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John Brown and Self-Deception Primary Source Analysis

  • I can understand the vice of self-deception by examining the story of John Brown.
  • I can compare views of just and unjust laws across time.
  • I can summarize the main ideas of historic texts.
  • I can create an argument supported by evidence from primary sources.
Directions: Read the following primary sources from John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Fill out the following graphic organizer related to their views on just and unjust laws.

John Brown’s Speech to the Court at his Trial, November 2, 1859

Building Context

John Brown gave a speech when given an opportunity to address the court at his trial in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown was found guilty of murder, inciting slave insurrection, and treason against the state of Virginia, and was executed on December 2, 1859.

Essential Vocabulary

inciting/incite To cause something to start or begin.
insurrection A rebellion or revolt.
In bonds Enslaved.
endeavored Sought or tried to.
forfeit To give up or hand over something.
furtherance Advancement.

Text of Source

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted — the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends–either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class–and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments-—I submit; so let it be done!

Analysis Questions

  1. Why does Brown state his punishment is unjust?
  2. What does Brown believe is acceptable in his goal of ending slavery?


Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838

Building Context

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and state representative, delivered this address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, a debating society in Springfield, Illinois. His speech was a response to the killing of an abolitionist printer by a pro-slavery mob the previous year, and he cautioned against mob violence at the expense of the rule of law.


Essential Vocabulary

sober Serious.
disposition A tendency to think in a certain way.
grating Offensive.
posterity Future generations.
reverence Respect or esteem.

Text of Source


I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times….

Such are the effects of mob law; and such are the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar….

The question recurs “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others…

When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed….

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?….

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws…

Analysis Questions

  1. What are the dangers of mob rule, according to Lincoln?
  2. How can society combat the dangers of mob rule?
  3. What does Lincoln say should be done about bad laws?
  4. What should comprise the “pillars of the temple of liberty”?


Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

Building Context

Martin Luther King, Jr. called for nonviolent methods to end segregation in the South. In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. King traveled there in 1963 to fight against racial discrimination and was arrested. After his arrest, a group of white religious leaders wrote him a letter criticizing the means and timing of his fight for greater equality. The civil rights leader penned a response while in a jail cell and then rewrote it for publication when he was freed.

Essential Vocabulary

segregation A policy that kept Black Americans and white Americans separate.
St. Augustine A Roman theologian who greatly influenced Western philosophy and Christianity.
St. Thomas Aquinas A medieval theologian who greatly influenced Western philosophy and Christianity.
1954 decision for the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that separate but equal facilities were constitutional.


Text of Source

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human  personality  is  unjust.  All  segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all types of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Analysis Questions

  1. How did King define an unjust law?
  2. Explain what King means when he writes that “a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”
  3. When and why must one break the law, according to King?

Graphic Organizer

  • Why is self-deception destructive to individuals and to a healthy political system and civil society?
  • When can an individual or a group justifiably decide to break the law?
Source Context for Excerpt (Audience? Purpose? Historical Context?) What is their view of the rule of law in the United States? When can an individual or a group justifiably decide to break the law? How can laws be broken?
John Brown’s Speech to the Court at his Trial, November 2, 1859
Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

Analysis and Reflection Questions

  1. Think back to your response at the beginning of this lesson: Is it ever morally permissible to disobey the law? Explain your answer.
  2. Having studied the example of John Brown and compared the writings of Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., has your response changed? Explain.

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