Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and the Virtues of Impracticality
In a lengthy review in the New Yorker of David W. Blight’s recent book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,1 Adam Gopnik calls Douglass “the progenitor of the ‘pragmatic-progressive’ strain in American thought that led to Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.”2 Douglass is an attractive figure, and it is easy to understand why he fills the need of American mainstream thought for a Black political hero now that George Washington Carver (the one Black figure in the textbooks when I went to grade school) no longer serves. But the notion of “pragmatic progressive” suggests an alternative tradition, which we might call “impractical revolutionary.” Nat Turner, John Brown, and Malcolm X come to mind as exemplars.
Douglass made his first public appearance on an antislavery platform in 1841. For the next eight years he identified as a Garrisonian Abolitionist, that is, a believer with William Lloyd Garrison in what was then called “non-resistance” (non-cooperation with the government in any form, including a refusal to take part in electoral activity). Beginning in 1849 he began to rethink his position, soon breaking with Garrison and allying himself with the “political” abolitionists (at first with Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party and later with Free Soil and Republicanism). Gopnik attributes Douglass’s falling out with Garrison in large part to the latter’s paternalism but admits that it was partly due to political differences, “with the irony that the white crusader was the more conventionally radical actor, and the Black ex-slave seemingly the more ‘moderate.’”
The dispute between them initially took the form of a disagreement over whether the Constitution was in its essence proslavery. As Gopnik writes, “Douglass came to believe that the Constitution was a good document gone wrong—that in its democratic premises, it breathed freedom, and that it needed only to be amended to be restored to its first purposes … The constitutional issue was, and remains, epic. All of American liberalism remains at stake in this choice…”
I agree. The dispute was not merely over the meaning of a text but reflected the difference between the revolutionary and the reformer. In my view, the verdict of history is in: as the Garrisonians foresaw, it was necessary to break up the Union in order to reconstitute it without slavery. However, if the sum of two-plus-two were of social significance, there would be no agreement on it yet. Those who think slavery was abolished through the Civil War will conclude that the Garrisonians were right; for those who think its demise came about through the electoral process, Douglass is vindicated.
If matters were that simple, modern readers would have little difficulty making up their minds: those who believe in “working within the system” would fall one way, those who believe that only revolution offers a solution would fall the other. However, matters were not that simple.
One problem is that Garrison rejected physical force of any kind, being committed to what he called “moral suasion,” that is, winning over the slaveholders to voluntarily renounce their system. I don’t intend to argue the question of political violence; people will believe what they want. But a few points are in order. First, Garrison stretched nonviolence to its limits: As C.L.R. James noted, “The violence of the polemic, the attack without bounds upon everything that stood in the way, the unceasing denunciations of slave property, the government, the constitution, the laws, the church was in itself a repudiation of pacifism.” According to James, the abolitionists sought
To tear up by the roots the foundation of the Southern economy and society, wreck Northern commerce, and disrupt the Union irretrievably … They renounced all traditional politics … They openly hoped for the defeat of their own country in the Mexican War … They preached and practiced Negro equality. They endorsed and fought for the equality of women.3
When, in 1849, Douglass made a speech calling for slave insurrection, Garrison published it in The Liberator. When antislavery forces sent arms to free-state settlers in Kansas, Garrison asked, “If such men are deserving of generous sympathy, and ought to be supplied with arms, are not the crushed and bleeding slaves at the South a million times more deserving of pity and succor? Why not, first of all, take measures to furnish them with Sharp’s rifles?” At a public meeting held after Harpers Ferry, Garrison declared himself still a non-resistant, and asked how many others were in the audience of 3,000. Only one hand went up. He then announced “as a peace man—an ‘ultra’ peace man—I am prepared to say: ‘Success to every slave insurrection at the South, and in every slave country.’”
Notwithstanding his nominal commitment to nonviolence, Garrison adhered to the essence of a revolutionary strategy—dual power, the belief that the existing institutions could not be transformed but had to be destroyed and new ones created in their place. When he burned the Constitution at a public meeting, his act was more than symbolic. He was seeking to resist official authority, not merely oppose it, and to thwart its operation. More than that, he viewed the resistance as not peripheral but central to abolition.
When the Garrisonians, denouncing the Constitution as a “covenant with death,” began a campaign to get the North to secede from the Union, it was not a quixotic effort to remain uncontaminated by association with slavery but the expression of a conscious strategy. The Abolitionists took seriously their assertion that the North, through its military backing, was the true upholder of slavery. By taking it out of the Union, they hoped to free it from the need to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. “All the slave asks of us,” declared Wendell Phillips, “is to stand out of his way, withdraw our pledge to keep the peace on the plantation; withdraw our pledge to return him … and he will right himself.” The slogan “No Union with Slaveholders” translated itself at every Abolitionist rally into a pledge never to send back the fugitive slave who set foot on free territory. Harpers Ferry was the expression of the dual-power strategy.
Douglass’s adoption of an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution led him toward political, that is, electoral action. The Abolitionists had always been political. They regularly interrogated candidates for public office as to their views on the internal slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia, and called upon those of their supporters who voted to vote accordingly. They sought to repeal the fugitive slave laws, and to pass personal liberty laws. The immediate difference between them and those who became known as “political abolitionists” was that the latter called for a new, antislavery political party.
Garrison opposed this on principled and tactical grounds; most relevant here is that office-holders would be required to swear to uphold the Constitution, including the fugitive slave laws. “Thank God I’m not a citizen,” declared Phillips. The split took place in 1840. Those who split with Garrison formed the Liberty Party in time for the 1840 elections. It drew fewer votes than the number of members of the two antislavery societies combined.Gerrit Smith used his personal fortune to keep the party alive, but it never amounted to more than a place for sectarians to cast a symbolic vote against slavery.
Far more important was the emergence of the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in 1856. Free Soil was the name given to the movement to exclude slavery from the territories newly conquered from Mexico. It was not “soft” abolitionism: it was the enemy of abolitionism. Many supported it because they did not wish to compete with Black labor, slave or free. They could make their peace with slavery where it existed, so long as it was excluded from the West. The Free-Soil constitutions of Oregon and Kansas, for example, prohibited slavery but also prohibited the immigration of free Black people.4 Nevertheless, the demand for Free-Soil disrupted the coalition that had governed the country since its birth. The Free Soil Party shrunk after the Compromise of 1850, but was reborn as the Republican Party after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
From the time he broke with the Garrisonians until the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass went back and forth between supporting Smith’s Party (under various names) and being involved with Free Soil and Republicanism; sometimes he did both simultaneously.5 His policy (if it can be called that) reached its nadir in 1860, when he cast his ballot for Smith’s Party (by then called the Radical Abolitionist Party) while working to carry New York for Lincoln. Lincoln carried the state by 50,000 votes, but the effort to overturn New York’s discriminatory property qualification for Black men, for which Douglass worked hard, lost by 140,000 votes. He was disheartened.
I find Douglass’s electoral efforts uninteresting, just as I find uninteresting today’s debates over whether socialists should take part in elections, whether they should limit their electoral efforts to socialist candidates, whether it is possible to be both a socialist and a Democrat, etc. He was flailing, and knew it.
But a strong case can be made for Douglass when we shift our ground from his electoral to his non-electoral activities: what did he do when not electioneering?
In the first place he continued to identify with women’s rights. This was no small thing, since one of the accusations made against Garrison by his conservative opponents was that he had brought discredit on the movement by his support for women’s rights. Douglass was one of the few men present at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and to his credit, identified to the end of his life as a women’s right’s man.
Second, he identified with the struggle for equal rights for Black people everywhere—not as obvious a choice as it might seem, since a number of Garrison’s opponents distanced themselves from the equal rights struggle: it was one thing to seek to exclude slavery from the territories, quite another to demand equal rights for the persecuted Black people in the “free” states, where they competed directly with white labor.
Third, he promoted and took part in the rescue of fugitive slaves, going so far as to declare in a public speech that “two or three dead slaveholders will make [the Fugitive Slave Law] a dead letter.”6 These deeds explain why Gopnik can claim Douglass as “the father of the most militant strain of resistance,” both “prophetic radical and political pragmatist.”
In its classic period the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW—the Wobblies), consistent with its revolutionary outlook, refused to sign contracts with employers, believing that to do so would tie its members’ hands. As a matter of principle it reserved the right to strike whenever conditions were favorable. Since the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), however, the contract has been the centerpiece of labor-management relations. In a contract the company agrees to a certain standard of wages, working conditions, seniority etc. in return for the union agreeing not to interrupt production while the contract is in force. Those experienced in the world of trade union politics will recognize that quite often reformist or even conservative union leaders show remarkable militancy in tactics; union officials who never question the private ownership of wealth or the company’s right to manage its affairs often find themselves tolerating or even encouraging (with a wink) illegal acts, including sabotage, as a means of pushing the company to the bargaining table or, once there, persuading it to grant concessions to the union. Such instrumental illegality is a standard feature of every contract dispute in industries, like telephone and electric power, where the technical conditions make it difficult for the workers to interrupt service by the mere withdrawal of their labor power. Both management and the workers expect sabotage as a normal part of negotiations; neither regards it as a challenge to the existing social relations, and only some Leftists take it seriously.
Under certain circumstances, thus, tactical militancy is compatible with reformist strategy. How to decide in Douglass’s case whether what was involved was militant reformism, which may have included violence, or an embrace of a revolutionary strategy of dual power? The key lies in the figure of John Brown.
According to Douglass, he first met Brown in 1847 or early 1848. He had heard of him, especially from other Black abolitionists whose voices, when speaking of Brown, “would lower to a whisper.” At that meeting, Brown unfolded a large map of the US and pointed to the Alleghenies. “These mountains are the basis of my plan…. They were placed here for the emancipation of the Negro…”
The two met numerous times over the next ten years; Douglass seems to have believed that Brown’s plan was “to take 20 or 25 discreet men into the mountains, selecting secure and comfortable retreats where they could defend themselves in case of attack and subsist upon the country thereabout. They were to be well armed but to avoid battle or violence, unless compelled by pursuit or self-defense.”
In fact, Brown had other ideas. In May 1858 he convened a conference in Chatham, Canada at which he presented a “Provisional Constitution” for an interim government that would operate in areas where his movement succeeded, an indication that he was thinking in grander terms than running off slaves.7
Brown and Douglass met for the last time at Chambersburg, PA, on the eve of Harpers Ferry. Here is the exchange between them, as recounted in Truman Nelson’s The Old Man (2009):
Brown informed Douglass of his plan to make an attack on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and to occupy it for a few hours to give the signal that the long-awaited attack on slavery had begun. Douglass argued that this would jeopardize the effort to run off slaves from nearby plantations, he further warned Brown that by occupying the Ferry “he was going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in, he would never get out alive…”
“No,” Brown calmly disagreed, “the Ferry itself is in a defile, from which a small number of men can stand off vastly greater numbers. Furthermore, the arsenal itself is entirely defended by civilian watchmen; there are no military guards and the northern operatives who make the guns are simply good craftsmen and mechanics who do their own work and appear to have no interests in the politics of either the North or the South.”
“But you are in the middle of slave country,” Douglass protested. “The whites could raise a posse against you in that position in a matter of two or three hours.”
“I expect some of the whites there to join us,” said the Old Man.
With those words Brown showed himself an astute student of American life. He continued:
“[Virginia] Governor Wise has recently come out with the astounding assertion that Virginia has no fear of the insurrection of the blacks, but of the poor whites. This statement was made as he was trying to put through his legislature a bill to restrict the slaves from learning the mechanic arts, with the design of restoring their trades to the poor whites. But this is merely a sop; the poor whites have nearly broken away and made a separate state in the mountain regions… They nearly did it during the Nat Turner troubles and could again, with some slight encouragement.”
Karl Marx himself could not have provided a better class analysis—nor anticipated more accurately the course of events during the Civil War. Continuing from the account provided by Truman Nelson:
Douglass “at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the Federal Government, and would array the whole country against us.” Making war on the Federal Government was unacceptable to the person who believed the Constitution was an antislavery document.
Brown replied: “What country? We have two countries here. Even Mr. Sanborn and the Massachusetts men, conservative as they are, feel the country is split apart beyond redemption … and that only an uprising of the slaves and the separation of the poor whites can unite the country again, without the slaveholders.”
“Nothing short of an open recognition of the Negro’s manhood and of his rights to have a country and to defend that country would move me into such a desperate scheme as this,” said Douglass. To which Brown replied: “After occupying the arsenal, which will serve as notice to the slaves that their friends have come … we will move into the mountains, you will have your country, or at least a provisional state … This is why I need you, Frederick. You must take power, be the first president of the new provisional government.”
The exchange illustrates the difference between the reformer and the revolutionary.
As most readers know, Brown and his men captured the arsenal, but could not hold it. It would appear that Douglass was right and Brown wrong. In my view, Brown’s mistake was of the same order as Garrison’s non-resistance: a tactical flaw within a sound strategy. I suggest that his plan might have worked had he withdrawn from the arsenal and waged a protracted war. There is some evidence that Brown was aware of such a possibility: he had visited battlefields where the Spanish resisted Napoleon during the Peninsular Campaign (the first place where the term “guerrilla” was employed) and Saint Domingue, where the Haitians waged their War of Independence. For some reason he chose not to pursue that course; Russell Banks speculates in Cloudsplitter (1998) that Brown, aware that he was too old to start again and that word of his plan had leaked out, decided to go ahead. Who knows? W.E.B. Du Bois thought Brown’s plan could have worked.8
When news of Harpers Ferry broke, Douglass was in Philadelphia. Afraid of being arrested and charged as a co-conspirator, he fled to Canada and then to Britain, and did not return until the War broke out. Gerrit Smith had himself committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. I criticize neither man’s behavior: even revolutionaries need to hide sometimes.
But someone has to explain and defend their actions. The public has a need to know. Only Wendell Phillips was willing to take upon himself the task of explaining and justifying Brown’s actions. In a speech in Brooklyn two weeks after Harpers Ferry, he said, “The lesson of the hour is insurrection. Insurrection of thought always precedes the insurrection of arms.” Five weeks later he said that Brown had “abolished slavery in Virginia. You may say this is too much … History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harpers Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months—a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree.” Brown, he said, had “startled the South into madness.”
The slaveholders indeed reacted with fury to the raid, imposing a boycott on northern manufactures and demanding new concessions from Washington. Their arrogance compelled the people of the North to resist. Lincoln was elected a year later. As Phillips said, “for the first time in our history the slave has chosen a President of the United States,” adding, “John Brown was behind the curtain.”9 Lincoln’s election brought Civil War, which led to slaves as “contraband,” spies and soldiers—and the fall of the slaveocracy.
Today, when many place their hopes in a Green New Deal and other schemes which will never be achieved through the electoral system, or, consumed by the need to overturn Trump at any cost, are willing to go along with the maneuvers of the party that shares responsibility for the country’s desperate condition, it is good to bear in mind Du Bois’s words: “At last we know: John Brown was right… The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.”10
Down with crackpot realism! Be realistic! Demand the impossible!
1. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
2. The New Yorker, October 15, 2018
3. C.L.R. James, American Civilization (London: Blackwell, 1983), p. 89.
4. See Albert Fried, John Brown’s Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine, esp, chapters 5 and 6.
5. Like the Communist Party a century later, which formally ran its own candidates while supporting the Democratic Party.
6. Blight, 240-45.
7. The best biographies of Brown are W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown and David S. Reynolds, John Brown: Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Truman Nelson has written two fictional accounts of Brown, The Surveyor and The Old Man; DuBois credits Nelson with having dug more deeply into the sources than anyone else, and I have treated them as authoritative. Russell Banks’s novel, Cloudsplitter is great. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride treats Douglass without reverence. The account of Douglass’s relations with Brown are based on Douglass’s 1881 Life and Times. As Blight notes (271), It contains “a touch of legend, creatively crafted.” It is the only account we have.
8. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, 345
9. A reference to a stage performance popular at the time, the subject of an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess Player.”
10. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, 338, 375