Who Was John Brown?

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


The late 1840s and the 1850s were a turbulent and complex time in American history as the country ground inexorably toward civil war. Abolitionist and pro-slavery positions hardened both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line as events built toward a bloody confrontation. John Brown would be a catalyst that triggered the violent reaction. As he wrote just before his execution: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done."

As David W. Blight says in his review of David S. Reynolds’s book John Brown, Abolitionist, "John Brown did not make it easy for people to love him - until he died on the gallows. Perhaps no other figure in American experience straddles the blurred line between myth and history, legend and reality, quite like the domineering, violent, Calvinist abolitionist who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and provided, in a way, the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War." "The Good Terrorist." Washington Post (4/24/05), p. TO1.

This lesson introduces middle school students to John Brown and attempts to separate history from myth and the man from the legend. 

Aim/Essential Question

Who was John Brown and what was his role in triggering the Civil War? 


This lesson should follow homework assignments and classroom discussions on the causes of the Civil War and events that led to the war.


  • Students will review the immediate causes of the Civil War.
  • Students will analyze documents about John Brown from multiple perspectives of various people from America’s past.
  • Students will assess John Brown’s role in this period of American history.


Choose one of the following activities:

  1. Ask students to think about and respond in their journals to the Frederick Douglass quote: "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic," with answers to the following questions:
    1. How does Frederick Douglass respond to the question he raised?
    2. Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?
  2. Distribute the words to "John Brown’s Body" and play the music. Ask students to think about the following questions:
    1. What is the song about?
    2. What details about John Brown does the song provide?
  3. Ask the students to record their responses in their journals.


Extended Timeline Activity (activity used with permission of Nancy Taylor): Children can learn a great deal by bringing a timeline to life. This activity can help them take ownership of the historical material they are studying, make relationships between facts and ideas, think critically, and develop empathy.

Bringing a timeline to life can be accomplished by having the children play roles and use first-person narratives. The teacher may do this by using dates, facts and quotes. A student narrator reads the assigned facts from the timeline while the other students stand along the timeline or go up to it when it is their turn to speak. When a student hears a fact from the timeline that fits the quotes or facts that he or she has gathered, the student reads that material to the group. If time permits, the children can script their own dialogue to fit the facts on the timeline.

Day 1

  1. On one classroom wall create a large timeline extending from 1760 to 1860.
  2. Cut out the dates and events from the Extended Timeline Activity Sheet and distribute randomly to students.
  3. Ask students to convert their events into first-person accounts. For example, a student might be given: "1800: John Brown is born in Torrington, Connecticut. Owen, his father, hated slavery and believed holding humans in bondage was a sin against God." The student might convert this to: "Today my son John was born. I hope and pray to God that he will grow up in a country where there will be no slaves."
  4. When all students are ready, the student narrator reads the first event and description. This is followed by the first student walking to the timeline and reading his or her first-person account. Continue until all events are finished.

Day 2

Divide your class into mixed-ability groups of four. Provide each group with the following articles:

  1. Module: "The Coming of the Civil War"
  2. Guided Readings: "The Impending Crisis 1850s"

Each group reads and discusses the articles. On a large sheet of poster paper, a recorder lists the main points of each article.

The teacher then conducts a whole-class discussion of the articles, recording each group’s responses on the blackboard. Groups should add any new facts to their lists.

Day 3

Divide your class into eight groups. Provide each group with one of the eight primary source documents listed and a document-analysis sheet. This analysis sheet may be one that your school uses or you may use the National Archives Written Document-Analysis sheet. Each group reads its document, completes a document-analysis sheet, and gives an oral presentation of its findings to the whole class.

Whole-class discussion should focus on the different perspectives on John Brown that were revealed in the document analyses.

Assessment: Write and share with the class a "Historic Character I Am" Poem - John Brown. (See "Historic Character I Am" Poem - John Brown sheet.)

Summary Questions

  1. Why is knowing about John Brown and the opposing views about him important in understanding the events leading to the Civil War?
  2. Respond to this question and explain your answer: Did the Civil War bring about the equality between races that John Brown gave his life for?

Extension Activities

  1. You have been chosen to design and create a new monument dedicated to abolitionism and John Brown. What will you design? How will you portray John Brown—as a hero or villain? What symbols will you use? Remember you must be historically accurate—meaning you must include only events that happened.
  2. You are either the chief prosecutor or chief defense attorney at John Brown’s trial. Prepare your closing statement to the jury.
  3. Interested students who wish to explore more about John Brown online can visit the following websites: