Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: INCREASING DEMANDS OF THE SLAVE POWER. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
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CHAPTER IX.: INCREASING DEMANDS OF THE SLAVE POWER. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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INCREASING DEMANDS OF THE SLAVE POWER.
Increased demands of slavery—War in Kansas—John Brown’s raid—His capture and execution—My escape to England from United States marshals.
NOTWITHSTANDING the natural tendency of the human mind to weary of an old story, and to turn away from chronic abuses for which it sees no remedy, the anti-slavery agitation for thirty long years—from 1830 to 1860—was sustained with ever increasing intensity and power. This was not entirely due to the extraordinary zeal and ability of the anti-slavery agitators themselves; for with all their admitted ardour and eloquence, they could have done very little without the aid rendered them, unwittingly, by the aggressive character of slavery itself. It was in the nature of the system never to rest in obscurity, although that condition was in a high degree essential to its security. It was for ever forcing itself into prominence. Unconscious, apparently, of its own deformity, it omitted no occasion for inviting disgust by seeking approval and admiration. It was noisiest when it should have been most silent, and unobtrusive. One of its defenders, when asked what would satisfy him as a slaveholder, said, “he never would be satisfied until he could call the roll of his slaves in the shadow of Bunker Hill monument.” Every effort made to put down agitation only served to impart to it new strength and vigour. Of this class was the “gag rule,” attempted and partially enforced in Congress—the attempted suppression of the right of petition—the mob-ocratic demonstrations against the exercise of free speech—the display of pistols, bludgeons, and plantation manners in the Congress of the nation—the demand, shamelessly made by our Government upon England, for the return of slaves who had won their liberty by their valour on the high seas—the bill for the recapture of runaway slaves—the annexation of Texas for the avowed purpose of increasing the number of slave States, and thus increasing the power of slavery in the union—the war with Mexico—the fillibustering expeditions against Cuba and Central America—the cold-blooded decision of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, wherein he states, as it were, a historical fact, that “negroes are deemed to have no rights which white men are bound to respect”—the perfidious repeal of the Missouri compromise, when all its advantages to the South had been gained and appropriated, and when nothing had been gained by the North—the armed and bloody attempt to force slavery upon the virgin soil of Kansas—the efforts of both of the great political parties to drive from place and power every man suspected of ideas and principles hostile to slavery—the rude attacks made upon Giddings, Hale, Chase, Wilson, Wm. H. Seward, and Charles Sumner—the effort to degrade these brave men, and drive them from positions of prominence—the summary manner in which Virginia hanged John Brown;—in a word, whatever was done or attempted, with a view to the support and security of slavery, only served as fuel to the fire, and heated the furnace of agitation to a higher degree than any before attained. This was true up to the moment when the nation found it necessary to gird on the sword for the salvation of the country and the destruction of slavery.
At no time during all the ten years preceding the war, was the public mind at rest. Mr. Clay’s compromise measures in 1850, whereby all the troubles of the country about slavery were to be “in the deep bosom of the ocean buried,” was hardly dry on the pages of the statute book before the whole land was rocked with rumoured agitation, and for one, I did my best, by pen and voice, and by ceaseless activity to keep it alive and vigorous. Later on, in 1854, we had the Missouri compromise, which removed the only grand legal barrier against the spread of slavery over all the territory of the United States. From this time there was no pause, no repose. Everybody, however dull, could see that this was a phase of the slavery question which was not to be slighted or ignored. The people of the North had been accustomed to ask, in a tone of cruel indifference, “What have we to do with slavery?” and now no laboured speech was required in answer. Slaveholding aggression settled this question for us. The presence of slavery in a territory would certainly exclude the sons and daughters of the Free States more effectually than statutes or yellow fever. Those who cared nothing for the slave, and were willing to tolerate slavery inside the slave States, were nevertheless not quite prepared to find themselves and their children excluded from the common inheritance of the nation. It is not surprising therefore, that the public mind of the North was easily kept intensely alive on this subject, nor that in 1856 an alarming expression of feeling on this point was seen in the large vote given for John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton for President and Vice-President of the United States. Until this last uprising of the North against the slave power the anti-slavery movement was largely retained in the hands of the original abolitionists, whose most prominent leaders have already been mentioned elsewhere in this volume. After 1856 a mightier arm and a more numerous host was raised against it; the agitation becoming broader and deeper. The times at this point illustrated the principle of tension and compression, action and reaction. The more open, flagrant, and impudent the slave power, the more firmly it was confronted by the rising anti-slavery spirit of the North. No one act did more to rouse the North to a comprehension of the infernal and barbarous spirit of slavery and its determination to “rule or ruin,” than the cowardly and brutal assault made in the American Senate upon Charles Sumner, by Preston S. Brooks, a member of Congress from South Carolina. Shocking and scandalous as was this attack, the spirit in which the deed was received and commended by the community, was still more disgraceful. Southern ladies even applauded the armed bully for his murderous assault upon an unarmed Northern senator, because of words spoken in debate! This, more than all else, told the thoughtful people of the North the kind of civilization to which they were linked, and how plainly it foreshadowed a conflict on a larger scale.
As a measure of agitation, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise alluded to, was perhaps the most effective. It was that which brought Abraham Lincoln into prominence, and into conflict with Stephen A. Douglas—who was the author of that measure—and compelled the Western States to take a deeper interest than they ever had done before in the whole question. Pregnant words were now spoken on the side of freedom, words which went straight to the heart of the nation. It was Mr. Lincoln who told the American people at this crisis that the “Union could not long endure half slave and half free; that they must be all one or the other, and that the public mind could find no resting place but in the belief in the ultimate extinction of slavery.” These were not the words of an abolitionist—branded a fanatic, and carried away by an enthusiastic devotion to the Negro—but the calm, cool, deliberate utterance of a statesman, comprehensive enough to take in the welfare of the whole country. No wonder that the friends of freedom saw in this plain man of Illinois the proper standard-bearer of all the moral and political forces which could be united and wielded against the slave power. In a few simple words he had embodied the thought of the loyal nation, and indicated the character fit to lead and guide the country amid perils present and to come.
The South was not far behind the North in recognising Abraham Lincoln as the natural leader of the rising political sentiment of the country against slavery; and it was equally quick in its efforts to counteract and destroy his influence. Its papers teemed with the bitterest invectives against the “backwoodsman of Illinois,” the “flat-boatman,” the “rail-splitter,” the “third-rate lawyer,” and much else and worse.
Preceding the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, I gave at the anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, the following picture of the state of the anti-slavery conflict as it then existed.
“It is evident that there is in this country a purely slavery party, a party which exists for no other earthly purpose but to promote the interest of slavery. It is known by no particular name, and has assumed no definite shape, but its branches reach far and wide in Church and State. This shapeless and nameless party is not intangible in other and more important respects. It has a fixed, definite, and comprehensive policy towards the whole free coloured population of the United States. I understand that policy to comprehend: first, the complete suppression of all anti-slavery discussion, second, the expulsion of the entire free coloured people of the United States; third, the nationalization of slavery; fourth, guarantees for the endless perpetuation of slavery and its extension over Mexico and Central America. Sir, these objects are forcibly presented to us in the stern logic of passing events, and in all the facts that have been before us during the last three years. The country has been and is dividing on these grand issues. Old party ties are broken. Like is finding its like on both sides of these issues, and the great battle is at hand. For the present the best representation of the slavery party is the Democratic party. Its great head for the present is President Pierce, whose boast it was before his election, that his whole life had been consistent with the interests of slavery—that he is above reproach on that score. In his inaugural address he reassures the South on this point, so that there shall be no misapprehension. Well, the head of the slave power being in power, it is natural that the proslavery elements should cluster around his administration, and that is rapidly being done. The stringent protectionist and the free-trader strike hands. The supporters of Fillmore are becoming the supporters of Pierce. Silver Gray Whigs shake hands with Hunker Democrats, the former only differing from the latter in name. They are in fact of one heart and one mind, and the union is natural and perhaps inevitable. Pilate and Herod made friends. The keystone to the arch of this grand union of forces of the slave party is the so-called Compromise of 1850. In that measure we have all the objects of our slaveholding policy specified. It is, sir, favourable to this view of the situation, that the Whig party and the Democratic party bent lower, sunk deeper, and strained harder in their conventions, preparatory to the late Presidential election to meet the demands of slavery. Never did parties come before the Northern people with propositions of such undisguised contempt for the moral sentiment and religious ideas of that people. They dared to ask them to unite with them in a war upon free speech, upon conscience, and to drive the Almighty presence from the councils of the nation. Resting their platforms upon the Fugitive Slave Bill they have boldly asked this people for political power to execute its horrible and hell-black provisions. The history of that election reveals with great clearness, the extent to which slavery has “shot its leprous distilment” through the life blood of the nation. The party most thoroughly opposed to the cause of justice and humanity triumphed, while the party only suspected of leaning toward those principles was overwhelmingly defeated, and some say annihilated. But here is a still more important fact, which still better discloses the designs of the slave power. It is a fact full of meaning, that no sooner did the Democratic party come into power than a system of legislation was presented to all the legislatures of the Northern States designed to put those States in harmony with the Fugitive Slave Law, and with the malignant spirit evinced by the national government towards the free coloured inhabitants of the country. The whole movement on the part of the States bears unmistakable evidence of having one origin, of emanating from one head and urged forward by one power. It was simultaneous, uniform and general, and looked only to one end. It was intended to put thorns under feet already bleeding; to crush a people already bowed down; to enslave a people already but half free; in a word, it was intended and well calculated to discourage, dishearten, and if possible to drive the whole free coloured people out of the country. In looking at the black law then recently enacted in the State of Illinois one is struck dumb by its enormity. It would seem that the men who passed that law, had not only successfully banished from their minds all sense of justice, but all sense of shame as well: these law codes propose to sell the bodies and souls of the blacks to provide the means of intelligence and refinement for the whites; to rob every black stranger who ventures among them to increase their educational fund.
“While this kind of legislation is going on in the States a pro-slavery political board of health is being established at Washington. Senators Hale, Chase, and Sumner are robbed of their senatorial rights and dignity as representatives of sovereign states, because they have refused to be inoculated with the pro-slavery virus of the times. Among the services which a senator is expected to perform, are many that can only be done efficiently as members of important committees, and the slave power in the Senate in saying to these honourable senators, you shall not serve on the committees of this body, took the responsibility of insulting and robbing the States which had sent them there. It is an attempt at Washington to decide for the States who the States shall send to the Senate. Sir, it strikes me that this aggression on the part of the slave power did not meet at the hands of the proscribed and insulted senators the rebuke which they had a right to expect from them. It seems to me that a great opportunity was lost, that the great principle of senatorial equality was left undefended at a time when its vindication was sternly demanded. But it is not to the purpose of my present statement to criticise the conduct of friends. Much should be left to the discretion of anti-slavery men in Congress. Charges of recreancy should never be made but on the most sufficient grounds. For of all places in the world where an anti-slavery man needs the confidence and encouragement of his friends, I take Washington—the citadel of slavery—to be that place.
“Let attention now be called to the social influences operating and cooperating with the slave power at the time, designed to promote all its malign objects. We see here the black man attacked in his most vital interests: prejudice and hate are systematically excited against him. The wrath of other labourers is stirred up against him. The Irish, who at home readily sympathise with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. The cruel lie is told them, that we deprive them of labour and receive the money which would otherwise make its way into their pockets. Sir, the Irish-American will find out his mistake one day. He will find that in assuming our avocation, he has also assumed our degradation. But for the present we are the sufferers. Our old employments, by which we have been accustomed to gain a livelihood are gradually slipping from our hands; every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly-arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and colour entitle him to special favour. These white men are becoming house-servants, cooks, stewards, waiters, and flunkies. For aught I see they adjust themselves to their stations with all proper humility. If they cannot rise to the dignity of white men, they show that they can fall to the degradation of black men. But now, sir, look once more’ While the coloured people are thus elbowed out of employment; while a ceaseless enmity in the Irish is excited against us; while State after State enacts laws against us; while we are being hunted down like wild beasts; while we are oppressed with the sense of increasing insecurity, the American Colonization Society, with hypocrisy written on its brow, comes to the front, awakens new life, and vigorously presses its scheme for our expatriation upon the attention of the American people. Papers have been started in the North and the South to promote this long cherished object—to get rid of the negro, who is presumed to be a standing menace to slavery. Each of these papers is adapted to the latitude in which it is published, but each and all are united in calling upon the Government for appropriations to enable the Colonization Society to send us out of the country by steam. Evidently this society looks upon our extremity as their opportunity, and whenever the elements are stirred against us, they are stimulated to unusual activity. They do not deplore our misfortunes, but rather rejoice in them, since they prove that the two races cannot flourish on the same soil. But, sir, I must hasten. I have thus briefly given my view of one aspect of the present position and future prospects of the coloured people of the United States. And what I have said is far from encouraging to my afflicted people. I have seen the cloud gather upon the sable brows of some who hear me. I confess the case looks bad enough. Sir, I am not a hopeful man. I think I am apt to undercalculate the benefits of the future. Yet, sir, in this seemingly desperate case, I do not despair for my people. There is a bright side to almost every picture, and ours is no exception to the general rule. If the influences against us are strong, those for us are also strong. To the inquiry, will our enemies prevail in the execution of their designs—in my God, and in my soul, I believe they will not. Let us look at the first object sought for by the slavery party of the country, viz., the suppression of the anti-slavery discussion. They desire to suppress discussion on this subject, with a view to the peace of the slaveholder and the security of slavery Now, sir, neither the principle nor the subordinate objects, here declared, can be at all gained by the slave power, and for this reason: it involves the proposition to padlock the lips of the whites, in order to secure the fetters on the limbs of the blacks. The right of speech, precious and priceless, cannot—will not—be surrendered to slavery. Its suppression is asked for, as I have said, to give peace and security to slaveholders. Sir, that thing cannot be done. God has interposed an insuperable obstacle to any such result. “There can be no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” Suppose it were possible to put down this discussion, what would it avail the guilty slaveholder, pillowed as he is upon the heaving bosoms of ruined souls? He could not have a peaceful spirit. If every anti-slavery tongue in the nation were silent—every anti-slavery organization dissolved—every anti-slavery periodical, paper, pamphlet, book, or what not, searched out, burned to ashes, and their ashes given to the four winds of heaven, still, still the slaveholder could have no peace. In every pulsation of the heart, in every throb of his life, in every glance of his eye, in the breeze that soothes, and in the thunder that startles, would be waked up an accuser, whose cause is ‘thou art verily guilty concerning thy brother.’ ”
This is no fancy sketch of the times indicated. The situation during all the administration of President Pierce was only less threatening and stormy than that under the administration of James Buchanan. One sowed, the other reaped. One was the wind, the other was the whirlwind. Intoxicated by their success in repealing the Missouri compromise—in divesting the native-born coloured man of American citizenship—in harnessing both the Whig and Democratic parties to the car of slavery, and in holding continued possession of the national government, the propagandists of slavery threw off all disguises, abandoned all semblance of moderation, and very naturally and inevitably proceeded under Mr. Buchanan, to avail themselves of all the advantages of their victories. Having legislated out of existence the great national wall, erected in the better days of the Republic, against the spread of slavery, and against the increase of its power—having blotted out all distinction, as they thought, between freedom and slavery in the law, theretofore, governing the territories of the United States, and having left the whole question of the legislation or prohibition of slavery to be decided by the people of a territory, the next thing in order was to fill up the territory of Kansas—the one likely to be first organised—with a people friendly to slavery, and to keep out all such as were opposed to making that territory a Free State. Here was an open invitation to a fierce and bitter strife; and the history of the times shows how promptly that invitation was accepted by both classes to which it was given, and the scenes of lawless violence and blood that followed.
All advantages were at first on the side of those who were for making Kansas a slave State. The moral force of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was with them; the strength of the triumphant Democratic party was with them; the power and patronage of the Federal government was with them; the various governors, sent out under the territorial government, were with them; and, above all, the proximity of the territory to the slave State of Missouri favoured them and all their designs. Those who opposed the making Kansas a slave State, for the most part were far away from the battle-ground, residing chiefly in New England, more than a thousand miles from the eastern border of the territory, and their direct way of entering it was through a country violently hostile to them. With such odds against them, and only an idea—though a grand one—to support them, it will ever be a wonder that they succeeded in making Kansas a Free State. It is not my purpose to write particularly of this or of any other phase of the conflict with slavery, but simply to indicate the nature of the struggle, and the successive steps leading to the final result. The important point to me, as one desiring to see the slave power crippled, slavery limited and abolished, was the effect of this Kansas battle upon the moral sentiment of the North: how it made abolitionists before they themselves became aware of it, and how it rekindled the zeal, stimulated the activity, and strengthened the faith of our old anti-slavery forces. “Draw on me for £200 per month while the conflict lasts,” said the great-hearted Gerritt Smith. George L. Stearns poured out his thousands, and anti-slavery men of smaller means were proportionally liberal. H. W. Beecher shouted the right word at the head of a mighty column; Sumner in the Senate spoke as no man had ever spoken there before. Lewis Tappan representing one class of the old opponents of slavery, and William L. Garrison the other, lost sight of their former differences, and bent all their energies to the freedom of Kansas. But these and others were merely generators of anti-slavery force. The men who went to Kansas with the purpose of making it a Free State, were the heroes and martyrs. One of the leaders in this holy crusade for freedom, with whom I was brought into near relations, was John Brown, whose person, house, and purposes I have already described. This brave old man and his sons were amongst the first to hear and heed the trumpet of freedom calling them to battle. What they did and suffered, what they sought and gained, and by what means, are matters of history, and need not be repeated here.
When it became evident, as it soon did, that the war for and against slavery in Kansas was not to be decided by the peaceful means of words and ballots, but swords and bullets were to be employed on both sides, Captain John Brown felt that now, after long years of waiting, his hour had come; and never did man meet the perilous requirements of any occasion more cheerfully, courageously, and disinterestedly than he. I met him often during this struggle, and saw deeper into his soul than when I met him in Springfield seven or eight years before, and all I saw of him gave me a more favourable impression of the man, and inspired me with a higher respect for his character. In his repeated visits to the East to obtain necessary arms and supplies, he often did me the honour of spending hours and days with me at Rochester. On more than one occasion I got up meetings and solicited aid to be used by him for the cause, and I may say without boasting that my efforts in this respect were not entirely fruitless. Deeply interested as “Ossawatamie Brown” was in Kansas he never lost sight of what he called his greater work—the liberation of all the slaves in the United States. But for the then present he saw his way to the great end through Kansas. It would be a grateful task to tell of his exploits in the border struggle, how he met persecution with persecution, war with war, strategy with strategy, assassination and house-burning with signal and terrible retaliation, till even the blood-thirsty propagandists of slavery were compelled to cry for quarter. The horrors wrought by his iron hand cannot be contemplated without a shudder, but it is the shudder which one feels at the execution of a murderer. The amputation of a limb is a severe trial to feeling, but necessity is a full justification of it to reason. To call out a murderer at midnight, and without note or warning, judge or jury, run him through with a sword, was a terrible remedy for a terrible malady. The question was not merely which class should prevail in Kansas, but whether free-state men should live there at all. The border ruffians from Missouri had openly declared their purpose not only to make Kansas a slave State, but that they would make it impossible for free-state men to live there. They burned their towns, burned their farm-houses, and by assassination spread terror among them until many of the free-state settlers were compelled to escape for their lives. John Brown was therefore the logical result of slaveholding persecutions. Until the lives of tyrants and murderers shall become more precious in the sight of men than justice and liberty, John Brown will need no defender. In dealing with the ferocious enemies of the free-state cause in Kansas he not only showed boundless courage but eminent military skill. With men so few and odds against him so great, few captains ever surpassed him in achievements, some of which seem too disproportionate for belief, and yet no voice has called them in question. With only eight men he met, fought, whipped, and captured Henry Clay Pate with twenty-five well-armed and well-mounted men. In this battle he selected his ground so wisely, handled his men so skilfully, and attacked his enemies so vigorously, that they could neither run nor fight, and were therefore compelled to surrender to a force less than one-third their own. With just thirty men on another memorable occasion he met and vanquished 400 Missourians under the command of General Read. These men had come into the territory under an oath never to return to their homes in Missouri till they had stamped out the last vestige of the free-state spirit in Kansas. But a brush with old Brown instantly took this high conceit out of them, and they were glad to get home upon any terms, without stopping to stipulate. With less than 100 men to defend the town of Lawrence, he offered to lead them and give battle to 1,400 men on the banks of the Waukerusia river, and was much vexed when his offer was refused by General Jim Lane and others, to whom the defence of the place was committed. Before leaving Kansas he went into the border of Missouri, and liberated a dozen slaves in a single night, and despite of slave laws and marshals, he brought these people through half a dozen States and landed them safe in Canada. The successful efforts of the North in making Kansas a Free State, despite all the sophistical doctrines and the sanguinary measures of the South to make it a slave State, exercised a potent influence upon subsequent political forces and events in the then near future. It is interesting to note the facility with which the statesmanship of a section of the country adapted its convictions to changed conditions. When it was found that the doctrine of popular sovereignty—first I think invented by General Cass, and afterwards adopted by Stephen A. Douglas—failed to make Kansas a slave State, and could not be safely trusted in other emergencies, Southern statesmen promptly abandoned and reprobated that doctrine, and took what they considered firmer ground. They lost faith in the rights, powers, and wisdom of the people, and took refuge in the Constitution, Henceforth the favourite doctrine of the South was that the people of a territory had no voice in the matter of slavery whatever; that the Constitution of the United States, of its own force and effect, carried slavery safely into any territory of the United States and protected the system there until it ceased to be a territory and became a State. The practical operation of this doctrine would be to make all the future new States slaveholding States, for slavery once planted and nursed for years in a territory would easily strengthen itself against the evil day and defy eradication. This doctrine was in some sense supported by Chief Justice Taney, in the infamous Dred Scott decision. This new ground, however, was destined to bring misfortune to its inventors, for it divided for a time the Democratic party, one faction of it going with John C. Breckenridge and the other espousing the cause of Stephen A. Douglas; the one held firmly to the doctrine that the United States Constitution, without any legislation, territorial, national, or otherwise, by its own, force and effect, carried slavery into all the territories of the United States; the other held that the people of a territory had the right to admit slavery or reject slavery, as in their judgment they might deem best. Now, while this war of words—this conflict of doctrines—was in progress, the portentous shadow of a stupendous civil war became more and more visible. Bitter complaints were raised by the slaveholders that they were about to be despoiled of their proper share in territory won by a common valour, or bought by a common treasure. The North, on the other hand, or rather a large and growing party at the North, insisted that the complaint was unreasonable and groundless; that nothing properly considered as property was excluded or meant to be excluded from the territories; that Southern men could settle in any territory of the United States with some kinds of property, and on the same footing and with the same protection as citizens of the North; that men and women are not property in the same sense as houses, lands, horses, sheep, and swine are property, and that the fathers of the Republic neither intended the extension nor the perpetuity of slavery; that liberty is national, and slavery is sectional. From 1856 to 1860 the whole land rocked with this great controversy. When the explosive force of this controversy had already weakened the bolts of the American Union; when the agitation of the public mind was at its topmost height; when the two sections were at their extreme points of difference; when comprehending the perilous situation, such statesmen of the North as William H. Seward sought to allay the rising storm by soft persuasive speech, and when all hope of compromise had nearly vanished, as if to banish even the last glimmer of hope for peace between the sections, John Brown came upon the scene. On the night of the 16th of October, 1859, there appeared near the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a party of nineteen men—fourteen white and five coloured. They were not only armed themselves, but they brought with them a large supply of arms for such persons as might join them. These men invaded the town of Harper’s Ferry, disarmed the watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle factory, armoury, and other Government property at that place, arrested and made prisoners of nearly all the prominent citizens in the neighbourhood, collected about fifty slaves, put bayonets into the hands of such as were able and willing to fight for their liberty, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipation, held the ground more than thirty hours, were subsequently overpowered and nearly all killed, wounded, or captured by a body of United States troops under command of Col. Robert E. Lee, since famous as the rebel General Lee. Three out of the nineteen invaders were captured while fighting, and one of them was Capt. John Brown—the man who originated, planned, and commanded the expedition. At the time of his capture Capt. Brown was supposed to be mortally wounded, as he had several ugly gashes and bayonet wounds on his head and body, and apprehending that he might speedily die, or that he might be rescued by his friends, and thus the opportunity to make him a signal example of slaveholding vengeance, would be lost, his captors hurried him to Charlestown, ten miles further within the border of Virginia, placed him in prison strongly guarded by troops, and before his wounds were healed he was brought into court.
[The preliminary examination of Brown took place at Charlestown, Virginia He protested against the unfairness of being so hastily charged, and denounced the whole proceedings as a mockery of justice. His conviction was a foregone conclusion, as the conviction of any man must be, who is taken in the very act of breaking the laws. He had challenged the strength of Virginia, and indeed of all the Southern States, and of the Federation itself. He had defied ordinances which he knew to exist, and roused the passions and fears of men. It was not to be expected that the slave-owners would show him any mercy. They had power on theirside, and legal right; and, however great one’s admiration of the motives which influenced this man, it is impossible not to see that a slave-insurrection, had it been really brought about, would have proved the most disastrous method of settling the great difficulty that could possibly have been devised. Brown was warmly supported by the Abolitionists; but, even in the North, more temperate politicians deplored the error he had committed, and saw that there was no reasonable hope of his being spared. The case was handed over to the grand jury, and the trial took place on the 27th of October. The prisoner requested time to prepare his defence, the assistance of counsel from the Free States, and liberty of communicating with the other prisoners, but most of these demands were refused, and the trial was pushed on with cruel and indecent haste. Virginia was frightened and vindictive, and, as an excuse for not granting any delay, it was urged that the women of the State were harassed by alarm and anxiety as long as their husbands were away from home, and that the jurymen desired to return to them. When Brown was brought into court, he was so weak, owing to the wounds he had received, that he could not stand upon his feet, but lay full-length upon a bed; yet the fears of his enemies were even then predominant. The Governor of Virginia, Mr. Wise, is stated to have remarked at Richmond, before the members of the Legislature, that Brown was a murderer, and ought to be hanged. As it was one of the prerogatives of the Governor to grant pardons, after convictions which might appear to him not strictly in accordance with justice, it was a monstrous outrage on propriety to give utterance to such an opinion while the case was yet awaiting trial. But the remark was only of a piece with the whole procedure. The prisoner was, indeed, furnished with counsel by the court, but the gentlemen to whom the duty of defending him was assigned, had no time for preparing their speeches, for calling witnesses, or for examining the law of the case. He was supplied with no list of witnesses, for the prosecution, nor had he any knowledge of who they were to be, until they were produced in court. Brown himself had sent for counsel to the Northern States, but on arriving, they were so exhausted by their long and hurried journey that they asked for a short delay, which was denied them. All this while, the prisoner lay on his pallet, sick, feverish, and half-conscious, knowing little of the methods by which his conviction was to be secured, but feeling certain from the first that conviction was inevitable. A verdict of guilty, on the 31st of October, was followed by sentence of death, and the execution was fixed for the 2nd of December. The decision was appealed against, but ultimately confirmed. On hearing the verdict and the sentence of the judge, Brown said, “Gentlemen, make an end of slavery, or slavery will make an end of you.” It was an utterance in the spirit of prophecy.
As the fatal day approached, the feeling of apprehension on the part of the Virginians became still more intense. Governor Wise ordered out a large military force, to overawe any attempt at rescue that might be made. It was also proposed to establish martial law; but this was not done. Brown expressed entire resignation to his fate, and money was liberally contributed in the Northern and Western States to support his family. At eleven o’clock on the morning of the 2nd of December, the prisoner was brought out of gaol. Before leaving, he bade adieu to his fellow-prisoners, and was very affectionate to all excepting his principal assistant, a man named Cook, whom he charged with having deceived and misled him respecting the support he was to receive from the slaves. Brown, it appears, had been led to believe that they were ripe for insurrection; but, whether from fear, or from actual disinclination, this seems not to have been the case. Cook denied the charge, but otherwise said very little. When asked whether he was ready, Brown replied, “I am always ready,” and it was the simple truth. His arms were pinioned, and, wearing a black slouched hat, and the same clothes in which he had appeared at the trial, he proceeded to the door, apparently calm and cheerful. As he stepped out into the open air he saw a negro woman with her child in her arms he paused for a moment, and kissed the infant tenderly. Another black woman exclaimed, “God bless you, old man! I wish I could help you, but I cannot.” Six companies of infantry, and one troop of horse, were drawn up in front of the gaol; close by was a waggon, containing a coffin. After talking with some persons whom he knew, Brown seated himself in the waggon, and looked at the soldiers gathered about him. The vehicle then moved off, flanked by two files of riflemen in close order. The field where the gallows had been erected was also in full possession of the military. Pickets were stationed at various localities, and the spectators were kept back at the point of the bayonet, to prevent all possibility of a rescue. When Brown had mounted the gallows, and the cap had been put on his head, together with the rope around his neck, the executioner asked him to step forward on to the trap. He replied, “You must lead me—I cannot see.” All was now ready on the scaffold itself, but, owing to some fear on the part of the authorities, the soldiers were marched and counter-marched, frequently changing their positions as if in the face of an enemy. This lasted ten minutes, and the executioner asked the unfortunate man if he was not tired “No,” answered Brown, “not tired, but don’t keep me waiting longer than is necessary.” At length the fatal act was completed; but Brown was a strong man, and the pulse did not entirely cease, until after thirty-five minutes. His companions were executed in March, 1860.
It was a curious feature in the case that the criminal had expressed a desire that no religious ceremony should be performed over his body by “ministers who consent to or approve of the enslavement of their fellow-creatures.” He said he should prefer to be accompanied to the scaffold by a dozen slave-children and a good old slave-mother, with their appeal to God for blessings on his soul, rather than have all the eloquence of the whole clergy of the commonwealth combined.—Ed.]
His corpse was given up to his woe-stricken widow, and she, assisted by anti-slavery friends, caused it to be borne to North Elba, Essex county, N.Y., and there his dust now reposes amid the silent, solemn, and snowy grandeurs of the Adirondacks. This raid upon Harper’s Ferry was as the last straw to the camel’s back. What in the tone of Southern sentiment had been fierce before, became furious and uncontrollable now. A scream for vengeance came up from all sections of the slave States, and from great multitudes in the North. All who were supposed to have been any way connected with John Brown were to be hunted down and surrendered to the tender mercies of slaveholding and panic-stricken Virginia, and there to be tried after the fashion of John Brown, and of course to be summarily executed.
On the evening when the news came that John Brown had taken and was then holding the town of Harper’s Ferry, it so happened that I was speaking to a large audience in National Hall, Philadelphia. The announcement came upon us with the startling effect of an earthquake. It was something to make the boldest hold his breath. I saw at once that my old friend had attempted what he had long ago resolved to do, and I felt certain that the result must be his capture and destruction. As I expected, the next day brought the news that with two or three men he had fortified and was holding a small engine house, but that he was surrounded by a body of Virginia militia, who thus far had not ventured to capture the insurgents, but that escape was impossible. A few hours later, and word came that Colonel Robert E. Lee, with a company of United States troops had made a breach in Capt. Brown’s fort, and had captured him alive, though mortally wounded. His carpet bag had been secured by Governor Wise, and it was found to contain numerous letters and documents which directly implicated Gerritt Smith, Joshua R. Giddings, Samuel G. Howe, Frank P. Sanborn, and myself. This intelligence was soon followed by a telegram saying that we were all to be arrested. Knowing that I was then in Philadelphia, stopping with my friend, Thomas J. Dorsey, Mr. John Horn, the telegraph operator, came to me and with others urged me to leave the city by the first train, as it was known through the newspapers that I was then in Philadelphia, and officers might even then be on my track. To me there was nothing improbable in all this. My friends for the most part were appalled at the thought of my being arrested then and there, or while on my way across the ferry from Walnut Street wharf to Camden, for there was where I felt sure the arrest would be made, and asked some of them to go so far as this with me merely to see what might occur, but upon one ground or another they all thought it best not to be found in my company at such a time, except dear old Franklin Turner—a true man. The truth is, that in the excitement which prevailed, my friends had reason to fear that the very fact that they were with me would be a sufficient reason for their arrest with me. The delay in the departure of the steamer seemed unusually long to me, for I confess I was seized with a desire to reach a more Northern latitude. My friend Frank did not leave my side till “all ashore” was ordered and the paddles began to move. I reached New York at night, still under the apprehension of arrest at any moment, but no signs of such event being made, I went at once to the Barclay Street Ferry, took the boat across the river and went direct to Washington Street, Hoboken, the home of Mrs. Marks, where I spent the night, and I may add without undue profession of timidity, an anxious night. The morning papers brought no relief, for they announced that the Government would spare no pains in ferretting out and bringing to punishment all who were connected with the Harper’s Ferry outrage, and that papers as well as persons would be searched for. I was now somewhat uneasy from the fact that sundry letters and a constitution written by John Brown were locked up in my desk in Rochester. In order to prevent these papers from falling into the hands of the government of Virginia, I got my friend Miss Ottilia Assing to write by my dictation the following telegram to B. F. Blackall, the telegraph operator in Rochester, a friend and frequent visitor at my house, who would readily understand the meaning of the dispatch:
“B. F. Blackall, Esq.,
“Tell Lewis—my eldest son—to secure all the important papers in my high desk.”
I did not sign my name, and the result showed that I had rightly judged that Mr. Blackall would understand and promptly attend to the request. The mark of the chisel with which the desk was opened is still on the drawer, and is one of the traces of the John Brown raid. Having taken measures to secure my papers the trouble was to know just what to do with myself. To stay at Hoboken was out of the question, and to go to Rochester was to all appearance to go into the hands of the hunters, for they would naturally seek me at my home if they sought me at all. I, however, resolved to go home and risk my safety there. I felt sure that once in the city I could not be easily taken from there without a preliminary hearing upon the requisition, and not then, if the people could be made aware of what was in progress. But how to get to Rochester became a serious question. It would not do to go to New York city and take the train, for that city was not less incensed against the John Brown conspirators than many parts of the South. The course hit upon by my friends, Mr. Johnson and Miss Assing, was to take me at night in a private conveyance from Hoboken to Paterson, where I could take the Erie railroad for home. This plan was carried out and I reached home in safety, but had been there but a few moments when I was called upon by Samuel D. Porter, Esq., and my neighbour, Lieutenant-Governor Selden, who informed me that the Governor of the State would certainly surrender me on a proper requisition from the Governor of Virginia, and that while the people of Rochester would not permit me to be taken South, yet in order to avoid collision with the Government and consequent bloodshed, they advised me to quit the country, which I did—going to Canada. Governor Wise, in the meantime, being advised that I had left Rochester for the State of Michigan, made requisition on the Governor of that State for my surrender to Virginia.
The following letter from Governor Wise to President James Buchanan—which since the war was sent me by B. J. Lossing, the historian—will show by what means the Governor of Virginia meant to get me in his power, and that my apprehensions of arrest were not altogether groundless:—
Richmond, Va., Nov. 13, 1859.
To His Excellency, James Buchanan, President of the United States, and to the Honourable Postmaster-General of the United States:
Gentlemen—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. My agents for the arrest and reclamation of the person so charged are Benjamin M. Morris and William N. Kelly. The latter has the requisition, and will wait on you to the end of obtaining nominal authority as post-office agents. They need be very secretive in this matter, and some pretext for travelling through the dangerous section for the execution of the laws in this behalf, and some protection against obtrusive, unruly, or lawless, violence. If it be proper so to do, will the Postmaster-General be pleased to give to Mr. Kelly, for each of these men, a permit and authority to act as detectives for the postoffice department, without pay, but to pass and repass without question, delay, or hindrance?
Respectfully submitted by your obedient servant,
Henry A. Wise.
There is no reason to doubt that James Buchanan afforded Governor Wise all the aid and co-operation for which he was asked. I have been informed that several United States marshals were in Rochester in search of me within six hours after my departure. I do not know that I can do better at this stage of my story than to insert the following letter, written by me to the Rochester Democrat and American:
Canada West, Oct. 31st, 1859.
I notice that the telegraph makes Mr. Cook—one of the unfortunate insurgents at Harper’s Ferry, and now a prisoner in the hands of the thing calling itself the Government of Virginia, but which in fact is but an organised conspiracy by one party of the people against another and weaker—denounce me as a coward, and assert that I promised to be present in person at the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection. 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. Having no acquaintance whatever with Mr. Cook, and never having exchanged a word with him about the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection, I am disposed to doubt if he could have used the language concerning me, which the wires attribute to him. The lightning when speaking for itself, is among the most direct, reliable, and truthful of things; but when speaking of the terror-stricken slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, it has been made the swiftest of liars. Under its nimble and trembling fingers it magnifies 17 men into 700 and has since filled the columns of the New York Herald for days with its interminable contradictions. But assuming that it has told only the simple truth as to the sayings of Mr. Cook in this instance, I have this answer to make to my accuser: Mr. Cook may be perfectly right in denouncing me as a coward; I have not one word to say in defence or vindication of my character for courage: 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, even more so than Cook, when he deserted his brave old captain and fled to the mountains. To this extent Mr. Cook is entirely right, and will meet no contradiction from me, or from anybody else. But wholly, grievously and most unaccountably wrong is Mr. Cook when he asserts that I promised to be present in person at the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection. Of whatever other imprudence and indiscretion I may have been guilty, I have never made a promise so rash and wild as this. The taking of Harper’s Ferry was 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. I desire to be quite emphatic here, for of all guilty men, he is the guiltiest who lures his fellowmen to an undertaking of this sort, under promise of assistance which he afterwards fails to render. I therefore declare that there is no man living, and no man dead, who if living, could truthfully say that I ever promised him, or anybody else, either conditionally, or otherwise, that I would be present in person at the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection. My field of labour 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 slave’s friends than from my fear of being made an accomplice in the general conspiracy against slavery, when there is a reasonable hope for success. Men who live by robbing their fellowmen of their labour and liberty have forfeited their right to know anything of the thoughts, feelings, or purposes of those whom they rob and plunder. They have by the single act of slaveholding, voluntarily placed themselves beyond the laws of justice and honour, and have become only fitted for companionship with thieves and pirates—the common enemies of God and of all mankind. While it shall be considered right to protect oneself against thieves, burglars, robbers, and assassins, and to slay a wild beast in the act of devouring his human prey, it can never be wrong for the imbruted and whipscarred slaves, or their friends, to hunt, harass, and even strike down the traffickers in human flesh. If anybody is disposed to think less of me on account of this sentiment, or because I may have had a knowledge of what was about to occur, and did not assume the base and detestable character of an informer, he is a man whose good or bad opinion of me may be equally repugnant and despicable.
Entertaining these sentiments, I may be asked why I did not join John Brown—the noble old hero whose one right hand has shaken the foundation of the American Union, and whose ghost will haunt the bed-chambers of all the born and unborn slaveholders of Virginia through all generations, filling them with alarm and consternation. My answer to this has already been given—at least impliedly given—“The tools to those who can use them!” Let every man work for the abolition of slavery in his own way. I would help all and hinder none. My position in regard to the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection may be easily inferred from these remarks, and I shall be glad if those papers which have spoken of me in connection with it, would find room for this brief statement. I have no apology for keeping out of the way of those gentlemanly United States Marshals, who are said to have paid Rochester a somewhat protracted visit lately, with a view to an interview with me. A government recognising the validity of the Dred Scott decision, at such a time as this is not likely to have any very charitable feelings towards me, and if I am to meet its representatives I prefer to do so at least upon equal terms. If I have committed any offence against society I have done so on the soil of the State of New York, and I should be perfectly willing to be arraigned there before an impartial jury; but I have quite insuperable objections to being caught by the hounds of Mr. Buchanan, and “bagged” by Gov. Wise. For this appears to be the arrangement. Buchanan does the fighting and hunting, and Wise “bags” the game. Some reflections may be made upon my leaving on a tour to England just at this time. I have only to say that my going to that country has been rather delayed than hastened by the insurrection at Harper’s Ferry. All know that I had intended to leave here in the first week in November.