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John Brown: Hero or Villain? DBQ

Lesson Objectives:

  • Students will be able to evaluate the impact of John Brown’s approach to the abolition of slavery by examining primary sources to determine whether he was a hero or a villain.
  • Students will be able to apply elements of the arguments over John Brown to modern-day controversies.

For additional study, see Paul Finkelman, “John Brown: America’s First Terrorist?” Prologue Magazine, 43 no. 1 (2011):16–27.

Begin by walking students throughHandout A: John Brown Background Essay and Timelineand accompanying discussion question. DistributeHandout B: Student Document Handout.

Guided by the Key Question, students analyze the documents alone, with a partner, or in small groups, as best suits the teacher’s classroom.

Key Question: John Brown sought to destroy slavery. In the methods he chose to carry out this goal, was he a hero or a villain?

Students synthesize the documents by working in small groups to fill in Handout C: DBQ Document Organizer and then draft a thesis in response to the Key Question. Depending on time available for this lesson, the teacher may also require students to develop an outline, and/or a rough draft of the essay individually or in small groups.

The teacher may assess student work using methods such as:

  1. Peer review of thesis/outline/essay
  2. Reflection on thesis/outline/essay
  3. Self-grading or teacher assessment with DBQ rubric from the College Board