Skip to Main Content
undefined

John Brown and Self-Deception

60 min
  • When is right of rebellion permissible under the Declaration of Independence? 
  • 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? 
  • Is it ever morally permissible to do a wrong to achieve a good end? 
  • When can an individual or a group justifiably decide to break the law? 
  • Explain when, if ever, it is permissible to disobey the law 
  • Describe the events of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry 
  • Contrast the perspectives on civil disobedience of Lincoln and MLK 

Teacher Resources:

  • John Brown and Self-Deception Answer Key

Student Handouts

  • Declaration of Independence 
  • Video on the Raid at Harper’s Ferry
  • John Brown and Self-Deception Essay 
  • Discussion Guide: John Brown and Self-Deception  
  • Primary Source Activity on Lincoln and MLK 
  • Primary Source Activity Graphic Organizer 

  • John Brown
  • Robert E. Lee
  • Harper’s Ferry
  • Abolition
  • Self-deception
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Martin Luther King
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Civil Disobedience  

Carlton, Evan. Patriotic Treason. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Horowitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt, 2011.

Oates, Stephen. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1984.

Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Reynolds, David. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Knopf, 2005.

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. 

Ask the students to discuss the question: When is right of rebellion permissible under the Declaration of Independence? 

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.” 

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? 

Transition to the narrative of John Brown and 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 whether the individual is allowed to act on their conscience even if violating the law. 

Have students watch the Smithsonian Magazine video on The Raid on Harpers Ferry – YouTube  

Read the John Brown and Self-Deception essay. Discuss the following questions with your partner(s). 

  1. What ideals encouraged John Brown to dedicate his life to abolitionism? 
  2. When John Brown dedicated his life to the destruction of slavery what means did he use to achieve his goal? Were there other means at his disposal that were less violent? What other courses did abolitionists use to work for the end of slavery in the United States? Which ones were consistent with the constitutional rule of law and a healthy civic society? 
  3. What is the difference between acting according to uncompromising principles and acting according to the classical idea of prudence, or practical wisdom? Which course guided Brown, and did it benefit his cause? 
  4. Why did John Brown move to Kansas? What actions against slavery did he take while he was there? Were his actions justified? Explain your answer. 
  5. Is it ever morally permissible to do a wrong to achieve a good end? Explain your answer. 
  6. What was Brown’s plan to rid the country of slavery? Was it a realistic plan? Were there other alternatives that he could have pursued to help end slavery? Had he deluded himself into thinking that it was the right and only path? Explain your answers. 
  7. Did the raid on Harper’s Ferry go according to plan? Were innocent people swept up in the violence and lost their lives? Did Brown consider the loss of life tragic or necessary to achieve his goals? Explain your answer. 
  8. Did Brown express any remorse for killing people or breaking the law? Did his righteous vision cloud his judgment regarding the rightness or wrongness of his actions? Explain your answer. 
  9. Did Brown consider the consequences of his raid for human lives? Did he consider the consequences if he had actually succeeded in raiding Harper’s Ferry and starting a race war in the South? Did he consider the consequences of fueling tensions between North and South because of his violent plan? Explain your answers. 

Ask students to discuss the questions “Why was John Brown considered by some to be a hero and by some to be a villain? Why is his life and legacy still debated as a hero or villain?” 

Use the John Brown Hero or Villain DBQ and assign the last primary source reading (Handout B: Frederick Douglass) and the questions that coincide.

Virtue In Action 

Read the play, A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt, or watch the 1966 movie directed by Fred Zinnemann. 

  • Discuss the difficult situation that Thomas More contends with under King Henry VIII. 
  • How does Thomas More preserve both his moral conscience and his dedication to the rule of law? 
  • What sacrifice does More and his family make for his obedience to conscience and law? How do More and his daughter, Margaret, demonstrate great courage?

In the movie Lincoln (2012), President Lincoln tells a vignette about surveying and the importance of prudence in pursuing the moral principle of ending slavery as opposed to Thaddeus Stevens’ abolitionist way of doing what is right regardless of the consequences.  

LINCOLN “I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I’d listened to you, I’d’ve declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would’ve gone over to the confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do, in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.” 

THADDEUS STEVENS “Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them – but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.” 

LINCOLN “A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll – it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?” 

President Abraham Lincoln was strongly dedicated to the principle of natural rights for all human beings. Although the abolitionists pressed for immediate action, Lincoln was also firmly dedicated to the constitutional rule of law and would not break it to do what was right. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) demonstrated that Lincoln wanted the slaves to be free. At the same time, Lincoln was mindful of and bound to acting under presidential authority in the Constitution. Answer the following questions: Compare and contrast the goals and methods of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Did Brown or Lincoln demonstrate the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom, in achieving his goal?