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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 5 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. 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 (revolt).

I have another objection: 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-- it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

I believe that to have done what I have done--on behalf of God’s despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life to further the end 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 acts-- I say: so let it be done!


give up


  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 before going forward he wanted to see me...

We sat down and talked over his plan to take over Harper’s Ferry. I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me such a measure would be fatal to the work of the helping slaves escape [Underground Railroad]. It would be an attack upon the Federal government, and would turn the whole country against us.

Captain John Brown did not at all object to upsetting the nation; it seemed to him that something shocking was just what the nation needed. He 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.

Of course I was no match for him, 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.

Massachusetts, Oct 26th, 1859

Dear Capt Brown,

You do not know me, but I have supported your struggles in Kansas, when that Territory became the battle-ground between slavery and freedom.

Believing in peace, 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 respect you for your humanity, I sympathize with your cruel loss, 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. 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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