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