John Brown, Violence, and Social Change

by John P. Spencer and Ellen Noonan

The news of John Brown's attempted raid on a federal arsenal and subsequent execution in Charlestown, Virginia, stirred passionate reactions throughout the country and across the political spectrum. In this activity, students can examine a range of reactions to Brown and his methods and, in the process, explore more general questions about the role of violence in movements for social change. They will begin by analyzing a classic 1857 quotation from Frederick Douglass on the nature of social change. Then, in a persuasive essay, they will evaluate Douglass's statement in light of debates that occurred two years later over John Brown and his methods at Harpers Ferry.


Historical Context
When John Brown and a small band of armed men attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, they intended to seize the weapons there and free all slaves in the vicinity. The plan failed, however, and Brown and his associates were captured, tried, and finally hanged for treason on December 2, 1859. This was not John Brown's first use of violent means to oppose slavery. Brown was known to some as "Osawatomie" or "Pottawatomie" Brown because in 1856 he led a deadly attack on a small proslavery settlement near Osawatomie Creek (alternately known as Pottwatomie Creek) in the Kansas territory, where the expansion of slavery was fiercely contested during the 1850s.

The news of Brown's attempted raid and subsequent execution in Charlestown, Virginia, stirred passionate reactions throughout the country and across the political spectrum. Especially in the South—though not only there—many were clear and unequivocal in their denunciations of Brown, his cause, and his methods. (see, for example, editorials from the Raleigh, North Carolina, Register and the Springfield, Illinois, State Register ). But the raid on Harpers Ferry also revealed cleavages among northerners and others who shared a basic objection to slavery yet disagreed on the proper means of opposing it.

In this activity, which may be adpated to take anywhere from 2-5 class periods, students will examine a range of reactions to Brown and his methods and, in the process, explore more general questions about the role of violence in movements for social change. They will begin this exploration by analyzing a classic 1857 quotation from Frederick Douglass on the nature of social change. Then, in a persuasive essay, they will evaluate Douglass's statement in light of debates that occurred two years later over John Brown and his methods at Harpers Ferry.

Themes
The role of violence in movements for social change

Objectives
Students will:

1) understand tensions within the abolitionist movement between "immediatists" and "gradualists" (Era 4, Standard 4A)

2) evaluate alternative courses of action and formulate a position or course of action on an issue (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 5)

Assessment: essay writing; small- and large-group discussions

Materials

Before beginning this activity, students can gain an overview of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry by reading these narratives and documents on "John Brown" and "The Raid on Harpers Ferry" from the Web site of the PBS series Africans in America.

ACTIVITY

Step 1: Reading and Interpreting a Quotation
Divide the class into pairs. Have students read the following quotation with each other, discuss it, and rewrite it in their own words:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. . . .The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. ..

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, from an address on West India Emancipation, August 4, 1857. For a longer excerpt, see: The W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center (http://www.duboislc.org), Black Classic Voices section

Step 2: Read Reactions to John Brown by his Contemporaries
Have students read each of the following documents on John Brown and Harpers Ferry and answer the questions that follow:

Excerpt from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Gazette editorial

J. Sella Martin excerpt

Excerpts from Albany, New York Evening Journal editorials

(If they wish students to collaborate and share ideas about the documents, teachers may decide to handle this step in "jigsaw" fashion as follows: 1) break students into four groups, each of which reads, discusses, and becomes "expert" on one document 2) reassemble groups to contain "experts" on all four documents. In those groups, students then read the rest of the documents and help facilitate discussion of the document on which they initially focused.)

Step 3: Plan an Essay
Divide students into two groups; one group will plan and write essays agreeing with the Douglass quotation, the other group will plan and write essays disagreeing with the Douglass quotation.

Have students diagram or outline an essay in which they:
1. explain their interpretation of the Douglass quotation;
2. make a thesis statement of agreement or disagreement with Douglass;
3. support their thesis statement with relevant facts, examples, and details relating to the case study of John Brown and Harpers Ferry;
4. use arguments and evidence from at least two of the primary documents they have read in Step Two.

Step 4 (Assessment): Write the Essay
Have students write the essay as a homework assignment.

Step 5: Class Discussion

Students discuss with their classmates the different positions they took. This might be handled as an informal discussion or a more structured debate in which students read from their essays.

FOLLOW-UP/EXTENSION:
Deepen the exploration of the Douglass quotation by analyzing and comparing the following documents:
1. A longer excerpt from Douglass's 1857 speech on West India emancipation
2. An overview of Brown's raid, including Douglass's thoughts about it
3. Excerpt from Douglass's 1881 speech lauding Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry