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John Brown and Self-Deception

In this eLesson, students will explore the vice of self-deception through the actions of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry. John Brown deceived himself through self-righteousness, thinking he could end slavery in the United States by freeing and arming slaves to launch a racial war in the south. Through examining John Brown’s actions, students will be challenged to think about whether it is acceptable to break the law based upon one’s view of a higher law.


Launch Activity

John Brown and Self-Deception Narrative

Launch Activity:

  1. At the beginning of class, break students into small groups. Have them read the following excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. – Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

  2. Ask the students to discuss the question: When is right of rebellion permissible under the Declaration of Independence?
  3. Reassemble as a class and have a representative from each group explain the answers that the group discussed. Then, explain to the students that Abraham Lincoln described the ideals of the Declaration of Independence as an “apple of gold” that was inextricably connected to the Constitution and Union as a “picture [frame] of silver.”
  4. Ask the class: What is the connection between the natural right principles of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence and the constitutional rule of law in the Constitution?
  5. Next, have your students read the John Brown and Self-Deception narrative Ask them to think about how he persuaded himself that it was necessary and permissible to violate the constitutional rule of law to achieve natural rights for all Americans of every race. Discuss the importance of conscience and if the individual is allowed to act on their conscience even if violating the law.

For the complete lesson related to this topic, download the entire lesson for free here: