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

Illustration ifrom Harper's Weekly, November 12, 1859



Click here for background and an overview of John Brown's Harpers Ferry Raid


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 eight (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.

  1. A southern newspaper editor who believes that northern reaction to the Harper’s Ferry raid leaves the South no choice but to secede from the union if it is to preserve the institution of slavery.
  2. A northern Republican newspaper editor who believes that the Democratic party and its southern allies promoted the expansion of slavery by creating an environment of lawlessness and violence which in the process pushed opponents of slavery like Brown to desperate acts like the Harpers Ferry Raid.
  3. A Democratic party newspaper editor (either South or North) who sees John Brown’s raid as the logical outgrowth of inflammatory Republican party positions and rhetoric.
  4. A Democratic party newspaper editor (either South or North) who sees the Harpers Ferry Raid’s failure to realize its goal of exciting a slave insurrection as proof that slaves are happy with their lot and do not seek freedom.
  5. A black abolitionist minister who sees Brown’s ends as just and his means as necessary.
  6. An abolitionist who saw John Brown as a martyr and his raid as a success in the crusade against slavery.
  7. 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.
  8. A woman reformer and abolitionist who abhors violence as means but defends Brown's courage and moral example.

Step two.  Analyze and take notes on the following texts and images.  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? 

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:

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

Optional:  You make 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:

Instructor's Annotation:

Click here for the instructor's annotation.