John Brown on Trial: 

An Exercise in Critical Thinking and Moral Philosophy


UNIT Overview:  Intended for a freshman class of twenty students, but can be adapted for older students or larger groups.


This lesson uses a Four Corners Debate format first in response to the question: Is It Ever Right to Break the Law? And then, after several days of research, in response to Did John Brown receive a fair trial and a just sentence?   In the process students will analyze John Brown's attitudes and actions against slavery and the differences between his views and those of other people who were active in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.


Literary works covered: “Boston Anti-Slavery Meeting” address by Frederick Douglass, “Ain’t I A Woman,” by Sojourner Truth, “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Henry David Thoreau, the song, “John Brown’s Body,” and John Brown’s Final Address to the Court


Day One. Advance preparation: Label the four corners of the room “Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree” Leave up for the duration of the unit.


In my class students begin each period with pen and paper already out, either to take notes or to respond to a quick-write prompt.  Today the prompt is:  Sometimes it is not only right, but also necessary, to break the law.  Students are asked to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement.


After giving students 5 minutes to collect their thoughts through writing, direct those who strongly agree to move to the corner of the classroom where the Strongly Agree sign is posted, those who agree to move to the corner of the classroom where the Agree sign is posted, and so on...


Hopefully, you have four groups gathered in different corners of the classroom, but it des not matter if there are sometimes only two or three groups or if the groups are uneven in numbers. Appoint one student in each corner to be the note taker, and give students 5-10 minutes to discuss with the other students in their corner the reasons they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. Ask them to consider what would happen to society if people only obeyed the laws they agreed with?  Whether all other possibilities should be exhausted before breaking the law, and, if those who break the law for a good reason, should they try to get away with it or face the consequences?


At the end of the discussion period, ask one student from each group to share with the class some of the ideas they discussed in their group.


Perhaps one of the four groups made such a strong case that some students have changed their minds about their reaction to the statement. If that is the case, at this point in the activity give students an opportunity to change corners and to share why they changed.


Next I introduce a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald:  “If you begin with a detail, you’ll end up with a generalization.  If you begin with a generalization, you’ll end up with nothing.”  I suggest that we have spent the day dealing in generalizations, and that, beginning tomorrow we are going to analyze some details, specifically the case of John Brown and Harpers Ferry.


Homework:  Students are to bring in ten facts on one of the following.  Facts should come from one of the sources on the web list or the booklist:


John Brown

Harpers Ferry

The Underground Railroad

The Abolitionist Movement


Day Two


In 8th grade students will have already studied some causes of the Civil War.    Today we will review what they already know and what they learned from their homework.  I ask for four volunteers to go to the board, which I have labeled with the four homework choices.  These students automatically receive four class participation points.  The remaining students earn points for sharing their homework facts. The students at the board write the facts under the appropriate category and we engage in some discussion of what is a fact, what is an opinion, and what is a relevant fact to our discussion.  (For example, the fact that the raid on Harpers Ferry took place on October 16, 1859 is probably a relevant fact; the fact that John Brown was born May 9, 1800 probably is not.)   It should come up that John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, that he was captured, that there was a trial, and that he was found guilty and executed.  So in the last fifteen minutes of class, students are presented with the statement:


John Brown received a fair trial and a just sentence.


Once again they move into the corner that best matches their agreement with the statement. At this point, every student in the group should be taking notes because at the end of the discussion, each student uses those notes to write a concise paragraph stating his or her position on the issue. Students should include at least two arguments in support of their position. 

Homework:  complete and polish paragraphs


Day Three. Show the latter half  (the scenes depicting Harpers Ferry to Brown’s execution) of “John Brown's Holy War” from PBS's The American Experience.  Afterward, re-read the prompt


John Brown received a fair trial and a just sentence.


Students pick a corner and discuss.  Discussion should address whether there have been any changes in opinion in response to the new material.


Homework:  Bring in 10 facts each on any two of the following. Students should cite their sources and select facts that might help illuminate our debate:


The history of the song “John Brown’s Body

Sojourner Truth

Frederick Douglass

Henry David Thoreau
William Lloyd Garrison


Day Four: Repeat format for discussion points from day two regarding the homework topics. Play and discuss the various verses of “John Brown’s Body” as well as the song we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” Distribute copies of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman.”  Read aloud if there is time.


Homework:  Students read and outline the main points of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman,” as well as address the question:  Even though the speech is more about being a woman than being a slave, how does this speech contribute to your evaluation of John Brown and his views and actions?


Day Five:  Discuss any responses to “Ain’t I A Woman.”  Then show the section of “John Brown's Holy War” from PBS's The American Experience that covers the Pottawatomie Massacre.  Once again read the prompt:

John Brown received a fair trial and a just sentence.

Ask students to pick corners and discuss whether evidence from the Pottawatomie Massacre is relevant to the Harpers Ferry trial and how knowledge of the massacre influences your opinion of Brown. 


Day Six.  Distribute and read sections from Frederick Douglass’: Boston Anti-Slavery Meeting and Henry David Thoreau’s A Plea for Captain John Brown.  In response to these speeches, students consider the prompt and take corners one final time.


Day Seven.  Show the scene from “The Blue and the Grey,” depicting John Brown speaking to the court before his sentencing following the raid on Harper's Ferry. Return to the statement from day one:  It is sometimes not only right, but necessary, to break the law.  Was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry such a time?  General class discussion, including the value of knowledge in forming opinion.


Extending the lesson.  This unit can be continued by having students research and write about human rights activists who broke the law because they thought it was right to do so. Or have students read passages from Russell Banks' novel Cloudsplitter, a fictionalized but historically detailed account of Brown’s life.



 Resources I have in the classroom and/or on reserve in the library.




Banks, Russell. Cloudsplitter.  New York:  Harper Collins, 1998.


Benet, Stephen.  John Brown's Body. New York:  Murray Hill, 1928.


Bordewich, Fergus.  Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2005.


Douglass, Frederick.  Autobiographies.  New York:  Literary Classics of the United States, 1994.


Du Bois, W.E.B.  John Brown, edited by David R. New York:  Modern Library Classics edition, 2001.


John Brown’s Raid. National Park Service History Series.  Washington, DC, 1974.


The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, edited by Walter M. Merrill.  Vols. I, III, IV.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1971.


Oates, Stephen B. To Purge this Land With Blood: A biography of John Brown. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.


Peterson, Merrill D.  John Brown:  The Legend Revisited.  Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2002.


Reynolds, David S.  John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.  New York:  Random House, 2006 (on order)


Thoreau, Henry David. “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” 1859.


Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. 1910, reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.





“The Blue and the Grey,” Video based on the book by Bruce Catton, 1982.

“John Brown's Holy War” From PBS's The American Experience, 2000.


Web Resources


John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow The site includes links to newspaper articles of the time, eyewitness accounts, and pictures.


The National Geographic


PBS: Africans in America Resource Bank


The University of California’s Underground Railroad Site.


NCTE English Language Arts Standards


1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.


2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.


4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.


7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience


8.  Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.


9.  Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.


11.  Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.


12.  Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).


August 2006


Jane Purcell teaches English at Claremont High School in Claremont, California