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[Detail] The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: John Brown and Violence and Social Change

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had once worked as a stationmaster in the Underground Railroad and farmed alongside freed slaves in the Adirondack Mountains. In October 1855, Brown joined his sons in Kansas as part of the abolitionist emigrants looking to influence the pending vote on slavery in the territory.

photograph of fort, brick with short steeple

John Brown's Fort, Harper's Ferry, between 1861 and 1865, Civil War Treasures.

After learning that proslavery forces from Missouri rampaged through Lawrence, Kansas, and that Senator Charles Sumner was seriously assaulted on the Senate floor, Brown led an assault on five people at a proslavery settlement near Pottawatamie Creek. Geary and Kansas(1857) explains that Brown’s victims “ were there assembled to assassinate and burn the houses of certain free-state men . . . These five men were seized and disarmed . . . [and] shot in cold blood,” (page 87).

Brown soon established a reputation as a guerilla fighter and as an advocate for recruiting weapons and money in support of abolitionist efforts. In October 1859, Brown led eighteen men in seizing a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to enable a slave revolt. The threat of the rebellion ended when United States Marines recaptured the fort and killed ten of Brown’s men. Brown and five survivors were subsequently tried and executed for murder, treason, and insurrection.

A search on John Brown provides documents relating to the U.S. Senate investigation of the raid. The Report [of] the Select Committee . . . Appointed to Inquire into the Late Invasion . . . at Harper’s Ferry noted that while Brown was in Kansas, “he was extensively connected with many of the lawless military expeditions . . . [and] . . . that, before leaving the Territory . . . his purpose was . . .to keep the public mind inflamed on the subject of slavery in the country . . . as might enable him to bring about servile insurrection in the slave States,” (page 2).

The report also notes that while evidence did not suggest that Brown was supported by a specific abolitionist group, “money was freely contributed by those styling themselves friends of this man Brown, and friends alike of what they styled ‘the cause of freedom,’ . . . without inquiry as to the way in which the money would be used by him to advance such pretended cause,” (page 8).

  • Do you think that it was right for John Brown to have led the assault near Pottawatamie Creek in the interest of either protecting abolitionists or subduing proslavery forces?
  • Do you think that Brown’s raid at Harper's Ferry to procure weapons for a slave revolt was justified?
  • Do you think that a slave rebellion is a justifiable or effective way to combat slavery?
  • What are the intended and actual consequences of each of these three attacks?
  • Why do you think that John Brown was charged with treason for his attack at Harper's Ferry?
  • Do you think that Brown targeted the government in his attack on the federal arsenal? Might he have associated the fort with proslavery forces? Why or why not?
  • What are the dangers of participating in violent attacks when a state of war has not been declared?
  • What is the purpose of declaring a state of war? How might such a declaration protect the efforts made in war time? How might such a declaration minimize the violence of war?
  • At what point does a nation or individual decide that it is necessary to resort to violence to further a cause?
  • In what situations might it be acceptable or even necessary to oppose someting with illegal violence?
  • Had you been an abolitionist in John Brown's time, might you have supported him? Why or why not?

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Historical Research Capabilities: Social History

This collection contains a wide variety of resources with which to investigate the social history of the nineteenth century. A search on the term, temperance, yields cautionary tales such as Ruined by Rum (1877) as well as guides such as The Bases of the Temperance Reform (1873) and the Text-book of Temperance (1869). The latter book was designed “for the use of young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty, as a means of teaching them the great facts and principles which lay beneath the Temperance Reformation,” (page 3).

A search on the term, phrenology, shifts the focus from temperance to temperament. Guides such as The Scientific Basis of Education, Demonstrated by an Analysis of the Temperaments and of Phrenological Facts… (1868) and The Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (1889) explained how the study of the shape of a person’s skull was thought to reveal certain character traits.

The shape of one’s skull, however, did not predetermine some social skills. A search on the term, etiquette, yields a number of books guaranteeing that almost every necessary social grace could be learned from the likes of The American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and Fashion (1860) and The Bazar Book of Decorum (1873).

  • Who is the intended audience of these sets of books?
  • What do you think that these various guides reveal about the interests and ideas of people living during the nineteenth century?
  • Do you think that contemporary society has any similar types of interests or ideas? If so, how do these guides compare to contemporary discussions?
  • How do you think that our cultural interests might appear to people living in the next century?

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Arts & Humanities

The Nineteenth Century in Print offers a variety of primary sources with which to practice language arts skills. Autobiographies by Frederick Douglass and General George A. Custer provide the opportunity to study personal narratives. Nineteenth-century biographies of women can be examined to understand the choices that authors make and how literature can contribute to social and political causes such as the equal rights movement. Civil War poetry and territorial guides are also available and can be used to study the use of tone, imagery, and persuasive writing techniques. Finally, the historical events represented in this collection can provide the basis for creative writing activities.

Autobiography: Frederick Douglass

Personal narratives of American historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and General George A. Custer provide insight into narrative techniques and the power of autobiography. Later expanded as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), My Bondage and My Freedom (1857), is an affecting personal narrative in which the author presents a world that would seem strange and foreign to many of his readers:

Like other slaves, I cannot tell how old I am. This destitution was among my earliest troubles. I learned when I grew up, that my master . . . allowed no questions to be put to him, by which a slave might learn his age. Such questions are deemed evidence of impatience, and even of impudent curiosity. From certain events, however, the dates of which I have since learned, I suppose myself to have been born about the year 1817.

page 35

  • How would you describe Douglass’s tone in My Bondage and My Freedom?
  • What are the relationships between the narrator, other slaves, and the master?
  • How does Douglass establish these relationships in his narrative?
  • How would the effect of the passage above differ if it were written from a third-person perspective?

In the introduction to Douglass’s autobiography, Dr. James M’Cune Smith celebrates the book as “a noble vindication of the highest aims of the American anti-slavery movement. The real object of that movement is . . . to bestow upon the negro the exercise of all those rights, from the possession of which he has been so long debarred,” (page xvii).

  • In what ways does Douglass's narrative contribute to what Smith called the “vindication” of the abolitionist movement?
  • How does Douglass’s authorship of his life story and his use of a personal tone contribute to this effect?

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Autobiography: Colonel George A. Custer

While Frederick Douglass’s narrative provides insight into his growing role as an abolitionist, Colonel George Custer’s narrative offers an examination of the conflicts in the U.S. territories that led to his demise. Two years before Colonel George Custer and his troops died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he wrote My Life on the Plains (1874), which describes a solitary and thankless life:

How many military men have reaped laurels from their Indian campaigns? . . . That is indeed . . . a difficult task. For let him act as he may in conducting or assisting in a campaign against the Indians, . . . [and] he can feel assured of this fact, that one-half of his fellow-citizens at home will revile him for his zeal and pronounce his success . . . a massacre of poor, defenceless, harmless Indians; while the other half . . . will cry "Down with him . . .”

page 20

  • How do you think that soldiers would have felt as they entered into Indian campaigns?
  • Why do you think that Custer uses a third-person narration to convey these feelings?
  • How does Custer's account compare to other historical interpretations of the colonel's efforts in the territories?
  • Do you think that Custer was trying to evoke sympathy for the lives of soldiers in the territories? If so, do you think that he was successful?
  • What other goals and motivations might Custer have had in writing his autobiography?
  • Compare the narratives of Custer and Douglass: What is the difference between the narrators’ situations? Who are the authors' intended audiences? What do the writing styles suggest about the authors?
  • What is the purpose of a personal narrative?
  • What elements of autobiography do you think appeal to a reader?

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Biographies of Women in the Nineteenth Century

The women’s equal rights movement captured the interest of many nineteenth-century writers. Browse the Subject Index for the term, Women--Biography, for anthologies such as Eminent Women of the Age (1868), and Woman on the American Frontier (1877) that describe the lives of remarkable women such as Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Collections such as Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice (1866) and Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (1867) focus on female volunteers such as Clara Barton and Dorothea L. Dix, who recruited and appointed Union nurses and “tarried in Washington to finish many an uncompleted task, for some time after her office had been abolished,” (page 108). Other biographies emphasize women's selflessness as caretakers, mothers, and wives, while collections such as Noble Deeds of American Women (1869) feature biographical sketches of prominent women such as the “Mother of Washington” and “Wife of John Adams.”

  • Why do you think that the women featured in these works were chosen as biographical subjects? What do they have in common? How are they different?
  • Who do you think is the intended audience of each of these works?
  • What goals do you think that the authors of these works might have had in writing these biographies and compiling these anthologies?
  • How do these biographical studies illuminate the values held by the authors of these works?
  • How do you think that these works relate to the struggle for equal rights for women?
  • How many of these women would you include in a contemporary anthology of women throughout U.S. history? How would you decide upon the number of women to include?
  • Which women from contemporary history would you include? Why?

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Civil War Poetry

A search on the term, poetry, yields works promoting different political agendas in the era of slavery. The Anti-Slavery Poems of John Pierpont (1843) promotes the abolitionist effort while the anthology, Personal and Political Ballads (1864), commemorates Union heroics in works such as the “Ballad of Fort Sumter”:

In sight the Star’s flag woos the breeze,
At once death-threatening notes
Come pealing o’er the swelling seas
From blazing cannon throats!

page 55

Henry Brownell’s War-lyrics and Other Poems (1866), on the other hand, takes a Southern perspective in chronicling events leading up to the Civil War, such as the 1860 Republican nomination of Abraham Lincoln in the derisive “Honest Abe”:

“Honest Abe!” What strange vexation
Thrills an office-armchaired party!
What impatience and disgust
That the people should put trust
In a name so true and hearty!
What indignant lamentation
For the unchosed—surely fitter
Growl they) than a rough rail-splitter—
Most unheard of nomination!

page 111

Contrast the stylistic differences (tone, rhyme scheme, etc.) between the poems represented in Personal and Political Ballads and those appearing in War-lyrics and Other Poems:

  • What types of images appear in these poems?
  • How are these images reinforced by the poet’s stylistic choices?
  • How do these images relate to the main idea of the poem?
  • Do you think that these poems are objective? Why or why not?
  • Who do you think is the intended audience for these different books?
  • How do you think that different audiences might react to these works? Why do you think that these writers chose to express themselves through poetry rather than an essay or some other writing style?
  • How do you think that political positions are represented in these poems?
  • Do you think that contemporary poets express political positions in their works? If so, how do contemporary poems differ from these nineteenth-century works?
  • What is the effect of describing a historical event through poetry?
  • Imitate the style of these works by composing a poem that discusses a historical event or a controversial position.

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State and Territorial Guides

A search on the term, emigrant, produces territorial guides such as Western Portraiture (1852), and The Western Tourist and Emigrant’s Guide. . . (1855). These guides describe the growth throughout the Midwest in the mid-nineteenth century: “Cities have sprung up in the wilderness . . . and the arts are extending their healthful and invigorating influence throughout the country. Blessed with a soil unsurpassed in fertility . . . and possessing . . . all the influences that can render a country prosperous and a people happy,” (page 3).

The Civil War decimated many cities. During Reconstruction, many eastern states sponsored guidebooks to encourage immigration and investment. Books such as The West Virginia Hand-Book and Immigrant’s Guide (1870) and Virginia: A Geographical and Political Summary (1876), as well as advertisements, were distributed to potential settlers throughout the United States and Europe.

Western territories later offered their own official promotions of the benefits of western settlement. For example, Official Information, Colorado (1872) announced that its potential mineral wealth was available to anyone who was an established U. S. citizen or intended to apply for citizenship (page 18). Minnesota: Its Advantages to Settlers (1868) boasted that it was created to ensure that people “know of Minnesota, before they incur the fearful risk of plunging themselves and families into the fever-ridden districts of other States,” (page b).

  • What do you think were the most advantageous aspects of territories and states that could most appeal to potential emigrants and investors?
  • What is the tone of these guides? Is it consistent, or does it change with the intent of the guide, the time of its creation, and the place it promotes?
  • How do you think that the promotional techniques of these guides influenced prospective emigrants reading these guides?
  • What is the purpose of contemporary state guides? Is it the same purpose as these guides of the past?
  • How do contemporary guides compare in content and tone with those of the nineteenth century?
  • What do you think are the most appealing qualities of your own state?
  • Create a guide promoting investment and emigration.

Creative Writing

The resources represented in the Special Presentation, "A Sampler of Collection Themes," provide an opportunity to research a political or social event and to write either a personal journal or short story describing how it might have felt to experience one of these events. Topics might include the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, conflicts in Kansas and the territories, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, or the secession of the South from the perspective of an abolitionist, a slaveholder, or a runaway slave. The following questions may provide a starting point for developing your narrative.

  • What was your life like before the event occurred?
  • How did you respond to the event?
  • How did your family and neighbors respond?
  • Do you think that the event altered your life?
  • If so, do you think that the impact was beneficial or harmful? Why?

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