U.S. History: Western Expansion- John Brown: Hero or Villain?

Nearly every United States history textbook will emphasize the role of nineteenth-century abolitionist John Brown, who led an unsuccessful slave uprising against the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, and was convicted of treason and hanged. No historical character illustrates the rift in the country and the passion of individuals better than John Brown. In this lesson, students will develop an understanding of John Brown’s significance by analyzing characterizations of Brown and by examining the polarizing impact that he and his raid had on this nation in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. 

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
Conduct and write short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem by...
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Learning objectives: 

The student will:

  • acquire a deeper understanding of historical bias.
  • understand why John Brown’s actions and the reactions to him exemplified two sides of the greater conflict. 
  • assess the evidence in favor of John Brown as a hero and then in favor of him as a villain.
  • engage in meaningful discussion regarding polarizing figures and events in history
Essential and guiding questions: 

Investigative Questions
What is the historical significance of John Brown’s actions, his justifications, and his legacy? How did the debate over slavery and its extension become magnified in John Brown and his actions? Why did many Americans chose sides with regard to his actions?

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 

Students may examine pictorial evidence from the Library of Congress Web site or an example of propaganda, such as a popular song written about John Brown. What would be the impact today of visual and musical references to his raid on Harper’s Ferry? What if television or radio were involved—what would the outcomes be? What if one of today’s most beloved celebrities backed John Brown or defied him openly?

Helpful Hints


  • Computer lab/Internet access/projection technology, if available
  • John Brown journal questions (hand out, provide orally, or display on projector/ board)