Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Kansas: to be free or not to be that is the question
Joe Henke
American History
Time Frame:
1 Class Period
Civil War

Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • The lesson will be an individual assignment that will lead into group discussion.  The lesson will be based on the reading of two primary sources (John Brown Speech to the Court and the Kansas Emigrant Song by J.G. Whittier) and completing a written document analysis worksheet on both. 
  • The two documents provide a good comparison of the motives and tactics used by the different groups of abolitionists.  

  • I would like to have my students look at two viewpoints of people attempting to keep slavery out of Kansas and the methods in which they undertake to achieve that goal. 
  • I love the story of John Brown and his radical abolitionist ideology.  

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Missouri Standards

  • 7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)

Kansas Standards

  • Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources to interpret a historical-based conclusion).

4. (A) compares competing historical narratives in United States history by contrasting different historians’ choice of questions, use of sources, and points of view, in order to demonstrate how these factors contribute to different interpretations.

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:




Technology Required:

Computer with internet access

Full description of activity or assignment.
  • I use the activity during my unit on the Civil War and Missouri.  I present the information on the events known as Bleeding Kansas (causes, people, etc.).   I will use the primary sources to point out the views of people living on the east coast and the views of abolitionists.  I also like to use the primary sources to show the differences in motives/tactics within the abolitionist movement. 
  • The students will be given a copy of each primary source:  John Brown speech to the court at his trial and the Kansas Emigrant Song.  I also give each student two copies of the document analysis worksheet to complete on each document (found at http://www.trumanlibrary.org/psource.htm).
  • After completing the document analysis worksheet on both primary sources, I bring the students together for a group discussion on the two documents.  
  • What is each document about? 
  • What symbolism do you see in each of the documents? 
  • What tactics are used by both groups to get what they want? 
  • What bias do you see in the documents?

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • Based on the completion of the worksheets.  
  • You can also give participation points for the group discussion.