W.E.B. Du Bois on John Brown

Publication Year: 1909

Du Bois, W.E.B., “The Legacy of John Brown,” in John Brown. (published 1909)

Source thumbnail image: Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, by photographer C.M. Battey, 1919 (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Source note

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a civil rights leader as well as a sociologist, writer, and editor. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts to a Haitian-born Bahamian father and a mother who traced her lineage to an African freedman who fought in the Revolutionary War. Du Bois was the first African American student to graduate from his racially integrated public high school, and went on to get his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (in history) from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote beautifully, effectively, and powerfully about the life of African Americans in America, and about the wide-ranging effects of racism that pervade the African American experience. Du Bois was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and his works are still widely read and studied today.

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Reading questions

1.    Who is the author, and when did the author write the document? What was his purpose for writing the document?

2.    Why did John Brown’s imprisonment and writings while in prison do “more to shake the foundations of slavery than any single thing that ever happened in America (page 365)”?

3.    According to Du Bois, what is John Brown’s attitude toward clergymen (like the author of Document 2, Van Dyke) who support or make excuses for slavery (pages 372-373)?

4.    How did “the splendid scientific work of Darwin, Weissman, Galton and others” increase and justify American racism in the mid-19th century (pages 375-376)?

5.    What societal tensions arise from the white supremacist impulse to “keep these black people in their places” (pages 376-377)?

6.    According to Du Bois, philanthropists at the time of the Civil War predicted that formerly enslaved African Americans would arrive in the middle class within 40 years, while slaveholders smugly predicted that former slaves would “retrograde and die.” What, according to Du Bois, actually happened to African Americans after emancipation (page 377)?

7.    How does Du Bois explain the differences in cultural attainment between racially and geographically diverse groups of people (pages 378-379)? How is this similar to the ways we view different cultures today? How is it different?

8.    Du Bois points out that the Emancipation Proclamation was just the first step in freeing America’s enslaved people. What were the other steps taken toward this goal (page 386)?

9.    Near the end of the document, Du Bois writes that “the effort was great and the determination of the south to pay no single cent or deed for past error save by force, led in the revolution of 1876 to the triumph of reaction.” What historical events is Du Bois pointing to, and how do they relate to John Brown’s efforts to abolish slavery (pages 386-387)?

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Source type
Scholarly book
History Topics
Abolition and Anti-slavery
African American History
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)