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Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking into the Classroom

1904 photo by John Tarbell of unnamed African-American man holding a copy of Joseph Barry’s The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry, published a year earlier.

On the cusp of his December 1859 execution for treason, murder, and inciting a slave rebellion, John Brown handed a note to his guard which read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” Although the institution of slavery was purged in the crucible of the American Civil War, John Brown’s determination to expose and end chattel slavery still resonates. The multiple legacies of slavery and questions about the efficacy of violence as a tool for change in a democratic society continually bring historians and teachers back to the complicated life of John Brown. When students consider Brown’s contributions to the American narrative, lines between advocacy and criminality, contrasts between intensity and obsession, and differences between democratic ideals and harsh reality are brought to the surface. To this day, artists, authors, historians, political activists, and creators of popular culture maintain a fascination with the antebellum rights-warrior and his death.

This continuing interest in John Brown presents a great teaching opportunity. Not only can we help to situate John Brown within the context of his era, but we can explore how historical interpretations of the man and his actions have changed over time. The lesson I describe in this article asks students to consider Brown’s biography, multiple artistic representations of the abolitionist, as well as historical and contemporary viewpoints in order to develop an evidence-based interpretation of how this controversial historical figure should be commemorated. Students conduct an analysis of the diverse, and often conflicting, historical sources, and then apply their interpretations to the development of a historical marker that would be placed at the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. In this sense, Brown provides a unique opportunity for students to examine a figure whose actions, and their attendant meanings, tell us as much about antebellum America and the origins of the Civil War as they do about our own time.

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