Investigating U.S. History

Investigating U.S. History Banner

John Brown's 1859 Harpers Ferry Raid

John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid, illustration from Harper's Weekly, November 12, 1859

Illustration from Harper's Weekly, November 12, 1859

Bill Friedheim

Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Was “the time for compromise gone?”
Was this the blow that “began the war that ended slavery?”


John Brown was a driven man, an abolitionist who was relentless in his opposition to slavery. Ultimately, he justified violence as a means to realize what he considered the most noble of goals – the destruction of slavery.

Like his Calvinist father before him, Brown considered slavery a moral blight. But unlike many other white abolitionists, Brown mixed easily with African Americans, prompting Frederick Douglass, the most famous 19th century black abolitionist, to write that:

Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy a black man and as deeply interested in our cause as though his own soul had been pierced by the iron of slavery.

In 1849, John Brown settled his family in the black community of North Elba in the New York Adirondacks.

Six years later, Brown moved to the new territory of Kansas, which soon became a major pre-Civil War battleground.

A year earlier, the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 undid the Missouri Compromise, which in 1820 had prohibited slavery north of the latitude of 36/30 (the southern border of Missouri). Even though the two territories lay north of the Missouri Compromise line, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed both jurisdictions to vote on whether they would enter the union as slave or free states. Upon passage of the act, organized groups of slaveholders and abolitionists, including the Browns, poured into the new Kansas territory. An undeclared guerilla war erupted which became known as “Bloody Kansas.” Both sides perpetrated acts of intimidation, murder and arson, which soon escalated out of control.

On May 24, 1856, Brown led a party of militant abolitionists who slaughtered five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek. Brown claimed that he did not participate in the actual killings, but unapologetically approved them as justified payback for a pro-slavery assault on Lawrence, Kansas. For this act and for his defense of the “free soil” town of Osawatomie, Kansas, Brown became nationally renowned to abolitionists and infamous to slaveholders. Soon after, a New York stage play, “Osawatomie Brown” heralded his feats.

Subsequently, Brown, with funding from prominent abolitionists, raised a small paramilitary force. In January 1858, raiders under Brown's leadership liberated twelve slaves in Missouri, delivering them to freedom in Canada.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown, now 59 years old, staged his final and most daring raid, an assault on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), which housed an arsenal of more than 100,000 rifles and muskets. Calling his raiding force, the “Provisional Army,” Brown's group of 22 men included three of Brown's sons, a fugitive slave and four free blacks. Brown's goal was to seize the arsenal, distribute the guns and muskets, mobilize anti-slavery forces, incite slave insurrections and organize raids against slaveholders across the South.

Brown and his men initially took control of the armory, but within 36 hours, U.S. Marines under the leadership of future Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, stormed the facility, killed several of Brown's band and captured Brown and the remaining raiders.

Brown was taken to nearby Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) where he was charged on three counts: treason, murder and conspiracy to lead a slave rebellion. After a seven-day trial and forty-five minutes of deliberation, a jury found him guilty on all counts. The court sentenced Brown to death.

On December 2, 1859, Brown wrote:

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."

Later, that day, Brown was hung. By March 1860, six of his compatriots, having been tried and found guilty, followed Brown to the gallows.

In life and even death, John Brown's image loomed large, particularly in the nineteen months between the October 1859 Harpers Ferry raid and the outbreak of Civil War at Fort Sumter in April 1861. The debate about the immediate and long-term meaning of the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's legacy was loud, messy and intemperate. On the day of Brown's execution, church bells tolled in several northern cities and many abolitionists hailed Brown as a martyr (although some questioned his violent means). In the North, partisans (and newspaper editorialists) of the Democratic and Republican* parties railed at one another, each accusing the other of promoting a culture of violence. Across the South, newspaper editorials vilified Brown, his raiders and his supporters, but disagreed about the consequences of Harpers Ferry raid for the future of the South and slavery. The language used to characterize Brown in newspapers – North and South, Democrat and Republican, abolitionist and pro-slavery –was rarely neutral or even-tempered. Depending upon the viewpoint, editorials used the partisan vocabulary of “saint,” “crusader,” “martyr,” “madman,” “devil, “lunatic,” and “murderer.”

Decades later, Brown continued to evoke deep passion. Almost 22 years after the event, Frederick Douglass memorialized John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, proclaiming:

If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.... Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.

When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown's, the lost cause of the century.

Is Douglass right about the legacy of Brown's raid? Was “the time for compromise gone?” Was this the blow that “began the war that ended slavery?”

In the activity that follows, you will consider these and other questions. Taking a leap in space and time, you will debate the moral and political implications of Brown's raid in the voice of historical characters, circa 1859-1860.

For additional overviews and perspectives:

*Republican politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, made a point of publicly distancing themselves from Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid and tactics. In his famous Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860, Lincoln asserted:

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it: and what is your proof? Harper's Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper's Ferry enterprise.

But no matter how much Republicans protested any link with Brown, it did not stop Democratic Party invective and claims that the Republican Party was responsible for Harper's Ferry.


  1. Learn about the events in the 1850s leading to disunion and war, in particular John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid and its aftermath.
  2. Promote historical empathy and understanding for the key actors in these historical events.
  3. Interrogate primary source documents and build historical understanding of Brown's raid and its role in the events leading to war.


Preparation. Read the chapter in your course textbook about the rapid-fire events of the 1850s that escalated sectional tensions and led to war. Pay particular attention to the Compromise of 1850, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the founding of the Republican Party in 1854, "Bleeding Kansas" and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, the Dred Scott decision in 1857 and Lincoln's election in 1860.

Step One

The class will divide into groups with at least three (but preferably six or more) students. Each group briefly meets, assigning roles from the following list to members. Groups should make sure that each role on the list is assigned to at least one member of the group.

Role One: Someone who sees Brown's raid in a positive light. Define your position by taking one of the following identities or a combination of some of these identities:

Role Two: Someone who sees Brown's raid in a negative light. Define your position by taking one of the following identities or a combination of some of these identities:

Role Three: A newspaper editor who, in order to preserve the union, sees the need to isolate what he sees as extremists on both sides – zealots for and against slavery.

Step Two

Analyze and take notes on the following texts and images using a worksheet. As you do, consider the following questions as they apply to each primary source. What is the point of view and intent of the author or artist? How can you tell? Who is the intended audience? In the text documents, how would you characterize the language -- hot or cool/ objective or subjective? What evidence (words, sentences) would you use to make this judgment about the use of language? How would you characterize the argument -- is it logical given the basic assumptions of the author? How are the images constructed to create a mood or to make a point? (Click here for the worksheet. Print and then complete the worksheet.)

A speech by William Henry Seward, On Irrepressible Conflict, (25 October, 1858)

Newspaper editorials from the Secession Era Editorials Project/ John Brown's Raid. The political party affiliation of the newspaper, when either Republican or Democratic, is noted in brackets.

Statements and letters by abolitionists:


If you want to explore more abolitionist voices, look at the following:


You may also want to read the statements of two of the raiders:

Music (optional)

Step Three

You will post to the BlackBoard discussion forum entitled "John Brown -- Interrogating the Primary Sources." For this step, you will post in your own voice as a student of history and NOT that of your character.

Select one of the primary sources (from the texts and images in step two) that you will use as background for shaping the role you chose in step one.

Begin your post identifying (1) the role you chose in step one and (2) the document you selected.

Next, write at least four or five sentences on any one of the following:

Finally, respond to the posts of anyone who chose the same role as you in step one.

Step Four

Go to your group discussion board. Post to then forum entitled "Debating John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid." In the historical character and voice of the role you chose in step one, assume it is December 3, 1859, the day after John Brown was sent to the gallows. Post -- in at least ten sentences, hopefully more -- your reactions to the raid, trial and execution. Tell us, in character, what these events mean (in 1859) for the future of the United States of America. As time permits, respond to as many posts as possible, particularly those with whom you sharply disagree.

Step Five

The class will meet face-to-face to sum-up. Did the debate deepen your understanding of the key political and social actors on the eve of the Civil War? Did it deepen your understanding of the political and social dynamics on the eve of war? Based on your understanding, was sectional compromise possible in the wake of Brown's raid and execution? Or was this, as Frederick Douglass argued, the blow that “began the war that ended slavery?” Explain your answers to these questions.

Step Six

Write a four-page paper entitled "The Harpers Ferry Raid and the Road to Civil War." In the paper, you will assess the role of the raid and its aftermath as a cause-and-effect factor leading to war. You will be expected to:


Secession Era Editorials Project/John Brown's Raid. Housed at Furman University, this archive has digitized newspaper editorials -- North and South, Democratic, Whig and Republican -- contending over four issues that divided American in the 1850s: The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner, the Dred Scott Decision and John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry.

John Brown Archive/ Lost Museum. The John Brown archive is part of the Lost Museum, a cyberspace recreation P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, which burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1865. The museum, known as a site of popular entertainment and instruction, included exhibits celebrating Brown.

Instructor's Annotations

In most history survey courses, the aim of instructors is two-fold:

  1. Provide basic knowledge of the sweep of a historical era.
  2. Teach students some of the most basic skills of the craft of historical investigation and the construction of historical meaning.

Before the advent of the World Wide Web, I was much more successful at realizing the former than latter. I suspect that many of my brethren in the historical profession experienced similar difficulties.

While I will readily confess that I did not exhibit much of a conquering spirit toward achieving the latter goal, I nonetheless like to think that there were objective reasons for my lack of success. First, like too many others at institutions of higher education, the library at my college is modest, insufficiently funded and houses sparse collections of archival materials. Second, while there are abundant primary source readers produced by university and general trade publishing houses, their scope understandably reflects the bias of the editor who chooses what to – and not to –include.

The Web on the other hand gives teachers and students easy and quick access to primary and multi-media sources professionals. Since the advent of the Web in 1989 (or more accurately, the first graphic web browser in 1993), there has been a proliferation of academic, museum, library and government sites that have digitized and organized archival material in text, images and sound.

The Web makes it easier for instructors to choose and organize materials so that non-history majors, who are the majority of students in my survey courses, can learn the basics of how to interrogate primary source material and construct historical meaning without having to engage in a major archival research project. In the John Brown activity, I rather than the editor of a reader, selected the documents and structured them in ways that made access quick and relatively painless for students. While this might not exactly simulate the angst of a professional historian laboring in musty archives, it nonetheless gives students a sense of how history is constructed – and it does it in a survey course where the constraints of class time and coverage are formidable.

In this exercise, students can examine a major digital collection of pre-Civil War newspaper – The Secession Era Editorials Project at Furman University, originally developed under the direction of Lloyd Benson. Through these and other primary source materials, students can make a leap in time and space to the rancorous debates over John Brown’s 1859 raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

An electronic discussion board facilitates such a debate (see step four of the activity). While such a debate could be simulated face-to-face in class, I think it’s more advantageous to do it asynchronously on a discussion board. First, it is more time efficient. In class, the debate must unfold serially – one student, then another and and on and on. Online, students can post at the same time and then respond to one another. Second, participation is wider. In an electronic discussion, it is harder for students to hide in margins – or in the back of the classroom. Everyone must participate and some of the quieter students in class will find their voice online.

There is a rhythm and logic to the activity. First students examine the documents (step two). Then they make annotations and raise questions about primary sources on the discussion board (step three). Next they simulate a historical debate, circa 1859, about Brown’s raid, hopefully in the process building historical empathy for their character (step four). Then, as a class, they debrief (step five). Finally, they construct historical meaning about this historical event in an individual essay (step six).

The suggested timing of the activity is as follows. Step one (choosing roles) can be done briefly in class. Steps two and three (reading and interrogating the documents) should be done as homework outside of class. Step four (the online debate,) if you have access to a lab, can be done in a single class period. If not, students could do the online debate as homework. Step five (the in-class debriefing) could conceivably be completed in the same class period as the online debate – or if necessary the next class. The timing for final step, the paper, is obviously up to the discretion of the instructor.

Step four, the online debate, is the heart of the exercise. If you must abbreviate the activity, the online annotation and questions (step three) could conceivably be scrapped, as could the final step, the essay (although I concede this with great reluctance).

Back to top