Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Fear of Arrest
 
Douglass gave a lecture in Brooklyn and another in Philadelphia, raised a small sum of money, and then set out for Chambersburg.  Traveling with Shields Green, one of John Brown’s black supporters, Douglass entered the barbershop of Henry Watson and told the black man why he was in town.  Watson immediately set about making arrangements for a public lecture in Chambersburg, which would give Douglass a legitimate reason for being there.  He then directed Douglass and Green to the quarry at the edge of town, where Brown and his band of men were waiting.
 
They sat down on the rocks to talk, and Douglass soon discovered that Brown seemed to have forgotten his plans for establishing communities of fugitive slaves in the mountains.  … Now Brown was obsessed with the idea of taking the Harpers Ferry arsenal, which he viewed both as the emblem of the military power of a government he had learned to hate and as a source of arms with which to wage war against the slaveholders protected by that power.  Suddenly Douglass saw the whole enterprise in a different light: he was convinced it was doomed.
 
When, later in the day, Douglass met the pathetically small group of brave but, he now thought, deluded men who were determined to follow their leader’s bidding, he was still more dismayed.  … Douglass told Brown that he was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”  Douglass saw no safety in Brown’s plan to protect himself by taking civilian hostages: “Virginia,” he later claimed to have declared, “would blow him and his hostages sky-high, rather than he should hold Harpers Ferry an hour.”
 
Undaunted, Brown continued for two days his attempts to persuade Douglass to join his force, saying, “I want you for a special purpose.  … When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I want you to help hive them.”  Brown’s likening a rising of human beings to a swarm of stinging bees, with Douglass as the queen bee who could control them, must have made the whole enterprise seem mad. 
 
Douglas said no to Brown’s final plea that he join him, and left. 
 
On October 16, 1859, leading an army of twenty-two, Brown moved on Harpers Ferry; with expert reconnoitering and extraordinary nerve, they did manage to seize the arsenal.  Shields Green and Jeremiah Sanderson, another of Brown’s black soldiers, were sent out to rally the slaves in the region to the revolt.  As the two left on their futile assignment, they saw Robert E. Lee’s detachment of marines surrounding the arsenal.  Sanderson said to Green that they had better keep going; they could do nothing now to save Brown, but Green went back into the arsenal, saying he “must go down to de ole man.”  The rebels were all either captured or, like Green, killed (McFeely 196-197).
 
The Philadelphia newspapers of October 18 were full of the news of Brown’s raid.  That night Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture at National Hall.  The following morning he received a “very elegantly written note” from Amanda Auld Sears, Thomas and Lucretia Auld’s daughter.  She was now the wife of John Sears, a Philadelphia coal merchant.  She had heard Douglass speak the night before and wished to meet with him.
 
Choosing, whether conscious or not, to ignore the storm over one of the most sensational events in the nation’s history, an event in which he knew he was implicated, Douglass went to Sears’s office in response to the invitation.  Presumably, Amanda Sears had given Douglass her husband’s business address, but at first Sears resisted talking to Douglass at all; when he relented, he remained distant, saying that he greatly resented the attacks Douglass had made on the father-in-law, Thomas Auld, in his books.  Only reluctantly did he at length permit Douglass to call on his wife.  When the slave went to visit the mistress, he was dismayed to find the Sears’s parlor full of people, curious about the caller.  Douglass had been afraid that he might not recognize Amanda as a grown woman, but he did so immediately, and the two fell into an intimate conversation.  Amanda ignored Douglass’s years-old hortatory attacks on her father, referring instead to his affectionate recollection of her mother, Lucretia Anthony Auld, in the Narrative.  Forthrightly, she told him that she agreed with him that slavery was a wrong.  After more than two decades Douglass was pulled back into one of his families.  Years later he found out that soon after his reunion with Amanda, her father, Thomas Auld, learned of the visit and told her that she had been right to reach out and bring Frederick back (McFeely 198).
 
Almost immediately Douglass had to leave the city and go into hiding.  Amongst the papers taken from John Brown was a note written by Douglass dated December 7, 1857: “My dear Cpt. Brown, I am very busy at home.  Will you Please, come up with my son Fred and take a mouthful with me?”  The Philadelphia newspapers published the note but omitted “1857.”  Virginia’s governor, Henry Wise, subsequently demanded that President Buchanan assist in arresting Brown’s allies, included “Frederick Douglass, a negro man … charged with … inciting servile insurrection” (McFeely 198).  The note itself did not prove that Douglass was a part of Brown’s conspiracy, but Douglass had good reason to fear imminent arrest.  People in Philadelphia knew that he had brought money to Brown from the city, accompanied by Shields Green.  The authorities would soon know that as well.  Also, a fact that Douglass did not know, a teacher at Harpers Ferry knew that Brown had boasted that Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass knew of the insurrection.
 
Douglass received unanticipated help from a telegraph operator.  James Hern received a message from Washington ordering the sheriff of Philadelphia County to arrest Douglass.  Not only did the anti-slavery telegraph operator delay the delivery of the message three hours but he went to the house where Douglass was staying to warn him personally.
 
Douglass was dispatched on a ferry to Camden, New Jersey, transferred to a steamer to New York, took a ferry across the Hudson River to Hoboken, and spent an anxious night at the boarding house where Otilla Assing lived.  The New York newspapers furiously reported the news of Brown’s insurrection and conspiracy.  Avoiding probable arrest at the train station in New York, Douglass, with Assing, borrowed a carriage and drove it to Paterson, New Jersey, when he boarded a train to Rochester.  The day after he reached home he stepped onto a boat for Canada.  In November he sailed for England.
 
He had planned a lecture tour of the British Isles before Brown’s capture.  Since he was already a fugitive in Canada, he decided to do the tour and remove himself further from the possibility of capture.  He stayed with Julia Griffiths Crofts and her clergyman husband of less than one year in Halifax well into January before he began his tour.
 
At first he did not mention John Brown specifically in his speeches.  Eventually, as a fair measure of popular opinion in the North turned to embrace Brown as a martyr in the cause to eradicate slavery, Douglass honored the man.  Slaveholders, Douglass insisted, were in insurrection against a nation awakened by Brown and anti-slavery crusaders.  Slavery was not guaranteed by the Constitution; it was a violation of the document.  Liberty must now rule the land, not slavery, Douglass declared.  Black people, free as well as enslaved, must be given back their plundered rights.
 
Upon receiving news of the unexpected death, March 13, 1860, of his daughter, Anna, Douglass booked passage to recross the Atlantic.  He was ashore at Portland, Maine, traveled to Montreal by train, and crossed Lake Ontario to reach Rochester, uncertain that he would remain free from arrest.  Northern politicians had, fortunately for Douglass, moved to curtail Southern insistence that those allied to John Brown be prosecuted.  They did not wish to support further protection by the federal government of slaveholders’ interests.  Douglass was now free to resume his abolitionist quest.
 
 
Work cited:
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.