America in the 1850s

The Emergence of John Brown

What did John Brown propose to Frederick Douglass?

As they sat in the living room of Brown’s home in Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown described to Douglass his plan for freeing the slaves of Northern Virginia. He, naturally, wished to free all the others, too, but one had to begin somewhere. Brown showed Douglass a map of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains and claimed that the Almighty had placed those mountains there as a perfect place of refuge for escaped slaves. Using guerrilla-style tactics, Brown and perhaps one hundred men would help slaves escape plantations in Northern Virginia and bring them to the mountains, where they could hold off any and all enemies.

Douglass was dubious. Did it not make more sense to persuade the slaveholders that they participated in a failed system that would eventually perish, he asked. Brown, in Douglass’ recollection, shook his head and said that he knew the heart of the slaveholders: they were too proud to accept that truth. They would have to be forced to yield their slaves, and he intended to make that happen.


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