Evaluate this: The Execution of John Brown

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When our seventh grade U.S. history teacher found out I was interested in news history, and particularly in how competing perspectives influence narrative in the news, he invited me to lend a hand with his annual John Brown research project. Every year, he asks his students to investigate the life of John Brown, culminating in his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution, and write a persuasive argument stating whether he was a martyr or a terrorist. I was thrilled to be asked to help curate resources for this project and was particularly excited to dive into old newspapers.

At the American Association of School Librarians’ 2018 national conference, I had the good fortune of attending a fantastic session by Tom Bober entitled “Close Readings with Historical Newspapers: Making Meaning from the Past.” Along with presenting great pedagogy for close reading with primary sources, Tom introduced me to Chronicling America from the Library of Congress and the National Endowment of the Humanities, a treasure trove of newspaper articles published between 1789 and 1963 from all fifty states. Around the same time I learned of the AncestryK12 Grant from Ancestry.com, which provides schools with free on-campus access to Newspapers.com. (The grant is easy to apply for and the turn around is quick. If you haven’t signed your school up yet, do it now!) I find the options for capturing and printing newspaper clips to be a little easier in Newspapers.com, but both are excellent resources for historical researching.

I wanted to show students how newspaper accounts of John Brown’s execution might vary according to the region they were published, and it didn’t take long to find several great examples using Chronicling America and Newspapers.com. These two were my favorite:

Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1859


Alexandria_Gazette_Sat__Dec_3__1859_ 2
Alexandria Gazette, December 3, 1859

Reading these two excerpts, one from an Illinois paper and another from Virginia, prompted a great discussion with students based on the following questions:

  • What differences exist between these two descriptions of the same event?
  • What external factors could account for any differences in the papers’ perspectives?
  • What language does each author use to convey the tone or mood of this event? How do they paint the picture differently?

Why do different groups of people look at the same event and interpret it differently? Coverage of John Brown’s execution helps students see that this question about our human nature, one we continue to ask ourselves today, is far from new.


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