, which he planned to distribute to slave to help them rebel. Before they could carry out his plan, John Brown and his men were arrested, tried, and hanged. This event energized abolitionists and horrified Southerners, and helped lead the United States down the path to war.

President Lincoln called John Brown a “misguided fanatic.” Read the documents below and decide whether you agree with Lincoln. Was Brown a fanatic or a hero?

Speech to the Court – John Brown

Source: John Brown's last speech, given to the court at his trial. November 2, 1859.

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted -- the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)--had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends--either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class--and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. 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!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.


  1. Contextualization: John Brown delivered this speech on the last day of his trial, after hearing the jury pronounce him ‘guilty.’ He knew he would be sentenced to die. Given that context, what does this speech say about him as a person?
  2. Based on this document, do you think John Brown was a “misguided fanatic?” Why or why not?

Last Meeting Between Frederick Douglass and John Brown

Source: In this passage, Frederick Douglass describes his last meeting with John Brown, about three weeks before the raid on Harper’s Ferry. This account was published by Douglass in 1881 in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

About three weeks before the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown wrote to me, informing me that a beginning in his work would soon be hade, and that before going forward he wanted to see me....

We... sat down among the rocks and talked over the enterprise which was about to be undertaken. The taking of Harper’s Ferry, of which Captain Brown had merely hinted before, was now declared as his settled purpose, and he wanted to know what I thought of it. I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me, such a measure would be fatal to running off slaves, as was the original plan, and fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the Federal Government, and would array the whole country against us. Captain Brown did most of the talking on the other side of the question. He did not at all object to rousing the nation; it seemed to him that something startling was just what the nation needed. He had completely renounced his old plan, and thought that the capture of Harper’s Ferry would serve as notice to the slaves that their friends had come, and as a trumpet, to rally them to his standard.... Of course, I was no match for him in such matters, but I told him, and these were my words, that all his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive...


  1. Close Reading: What are two reasons why Douglass opposed John Brown’s plan to raid Harper’s Ferry?
  2. Sourcing: Douglass’ account is written in 1881, twenty-two years after the raid. Do you trust his account? Why or why not?
  3. Based on this document, do you think John Brown was a “misguided fanatic?” Why or why not?

Letter to John Brown in Prison

Source: The letter below was written to John Brown while he was in prison, awaiting trial.

Wayland [Mass.], October 26, 1859.

Dear Captain Brown: Though personally unknown to you, you will recognize in my name an earnest friend of Kansas, when circumstances made that Territory the battle-ground between the antagonistic principles of slavery and freedom, which politicians so vainly strive to reconcile in the government of the United States.

Believing in peace principles, I cannot sympathize with the method you chose to advance the cause of freedom. But I honor your generous intentions,--I admire your courage, moral and physical. I reverence you for the humanity which tempered your zeal. I sympathize with you in your cruel bereavement, your sufferings, and your wrongs. In brief, I love you and bless you.

Thousands of hearts are throbbing with sympathy as warm as mine. I think of you night and day, bleeding in prison, surrounded by hostile faces, sustained only by trust in God and your own strong heart. I long to nurse you--to speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation. I have asked permission of Governor Wise to do so. If the request is not granted, I cherish the hope that these few words may at least reach your hands, and afford you some little solace. May you be strengthened by the conviction that no honest man ever sheds blood for freedom in vain, however much he may be mistaken in his efforts. May God sustain you, and carry you through whatsoever may be in store for you! Yours, with heartfelt respect, sympathy and affection,

L. Maria Child.


  1. Do you find this document surprising? Why or why not?
  2. Based on this document, do you think John Brown was a “misguided fanatic?” Why or why not?

Political Cartoon – Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler

Source: A political cartoon drawn and published by John L. Magee in 1856 in Philadelphia. The large, bearded figure represents a “freesoiler” who opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories such as Kansas. The four smaller figures represent Democratic politicians. Democratic presidential nominee James Buchanan and senator Lewis Cass are restraining the freesoiler by the hair while Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce force a slave into his mouth.(Figure below).

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