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Suggestions for the Classroom

Themes: Law, slavery, Civil War, music, media, religion, literature

Before Viewing Discussion:

  1. Historian Michael Eric Dyson once noted of the American Revolution, "America was founded on breaking the law." Discuss insurgency as a means to change government policy with your class. Do students believe that it's ever right to break the law? If so, when? If not, why not? What specific circumstances do students consider worthy of insurgency?

  2. Frederick Douglass said of John Brown, "I could live for the slave, but he could die for him…" Discuss the concept of the zealot with your class. Why might someone devote his or her life to a cause? Include in your discussion such issues as religious calling, government-sanctioned oppression, social oppression, and a variety of significant life experiences (health, education, wealth, family, among others). Are zealots selfless? Explain. How might they vary in selflessness? What causes, if any, do students believe are worth devoting one's life to? What causes, if any, are worth risking one's life or the lives of others for?

After Viewing Discussion:

  1. Frederick Douglass remarked, "Did John Brown fail? John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic." Do students agree with Frederick Douglass: Was John Brown's fight at Harper's Ferry the first step towards ending American slavery? Discuss the positive and negative aspects of the Harper's Ferry incident with your class. What were immediate outcomes? What outcomes occurred in the long run? Who benefited, and how? Who lost, and how? Do students believe lives lost in war are worth freedoms gained?

  2. Discuss John Brown's zealotry. How did his childhood and family affect him? In what ways was he compassionate? Brutal? What were his goals for society? For his family? Did his ends justify his means? How does one account for his widely varying actions?


  1. John Brown's national notoriety was largely due to articles by journalists such as James Redpath. Ask students to write a fictional account of a meeting with John Brown. Discuss with your class different types of articles: profiles, news stories, features, essays, among others. Students may write from any relevant viewpoint: Northern abolitionist, Southern anti-abolitionist, Free Soiler, freed slave, slave, neutral observer. Students may further research on different viewpoints using the People & Events section.

  2. Were John Brown's actions just or unjust? Have your class put John Brown on trial. Ask a few students to play the part of those quoted in the Primary Sources section (John Brown, Mahala Doyle, Frances Ellen Watkins, Henry David Thoreau, a Richmond "Whig" reporter) and give testimony from each respective viewpoint. Then ask the rest of the class to act as jury, and vote by written ballot. Ballots should include a paragraph justifying each student's vote.

  3. Ask students to compare and contrast John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry with a contemporary religious conflict. They may present their findings in a presentation or report. Such conflicts might include Sikh terrorism, the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Christian—Muslim battles in Kosovo, or the Taleban vs. the Afghani government. Ask students to consider the following in analyzing and comparing conflicts: What is the cause? What groups make up the two sides? What does each want? How do the goals of each side affect the other? What are each group's methods? Do the goals justify means? How are innocent bystanders affected? What are outcomes of each conflict? Are these outcomes, in students' opinions, positive or negative? Ultimately, was each fight worth it? Is one fight more worthy than the other?

  4. Ask students to read the history of the John Brown song in the Special Features section. Play a recording of the song in class, if possible. Then ask students to research ballads of their choosing, whether current or past. Have students play recordings of their choices at the beginning of class presentations and then have them consider the following: What is the songwriter saying about the subject? Why might this subject be worth featuring in a ballad? What place in history does the subject hold? How does the music make listeners feel about the subject? The lyrics? Is the ballad a positive or negative portrayal? How does the music relate to the life and times of the subject? What do students learn about the subject from the song? How is listening to a ballad different than reading about a subject or watching a filmed account?

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