Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- John Brown's Schemes
In June 1855 Frederick Douglass was attending a meeting of the Radical Abolitionist Party in Syracuse when John Brown rose and appealed to the convention for “men and means to defend freedom in Kansas” (McFeely 187).  The delegates sent him on his way with sixty dollars.  Violence erupted the following spring.  Proslavery forces attacked free-soil settlers of Lawrence, Kansas.  Brown retaliated.  “At Pottawatomie, Kansas, in May 1856, after he and his band had dragged three proslavery men named Doyle, from their cabins, Brown shot the father in the head with a pistol while the two sons were hacked to death and their bodies mutilated with broadswords” (McFeely 188-189).
Later, Brown met with Douglass in Rochester on his way to Boston to raise additional money.  In confidence, Brown told Douglass of two schemes he had planned.  One he called the Subterranean Pass Way.  A corridor extending north from the Valley of Virginia through Pennsylvania and New York to Canada would be opened and guarded by men in frequently spaced stations.  Slaves would be moved in large numbers to freedom beyond the American border.  The other plan was his old dream of establishing a sanctuary for black runaways in the Alleghany Mountains.
In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison sternly criticized Brown for his killings and refused to participate in Brown’s money-for-guns campaign.  However, other influential New Englanders, who had abandoned their non-violent opposition to slavery, listened to hear what Brown now planned.  “In Kansas, where the fighting over slavery had been savage, there were few slaves.  Virginia, by contrast, was the state with the largest number of slaves, and these were the ones Brown pledged to lead in revolt.  The Bostonians listened with fascination; soon a cabal, known later as the Secret Six, began to form.  These eminently respectable divines, intellectuals, businessmen, and landed gentry were mesmerized by the fifty-six year old revolutionary and his grand design” (McFeely 190).  One of the six would be Gerrit Smith.
The cause of keeping slavery out of the territories, thereby insuring that the states eventually formed out of them would be free, was the one unifying bond of those who had founded a new political party.  The Republican Party nominated John C. Fremont for the Presidency in 1856 and failed to win the election, but they increased their agitation against the spread of slavery and increased their numbers.  They, and abolitionists like Douglass, who sought to restrict if not eradicate slavery by lawful means, were soon delivered a stunning blow.  On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the nine justices of the Supreme Court, declared in Dred Scott v. Sanford that “a slave, an ex-slave, or a descendant of slaves could not be a citizen of the United States, and that Congress, being constitutionally required to protect property-including slaves-could not prohibit slavery in the territories” (McFeely 191).  According to the Court, everything that the Republican Party had struggled for and that abolitionists had demanded was constitutionally unlawful.  John Brown had an additional incentive to pursue his unlawful schemes; those who sympathized with him had more reason to listen to him.
Brown toured the North, talking of Kansas but searching for support for his projected war on Virginia slaveholders.  On the 28th of January, 1858, he was back in Rochester and would stay at Frederick Douglass’s house for three weeks.  He busied himself drafting a constitution for the separate state he planned to create for slaves in the Alleghany Mountains.  During spare moments he talked to Douglass about his general aims.  Several times he gathered the Douglass children around him and with the use of blocks he outlined his plan for guerilla warfare.  The unnamed state would need a commander-in-chief of the army, cabinet members, and a president.  “Even if Douglass thought the scheme farfetched, he may, in private, have liked to imagine himself as the president.  In any case, there is no evidence that he tried to block this boldest-yet plan to end slavery.  … Years later, he spoke proudly of having a copy [of the constitution] in Brown’s hand, perhaps the original, … written under his roof” (McFeely 192).
Near the end of March Brown and one of his sons journeyed to Chatham, Canada, to meet with black and white supporters and establish a rebel state in exile.  Brown hoped that prominent black leaders like Douglass and Harriet Tubman would attend and pledge their support of his scheme.  On May 8 before a gathering of thirty-five black men and twelve white men, Brown presented his constitution, proclaimed his provisional government, and named himself commander-in-chief.  Douglass and Tubman did not attend.  Only one man of any prominence did.  “Any black person would have realized that no matter who was at the actual head of the conspiracy-in this instance, Brown, of course-the ones most at risk would be those who were black” (McFeely 193).  Also absent were members of the Secret Six.
Those who met at Chatham pledged themselves to secrecy, but soon information about Brown’s planned venture in Virginia was circulating amongst blacks in Canada and the United States.  Brown’s military strategist, an Englishman named Hugh Forbes, ostensibly seeking funds for Brown, was sent to New York by Douglass to meet with Ottila Assing, who had agreed to introduce him to many of her liberal German friends.  Soon afterwards Assing discovered that instead of raising funds for Brown, the Englishman sought to extort funds for his own behalf.  He was prepared to expose Brown to the New York newspapers and did tell two anti-slavery U.S. Senators, Wilson of Massachusetts and Seward of New York, of Brown’s plans.
Brown’s target was the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, a picturesque town on the Potomac River well west of Washington and due south of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in what was then Virginia.  Arms seized at the arsenal would be given to the slaves, who, Brown was sure, would instantly rise to join his insurrection.  (There were less than 5,000 slave men in the immediate region, which was also inhabited by more than 100,000 white people)  … aware that if two senators knew their secret, half of Washington probably knew it, the Secret Six insisted that Brown go to Kansas,  He did so, and while in the area, made an attack on a proslavery community in Missouri to cloak the fact that his true target was still in Virginia.
The maneuver worked, Forbes disappeared from the scene, and though Brown remained a hunted man, the War Department, led by the extraordinarily inept John B. Floyd, dropped its guard.  In the spring of 1859, rejecting any further postponement, Brown secretly led his tiny band of followers to a farm near a quarry outside Chambersburg to prepare for the campaign to free the slaves.
The rumors that Brown would bring the drastic cure of an armed revolt were enticing.  … What the skeptical [black] Americans thought Brown lacked was any notion of how swift retribution had been in this country when slaves, like those who marched with Nat Turner, had revolted.  And did he understand how the nonslaveholding North felt about black people gaining power?  Black Americans had learned to be cautions.  Slave and free, they were exceedingly reluctant to risk bringing down upon themselves the lethal vengeance of white society by actively participating in an insurrection.  But that did not keep them, in the privacy of their own homes and meeting halls, from cheering Brown on.
At no point in the eleven years that he had know of Brown’s hopes for an insurrection did Douglass repudiate the plan; indeed, there is no evidence that he even counseled caution.  It was very much in character for Douglass to be flattered by Brown’s repeated insistence that as a leader of his people, he was crucial to the enterprise; curiosity at the very least compelled him to go and have a look for himself.  Early in the fall of 1859, John Brown, Jr., called on Douglass, and other black leaders in northern New York State and Canada, in the attempt to build a phalanx of antislavery support for the insurrection.  Brown, his son insisted, greatly needed Douglass’s help (McFeely 193-195).
Work cited:
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.