Florida Virtual Schools – Teaching American History Project

John Brown:
Hero or Villain?

Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010
10:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m. (EST)

'John Brown in Firehouse'


W. Fitzhugh Brundage

William B. Umstead Professor of History
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

This seminar will focus on the meanings that Americans imposed on Brown’s actions (and that Brown himself claimed for his actions) as a way to consider the pressures for and against national dissolution in 1859–1860. Much can be learned about competing ideas of nation, region, principle, and the legitimacy of force in this crucial historical moment by familiarizing ourselves with the responses of Americans to Brown’s raid.

Because John Brown’s life story is shrouded in legend and dispute, we will not have time in the seminar to retrace the events and life decisions that brought him to Harpers Ferry in 1859. Suffice to say that Brown had made a name for himself as an ardent and militant abolitionist during the Bloody Kansas campaigns of 1855–1858. But none of his prior actions had garnered anything close to the fame/notoriety that would accrue after his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October 1859.

As early as 1851 John Brown began formulating plans for and espousing the justice of guerrilla bands to thwart the power of white slaveholders in general and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular. He founded the “United States League of Gileadites,” which recruited blacks in Springfield, Illinois, by proclaiming that “Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery.” He went on to urge that when “engaged [with white slaveholders tracking fugitive slaves] do not do your work by halves, but make clean work with your enemies....” His advocacy of steadfast resistance was clear: “Stand by one another and by your friends, while a drop of blood remains; and be hanged, if you must, but tell no tales out of school. Make no confession.”

Enter Moodle Forum

Assigned Readings

To incorporate seminar texts into your teaching, we offer the National Humanities Center’s Primary Document Application Form.
  1. John Brown: Angel of Light or the Devil’s Tool? (PDF)
  2. Selected John Brown readings (PDF)
  3. Images of John Brown (PDF)


PowerPoint: 2.2 MB

Online Evaluation

Seminar Recording

Streaming Recording

Download Recording (You will need to install the WebEx ARF player, available at download, to play back the recording.)