November 13, 2012

Douglass: murder, robbery, inciting insurrection

Though Frederick Douglass claimed to disagree with abolitionist John Brown's radical raid on Harper's Ferry, the governor of Virginia presumed he was a co-conspirator in the bloody failure. Gov. Henry A. Wise went so far as to write to the President of the United States James Buchanan on November 13, 1859:

I have information such as has caused me, upon proper affidavits, to make requisition upon the Executive of Michigan for the delivery up of the person of Frederick Douglass, a negro man, supposed now to be in Michigan, charged with murder, robbery, and inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

Douglass had moved to Michigan and, for a time, even Canada to avoid being accused of associating with Brown, with whom he had met some two months before Harper's Ferry. In one of his  autobiographies, Douglass admits "there is no reason to doubt" that the President aided Wise in attempting to find him. Within six hours of his fleeing from his home in Rochester, New York, United States Marshalls swooped into the town in search of him.

By then, Douglass was already a well-known figure and orator, known as the courageous and intelligent escaped slave from Maryland, who had since become an author and journalist. Only two weeks before Governor Wise's letter to President Buchanan, Douglass wrote to the local Rochester newspaper that he was innocent of involvement with Harper's Ferry. Referring to "the thing calling itself the Government of Virginia," Douglass railed against the accusation that he intended to be one of the soldiers in the insurrection which came from one of the men about to be executed for his own involvement:

This is certainly a very grave impeachment, whether viewed in its bearings upon friends or upon foes, and you will not think it strange that I should take a somewhat serious notice of it... I have always been more distinguished for running than fighting, and, tried by the Harper's-Ferry-insurrection-test, I am most miserably deficient in courage... The taking of Harper's Ferry wras a measure never encouraged by my word or by my vote. At any time or place, my wisdom or my cowardice has not only kept me from Harper's Ferry, but has equally kept me from making any promise to go there... My field of labor for the abolition of slavery has not extended to an attack upon the United States arsenal. In the teeth of the documents already published and of those which may hereafter be published, I affirm that no man connected with that insurrection, from its noble and heroic leader down, can connect my name with a single broken promise of any sort whatever. So much I deem it proper to say negatively. The time for a full statement of what I know and of All I know of this desperate but sublimely disinterested effort to emancipate the slaves of Maryland and Virginia from their cruel task-masters, has not yet come, and may never come. In the denial which I have now made, my motive is more a respectful consideration for the opinions of the slaves' friends than from my fear of being made an accomplice in the general conspiracy against slavery, when there is a reasonable hope for success.


  1. Maybe Douglass was a coward in the face of physical struggle, but he was no coward in the full sense of the word, and I think he was truly aware of it. He knew that his pen was mightier than his sword.

    Harriet Tubman had intended to accompany Brown in his raid, but came down very sick.

    Makes you wonder how history might have turned, had she been well enough to go.

  2. If you read the full text in his autobiography, Douglass goes on and on about being a coward (this is only a small excerpt). I found it somewhat shocking - unless it was meant ironically.