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Chapter 8

Events moved rapidly in the decade preceding the war. In 1850 the new Fugitive Slave Law brought discouragement to the hearts of the friends of liberty. Douglass's utterances during this period breathed the fiery indignation which he felt when the slave-driver's whip was heard cracking over the free States, and all citizens were ordered to aid in the enforcement of this inhuman statute when called upon. This law really defeated its own purpose. There were thousands of conservative Northern men, who, recognizing the constitutional guarantees of slavery and the difficulty of abolishing it unless the South should take the initiative, were content that it should be preserved intact so long as it remained a local institution. But when the attempt was made to make the North wash the South's dirty linen, and transform every man in the Northern States into a slave-catcher, it wrought a revulsion of feeling that aroused widespread sympathy for the slave and strengthened the cause of freedom amazingly. Thousands of escaped slaves were living in Northern communities. Some of them had acquired homes, had educated their children, and in some States had become citizens and voters. Already social pariahs, restricted generally to menial labor, bearing the burdens of poverty and prejudice, they now had thrust before them the spectre of the kidnapper, the slave-catcher with his affidavit, and the United States [Supreme] Court, which was made by this law the subservient tool of tyranny. This law gave Douglass and the other abolitionists a new text. It was a set-back to their cause; but they were not entirely disheartened, for they saw in it the desperate expedients by which it was sought to bolster up an institution already doomed by the advancing tide of civilization.

The loss of slaves had become a serious drain upon the border States. The number of refugees settled in the North was, of course, largely a matter of estimate. Runaway slaves were not apt to advertise their status, but rather to conceal it, so that most estimates were more likely to be under than over the truth. Henry Wilson places the number in the free States at twenty thousand. There were in Boston in 1850, according to a public statement of Theodore Parker, from four to six hundred; and in other New England towns, notably New Bedford, the number was large. Other estimates place the figures much higher. Mr. Siebert, in his _Underground Railroad_, after a careful calculation from the best obtainable data, puts the number of fugitives aided in Ohio alone at forty thousand in the thirty years preceding 1860, and in the same period nine thousand in the city of Philadelphia alone, which was one of the principal stations of the underground railroad and the home of William Still, whose elaborate work on the _Underground Railroad_ gives the details of many thrilling escapes.

In the work of assisting runaway slaves Douglass found congenial employment. It was exciting and dangerous, but inspiring and soul-satisfying. He kept a room in his house always ready for fugitives, having with him as many as eleven at a time. He would keep them over night, pay their fare on the train for Canada, and give them half a dollar extra. And Canada, to her eternal honor be it said, received these assisted emigrants, with their fifty cents apiece, of alien race, debauched by slavery, gave them welcome and protection, refused to enter into diplomatic relations for their rendition to bondage, and spoke well of them as men and citizens when Henry Clay and the other slave [pro-slavery] leaders denounced them as the most worthless of their class. The example of Canada may be commended to those persons in the United States, of little faith, who, because in thirty years the emancipated race have not equalled the white man in achievement, are fearful lest nothing good can be expected of them.

In the stirring years of the early fifties Douglass led a busy life. He had each week to fill the columns of his paper and raise the money to pay its expenses. Add to this his platform work and the underground railroad work, which consisted not only in personal aid to the fugitives, but in raising money to pay their expenses, and his time was very adequately employed. In every anti-slavery meeting his face was welcome, and his position as a representative of his own peculiar people was daily strengthened.

When Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852, set the world on fire over the wrongs of the slave,--or rather the wrongs of slavery, for that wonderful book did not portray the negro as the only sufferer from this hoary iniquity,--Mrs. Stowe, in her new capacity as a champion of liberty, conceived the plan of raising a fund for the benefit of the colored race, and in 1853 invited Douglass to visit her at Andover, Massachusetts, where she consulted with him in reference to the establishment of an industrial institute or trades school for colored youth, with a view to improving their condition in the free States. Douglass approved heartily of this plan, and through his paper made himself its sponsor. When, later on, Mrs. Stowe abandoned the project, Douglass was made the subject of some criticism, though he was not at all to blame for Mrs. Stowes altered plans. In our own time the value of such institutions has been widely recognized, and the success of those at Hampton and Tuskegee has stimulated anew the interest in industrial education as one important factor in the elevation of the colored race.

In the years from 1853 to 1860 the slave power, inspired with divine madness, rushed headlong toward its doom. The arbitrary enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act; the struggle between freedom and slavery in Kansas; the Dred Scott decision, by which a learned and subtle judge, who had it within his power to enlarge the boundaries of human liberty and cover his own name with glory, deliberately and laboriously summarized and dignified with the sanction of a court of last resort all the most odious prejudices that had restricted the opportunities of the colored people; the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; the John Brown raid; the [1855] assault on [Massachusetts antislavery U.S. Senator] Charles Sumner,--each of these incidents has been, in itself, the subject of more than one volume. Of these events the Dred Scott decision was the most disheartening. Douglass was not proof against the universal gloom, and began to feel that there was little hope of the peaceful solution of the question of slavery. It was in one of his darker moments that old Sojourner Truth, whose face appeared in so many anti-slavery gatherings, put her famous question, which breathed a sublime and childlike faith in God, even when his hand seemed heaviest on her people: "Frederick," she asked, "is God dead?" The orator paused impressively, and then thundered in a voice that thrilled his audience with prophetic intimations, "No, God is not dead; and therefore it is that slavery must end in blood!"

During this period John Brown stamped his name indelibly upon American history. It was almost inevitable that a man of the views, activities, and prominence of Douglass should become acquainted with John Brown. Their first meeting, however, was in 1847, more than ten years before the tragic episode at Harpers Ferry. At that time Brown was a merchant at Springfield, Massachusetts, whither Douglass was invited to visit him. In his _Life and Times_ he describes Brown as a prosperous merchant, who in his home lived with the utmost abstemiousness, in order that he might save money for the great scheme he was already revolving. "His wife believed in him, and his children observed him with reverence. His arguments seemed to convince all, his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly, I never felt myself in the presence of stronger religious influence than while in this man's house." There in his own home, where Douglass stayed as his guest, Brown outlined a plan which in substantially the same form he held dear to his heart for a decade longer. This plan, briefly stated, was to establish camps at certain easily defended points in the Allegheny Mountains; to send emissaries down to the plantations in the lowlands, starting in Virginia, and draw off the slaves to these mountain fastnesses; to maintain bands of them there, if possible, as a constant menace to slavery and an example of freedom; or, if that were impracticable, to lead them to Canada from time to time by the most available routes. Wild as this plan may seem in the light of the desperate game subsequently played by slavery, it did not at the time seem impracticable to such level-headed men as Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Douglass's views were very much colored by his association with Brown; but, with his usual prudence and foresight, he pointed out the difficulties of this plan. From the time of their first meeting the relations of the two men were friendly and confidential. Captain Brown had his scheme ever in mind, and succeeded in convincing Douglass and others that it would subserve a useful purpose,--that, even if it resulted in failure, it would stir the conscience of the nation to a juster appreciation of the iniquity of slavery.

The Kansas troubles, however, turned Brown's energies for a time into a different channel. After Kansas had been secured to freedom, he returned with renewed ardor to his old project. He stayed for three weeks at Douglass's house at Rochester, and while there carried on an extensive correspondence with sympathizers and supporters, and thoroughly demonstrated to all with whom he conversed that he was a man of one all-absorbing idea.

In 1859, very shortly before the raid at Harpers Ferry, Douglass met Brown by appointment, in an abandoned stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. John Brown was already an outlaw, with a price upon his head; for a traitor had betrayed his plan the year before, and he had for this reason deferred its execution for a year. The meeting was surrounded by all the mystery and conducted with all the precautions befitting a meeting of conspirators. Brown had changed the details of his former plan, and told Douglass of his determination to take Harpers Ferry. Douglass opposed the measure vehemently, pointing out its certain and disastrous failure. Brown met each argument with another, and was not to be swayed from his purpose. They spent more than a day together discussing the details of the movement. When the more practical Douglass declined to take part in Brown's attempt, the old man threw his arms around his swarthy friend, in a manner typical of his friendship for the dark race, and said: "Come with me, Douglass, I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them." But Douglass would not be persuaded. His abandonment of his old friend on the eve of a desperate enterprise was criticised by some, who, as Douglass says, "kept even farther from this brave and heroic man than I did." John Brown went forth to meet a felon's fate and wear a martyr's crown: Douglass lived to fight the battles of his race for years to come. There was room for both, and each played the part for which he was best adapted. It would have strengthened the cause of liberty very little for Douglass to die with Brown.

It is quite likely, however, that he narrowly escaped Brown's fate. When the raid at Harpers Ferry had roused the country, Douglass, with other leading Northern men, was indicted in Virginia for complicity in the affair. Brown's correspondence had fallen into the hands of the Virginia authorities, and certain letters seemed to implicate Douglass. A trial in Virginia meant almost certain death. Governor Wise, of Virginia, would have hung him with cheerful alacrity, and publicly expressed his desire to do so. Douglass, with timely warning that extradition papers had been issued for his arrest, escaped to Canada. He had previously planned a second visit to England, and the John Brown affair had delayed his departure by some days. He sailed from Quebec, November 12, 1859.

After a most uncomfortable winter voyage of fourteen days Douglass found himself again in England, an object of marked interest and in very great demand as a speaker. Six months he spent on the hospitable shores of Great Britain, lecturing on John Brown, on slavery and other subjects, and renewing the friendships of former years. Being informed of the death of his youngest daughter, he cut short his visit, which he had meant to extend to France, and returned to the United States. So rapid had been the course of events since his departure that the excitement over the John Brown raid had subsided. The first Lincoln campaign was in active progress; and the whole country quivered with vague anticipation of the impending crisis which was to end the conflict of irreconcilable principles, and sweep slavery out of the path of civilization and progress. Douglass plunged into the campaign with his accustomed zeal, and did what he could to promote the triumph of the Republican party. Lincoln was elected, and in a few short months the country found itself in the midst of war. God was not dead, and slavery was to end in blood.

Charles W. Chesnutt

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