Saturday, April 22, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- John Brown
Douglass attended the national convention of free men of color in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1848 and was elected its president.  During the several days of his stay he received a message written by John Brown, a white man whom some of the delegates knew by sight, who was known to have advised free blacks to carry guns, who would stop a black man on any street and mesmerize him with his powerful eyes as he spoke.  Brown wanted Douglass to visit him at his home in Springfield, Ohio.  Douglass delivered lectures in the Town Hall of Springfield October 29 and November 18.  Sometime between those two engagements he called upon the man at his place of business, the firm of Perkins & Brown, wool merchants.
… Lean, somewhat under six feet, the merchant … gave an immediate impression of sinewy strength.  Mixed gray hair, close cropped, grew low on a gloomy forehead.  About fifty years old, Douglass guessed.
Light came up in the man’s blue gray eyes when he talked, and Douglass knew instantly that he was in an unusual presence. …
On the street, a little later, Douglass noticed his companion’s stride and was reminded on the long, springing step of a race horse.  Brown’s intense absorption in his own thoughts also fascinated Douglass.  He seemed neither to seek nor shun the observation of those they passed. …
The house they entered. … Plain as was the outside, the inside was plainer.  Spartan was not the word; the appointments in John Brown’s house suggested destitution.  But the wife, the sons and the daughters of the host received the guest with great cordiality. 
Whenever John Brown spoke in the course of the meal, his family listened gravely or sprang to obedience.  His language was flavored with biblical phrases, and the attitude of his children toward his utterances was unfailingly reverent.  Observing this, Douglass began to feel uneasy.  When he questioned one of his host’s remarks, ever so slightly, he became aware of the family’s astonishment.  To them John Brown’s words were gospel. …
How John Brown had gotten that way, he could only guess, of course, but Douglass could tell when a man had been through torment. 
His house in Springfield was still full of children, but John Brown had not forgotten the ones who were dead.  He had not forgotten Dianthe, the wife of his youth.  … Mary had given him more children, many more, the number was finally to reach thirteen, but tragedy had dogged his life with her as with Dianthe.  [Four children died of illnesses during 1843, another infant in 1846] …
The enslavement of Negroes had been a crushing hurt to him since his childhood, and one of the things that impoverished him now was gifts to fugitive slaves.  But he had also lost money in the panic of 1837 and gone into bankruptcy in 1842.  Always he had been on the move.  From Connecticut to Ohio, from Ohio to Massachusetts, from Massachusetts to Ohio, from Ohio to Pennsylvania, from Pennsylvania, back to Ohio, from Ohio to Virginia, from Virginia-always on the move. 
Brown spoke with caution at first.  He had followed Douglass’s career in the abolition movement.  He knew Garrison’s doctrine, which Douglass had advocated, and he knew about the split and the founding of The North Star. 
Slaveholders had forfeited the right to live, John Brown blurted suddenly.
Douglass’s eyes must have brightened, for John Brown began talking freely.  Enforced slavery was a state of war.  A slave had a right to free himself by any means whatever.  Garrison and the preachers of moral suasion were getting nowhere.  Nor would the political action advocated by Gerrit Smith and the western abolitionists ever put an end to slavery.
That was strong talk.  What did Brown propose?
It was to answer that question, Brown confided, that he had invited Douglass to his home.  He had a plan-a most secret plan.
… the strangely tortured man unfolded a map of the United States.  With his finger he pointed to the Alleghany mountain range and traced it back and forth from the borders of New York to the Southern States.
“These mountains,” said John Brown, “are the basis of my plan.  God has given the strength of the hills to freedom.  … They were placed here for the emancipation of the Negro race.  They are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to a hundred for attack.  They are full also of good hiding places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time.  … I know these mountains well and could take a body of men into them and keep them there despite all efforts of Virginia to dislodge them.
“My plan … is to take at first about twenty-five picked men and begin on a small scale, supply them with arms and ammunition and post them in squads of five on a line of twenty-five miles.  The most persuasive and judicious of these shall go down to the fields from time to time, as opportunity offers, and induce the slaves to join them, seeking and selecting the most restless and daring.”
… They would run off slaves in large numbers, sending the weak and timid ones northward via the Underground Railroad and retaining the brave and strong ones to reinforce the guerillas in the mountains.  As his forces grew, Brown proposed to expand his operations.
… he was convinced that forces sent to trap his trained men would find it extremely difficult to keep his bands from cutting their way out.  If worse came to worst, he shrugged, the enemy could do no more than kill him, and he could think of no better use for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave (Bontemps 173-180).
The austerity of Brown’s home, Douglass realized, was the result of the man’s saving of money to carry out his grand plan.  Brown’s ideas appealed to him; Douglass did not endorse them-he doubted the chances of their success-but, without question he approved of black men actively encouraging and helping slaves escape their bondage.  Douglass had already become a part of the escape process, his house in Rochester a stopping place for fugitives to be sent across the water to Canada.  John Brown was a man to be watched; he realized that Brown would likely communicate with him again.
Work cited:
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Julia Griffiths
Douglass was aided considerably by the administrative talent of Julia Griffiths, whom he had met during his stay in England.  She was an articulate, intelligent anti-slavery worker and they quickly developed a friendship that became intense and that lasted until they died, almost a half century later.  On May 7, 1849, she arrived in Rochester, accompanied by her sister Eliza, to help him edit the newspaper.  His unending lecturing trips, and his inclination not to focus upon the practical aspects of publishing made it necessary for someone else to make the operation efficient.  The two worked opposite each other daily at a table and a desk in the newspaper’s office.  But she and her sister resided in Douglass’s home.  This, and that Julia Griffiths was a young woman and that she was white and that she was forthrightly assertive and that Douglass openly appreciated her immediately fueled the thoughts of the suspicious.  Vicious gossip soon abounded, despite the fact that Eliza always accompanied Julia and Frederick when they traveled together.  Frederick, in fact, seemed to enjoy the stir they created.
… simply the sight of a black man escorting white women on the street was enough to raise hackles.  Walking along the Battery in New York City after attending the 1850 May meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the three were accosted by a gang of white men; shouting obscene racial epithets, the men dragged Douglass away and beat him, until a policeman, hunted up by the women, drove the attackers off (McFeely 165).
Surely he did not relish this incident but he did make use of it.  Asked by a reporter of the London Times afterwards to comment, he said that his offense was not that he had walked with white people but that he had walked with them “on terms of equality.  Had I been with those persons simply as a servant, I should have been regarded with complacency by the refined, and with respect by the vulgar class of white persons.”  The American “aristocracy of Skin” insulted “a colored man with the most perfect impunity” (Bontemps 184).
Gerrit Smith and his wife were undaunted by the interracial nature of the friendships and welcomed Douglass and the Griffiths sisters to Peterboro.  Most of their colleagues in the movement, however, were far from welcoming the new editorial team, and when Eliza Griffiths hitherto always present as chaperone, was no longer available for the assignment, the criticism of the two candidly unorthodox friends grew.  Late in the summer of 1850, romance had bloomed elsewhere in the office; John Dick … married Eliza and took her off to Toronto, where, in time, he would work on another antislavery paper.  … Now Julia Griffiths and Douglass had no protection against the gossips (McFeely 165-166).
Julia continued to live with the Douglasses.  Anna Douglass had been accepting of her husband’s friendship with the eccentric Englishwoman at first, but her resentment of Julia’s presence and of the favored attention Frederick gave her surfaced and intensified.  Julia’s habit of reading to him at night must have been especially galling to the illiterate women.
Julia did make friends with some of the townspeople.  She became secretary of the local antislavery society.  Her closest friends, aside from Douglass, probably were the Gerrit Smiths, whom she visited frequently and with whom she corresponded.
With the Smiths, Julia let her hair down.  Anna was giving the unblemished Douglass a hard way to go.  Poor man, only Julia knew what trials he suffered behind the brick walls of his home.  Her fire was not to be quenched by the stupid suspicions and jealousy of an illiterate woman whose capacity for intellectual growth and new horizons was so limited.  Certainly the mission of Frederick Douglass was too clear and bright to be allowed to bog down in that way.  Certainly the crusade for freedom was the main thing, and the help that Julia Griffiths could give should not be withheld because of petty irritations (Bontemps 186).
Friends of Douglass began to urge that he end his friendship with Julia.  Douglass refused to listen.  His right to her friendship was a part of his right to be liberated.  In January 1852 he wrote to Samuel Porter, with whom he had worked in moving fugitives into Canada.
“Individuals have rights not less than society.”  … Douglass chided Porter for writing to him of the “scandalous reports” instead of speaking to him directly.  “Miss Griffiths—is a free woman—and [acknowledging that they had indeed felt the sting of criticism], of her own free will” had moved out of his house to board elsewhere two months earlier …
He would not allow Porter or anyone else to undercut his friendship by making fun—“speaking lightly” – of Julia, whose forthright ways and eccentric clothes made her an easy target.  “She has a just claim upon my gratitude, respect, and friendship,” he declared.  Julia Griffiths had built something like a satisfactory relationship with Anna Douglass, sharing tea with her in the kitchen, and had even, unsuccessfully, tried to teach her to read.  Douglass … insisted that “when she was in my family—I was necessarily in her society—our walking and riding together was natural.  Now we are separated and meet at my office at business hours and for business purposes—where we are open to the observation of my printers and the public.”
… By 1855, the criticism had become so shrill that the two could no longer withstand its pressures.  Julia packed her bags and went back to England, where she continued her anti-slavery activities.  Later, she wrote a regular column … for Douglass’ Monthly, … which appeared as a separate publication starting in January 1859.  … In time, Julia married the Reverend H. O. Crofts, a stolid clergyman with whom she moved from parsonage to parsonage in England.  After he died, she conducted, for twenty years, a school for young women in St. Neots.  Until the death of Frederick Douglass, three months before hers, she never ceased corresponding with her “beloved friend.”  But she was never again to sit with him in his parlor (McFeely 170-171, 182)
Works cited:
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Non-Fiction Book Review
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
Nathaniel Philbrick
I highly recommend that any person interested in early American history read Nathaniel Philbrick’s "Mayflower, a Story of Courage, Community, and War." Philbrick is a skilled writer. He is both informative and expressive. His information is well researched. He is objective in his interpretation of the significance of major events and skillful in his portrayal of prominent historical figures.

His narrative of the people and events of the time alters the image that most Americans have about the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors. What I was left with at the end of the book was reaffirmation of the seemingly universal truth that while individual people are capable of acts of kindness, groups of man invariably act upon their selfish interests and punish if not destroy those who stand in their way.

What did I learn that I had not known?

The Pilgrims were exceedingly lucky settling both where they did and when they did. A virulent disease had wiped out the Pokanokets settlement at Plymouth and much of the tribe elsewhere. The disease had been brought to New England by European adventurers, some of whom had taken captives. Two, who had returned, had learned to speak English. One of them, Squanto, served the Pilgrims as a translator.

For nearly 50 years the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets lived adjacent to each other in relative harmony. This was mostly because each had a strong need for the other. The Pilgrims needed the Pokanokets as a protective barrier. The Pokanokets, because of their reduced population, threatened by more populous neighboring tribes, needed the Pilgrims’ military assistance. During those 50 years a certain intimacy developed. A certain amount of cross-cultural exchange occurred. Each adopted certain ways of the other.

This all began to change when second generation Pilgrim and Pokanokets leaders took positions of authority. Late in his life William Bradford lamented that the material rewards of this life rather than those of the afterlife had become the focus of the second and third generations. Scarcity of land became the inevitable consequence of growth of population. Indians were viewed increasingly as an impediment. Indians, in turn, resented their loss of land due both to its purchase by the English and confiscation.

Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets, friend of the Pilgrims, had died. His older son, Alexander, summoned by the magistrates of Plymouth Colony to appear before them to renew the covenant of peace that had existed between the two people, died suddenly of an unexpected illness. Tribal members suspected that he had been poisoned. Massasoit’s younger son, Philip, became the tribe’s sachem.

His tribe squeezed of territory, increasingly impoverished, forced to turn over its weapons, three of his tribal members executed for crimes they had not committed, Philip began to seek out the support of neighboring tribes to push back against the English. War eventually broke out. All Indians, even those who tried to stay neutral, were perceived as “children of the devil.” Many neutral Indians were given no choice but to go to war.

For awhile, the Indians seemed to be winning. Had Philip been able to forge an alliance with the French in the Hudson River Valley, the outcome of the war would have been quite different. Ultimately, lack of food diminished Philip’s forces. The alliance of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies outlasted them. Desertions resulted. Treated more humanely by some of the English leaders, certain tribes switched sides. The war ended when the sachems of the warring tribes, including Philip, were taken and killed.

King Philip’s War was costly for both sides. During the 14 months of the war Plymouth Colony lost close to 8 percent of its men. Due to death in battle, starvation, and being sold into slavery and exported to the West Indies, the Native American tribes of southern New England lost between 60 to 80 percent of their population.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s book offers the reader much to think about.