John Brown


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John Brown’s Trial – Primary Documents

John Brown's Holy War


Below you will find a selection of writings and speeches. The first page is from the trial documents, the next are letters Brown sent from jail, and finally there is a short speech given by Frederick Douglass.

   As you read, pay attention to how Brown represents himself to the public. What sort of ethos does he project? How does he use the Bible and typology to convey his mission?



   How does Douglass’ representation of Brown (below) compare to Brown’s own self-representation? To Thoreau’s representation of him?



Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown”

      Because of his violent actions at Harpers Ferry (and earlier, in Kansas) in support of emancipation, John Brown confronts a huge ethos problem. How does Thoreau represent Brown to his reader? How does he seek to “correct” his readers’ perceptions of Brown? How does he counter the popular view that Brown was insane (see page 38)? Why would people have considered Brown insane in the first place?

      Thoreau makes several appeals to shared values in his essay. How does Thoreau deploy American history on behalf of Brown?  How does Thoreau use Christian religious imagery in this essay?  What is its rhetorical effect?

   According to Trodd and Stauffer (Meteor of War: The John Brown Story) “Between the raid on October 16 and the execution on December 2, the Northeast had witnessed a meteor shower on an unprecedented scale and all the newspapers that Thoreau read during that time covered the story”. Where and how does Thoreau employ the image of the meteor in his speech? Explicate the symbolism—why is this an effective and/or appropriate metaphor for Brown? Is Thoreau’s use of the meteor metaphor similar to or different from Melville’s use of the image in his poem “The Portend”?

   What themes from “Walking” carry over to this essay? Do they stay the same or do they change?

   How, in the end, should we assess Thoreau’s argument in favor of violent action? Is it a good moral argument, or not?


If you have read “Civil Disobedience”:

      What similarities do you see between "Civil Disobedience" and "John Brown"?

   How does "A Plea for John Brown" differ from "Civil Disobedience" in its tone and the kind of politics it advocates?


Melville, “The Portent”

   How does Melville employ the image of the meteor here? How does he visualize Brown’s execution in meteoric terms?