Twelfth Day, Thursday March 31st
It’s breezy, overcast, and warm the day I drive south from Rochester to Washington D.C., with a first stop in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to visit two sites of special interest for my Frederick Douglass journey.
The first is a two story clapboard house at 225 E. King St, where John Brown rented a room in Mary Ritner’s boarding house in the summer of 1859, and where he planned his doomed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately, I’m visiting during the off-season: the house is closed until the tourist season starts in May, but I find a blog with two nice photos of the interior posted. It happens to be a blog dedicated to Fredrick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect who designed Highland Park, site of Frederick Douglass’ statue and memorial in Rochester.
Douglass had met Brown in September of 1847 while he was on a speaking tour, on the recommendation of other abolitionists. Brown had already developed a reputation as an especially fierce and dedicated one. In 1837, he had declared publicly “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” By the time Brown met Douglass in 1847, he had already been engaged in activism for several years; for example, as you may remember from the account of my day in Lynn, MA, Brown used to speak at that town’s Sagamore Hall, which burned down in 1843, though there’s no evidence of their ever having met in Lynn. Brown invited Douglass to have dinner with him and his family in his plain, working-class Springfield Massachusetts home. He had started out as a tanner by trade, and after some financial failures, had become a successful merchant at that point. Douglass was at first surprised by the disparity between Brown’s ‘Spartan’ home, in such contrast to his prosperous-looking business office downtown, and then impressed by the fiery, righteous, single-minded, Biblically-minded (in the Old Testament sense) radical.
Douglass was still a pacifist Garrisonian at that time, but was as convinced as Brown that the political system was incapable of ending such an embedded, prejudice-ridden, and profitable (in certain contexts, such as the heavily agricultural South) system as slavery. Douglass and Brown likely had a lively discussion that evening in Springfield and on many occasions to follow, how slavery might be ended outside of the political system, and debated the relative merits of war and peace in reform. Brown visited Douglass at his South Avenue Rochester home on more than occasion and stayed with Douglass there awhile in early 1858 writing up a constitution for his planned mountain community of self-freed ex-slaves.
Douglass quoted Brown in his Life and Times as saying ‘God has given the strength of these [Alleghany] hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts… The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property… by rendering such property as insecure.’ So in 1847, he had already been planning to help slaves escape and remain free. In his remarks to Douglass, Brown displayed the fanaticism of the zealot in proclaiming that God not only ordained his plan, but placed just the right landscape right there where he could carry it out. But he also revealed his pragmatism and his business sense, which allowed him to astutely identify one of the bulwarks of slavery, the financial interests of a predominantly agricultural economy, then come up with a practical solution for undermining that bulwark. Slaves not only provided the necessary labor for these large farms, especially for labor-intensive crops like cotton, but were the dominant form of investment for Southern capitalists and living collateral for debt endemic to an agricultural economy. But if the financial incentive for slavery was removed by removing investment security, Brown thought, the institution would wither away.
But as you may have thought many times up to this point, it’s time I stop referring to the Harper’s Ferry plan and raid before explaining what it was and how it all went down.
Douglass and Brown’s mutual friend Shields Green accompanied Douglass from Rochester to Chambersburg in August of 1859, in response to John Brown Jr’s appeal for personal and financial support for Brown Sr’s soon-to-be-enacted operation. It had been postponed the year before due to an opportunist who volunteered his services to the venture then blackmailed potential supporters with threats of reporting the conspiracy, which in the end, he did. Douglass, now a longtime supporter and friend of Brown’s and sympathetic to his overall project of helping slaves escape, wanted to find out how the plan was progressing, how it may have changed, and how much support it had gathered. Along the way, Douglass gave some lectures as a cover for the purpose of his trip to Chambersburg and collected funds for the venture.
The old Quarry site is generally listed as the place where Southgate Mall now stands at W. Washington St, but that’s not quite where you find the historical marker, though it is nearby. To find the marker, go to the east end of the bridge where Lincoln Highway (30) crosses over Conococheague Creek, between Cedar Ave and S. Franklin St. Loudon St is the next street to the north of W. Washington, and a broad open parking lot runs along the creek between the two, behind what’s currently a Rent-A-Center.
Douglass met with Brown here, who was outfitted as a fisherman, a perfect disguise for a creekside meeting. They, along with Green, and Brown’s secretary John Kagi, sat on the rocks and discussed and argued about Brown’s plan for the raid, apparently all night, and continued to meet and discuss the raid over the next couple of days. Brown intended to seize and occupy the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, with the small force of 22 men he had convinced to fight with him, and hold it as a symbol of righteous revolt against an evil government which had betrayed and oppressed so many of its people. This, in turn, was intended to inspire courage and anger in the slave population, and spark a mass exodus from bondage. It’s easy to picture Brown, of the deepset eyes, lined face, and flowing beard, playing the part of the angry Moses. From what he heard of the plans now, which had come to sound very much like an outright rebellion, Douglass thought the raid would certainly fail by provoking an aggressive military response. He also feared that its failure would set back the abolitionist cause in the long term by provoking a political response to increase legal protections of slavery as well.
By this time, Douglass’ view on violence had shifted: he had come to accept that violence is sometimes necessary and justified if great enough injustices or harms are being done and if other means have been tried and failed. So it wasn’t the proposed violence alone that made him oppose the plan, it’s just that he thought this particular plan would fail. Though he refused to join the raid, he later spoke of John Brown as a martyr, and always had a high opinion of his moral integrity and courage. As David Anderson of Nazareth College discussed with me in our interview, Shields Green stayed behind to join Brown in the raid. Douglass described Green in his Life and Times as ‘a man of few words, and his speech was singularly broken; but his courage and self-respect made him quite a dignified character.’ ‘Dignified’: high praise from Douglass, who valued that quality so much and took great care to nurture and project it in his own person. Shields Green survived the raid, but was captured and executed ten days later.
Both Brown and Douglass, as you can see if you read Brown’s own speech at his trial, and as you can gather from Douglass’ Life and Times discussion of Brown, insisted that the Harper’s Ferry plans all along were only to encourage individual slaves to escape, then provide the means to defend themselves and other escapees along the route east and north. They claimed that a general slave insurrection was never part of the plan. But as was the government’s position, it all looked very much intended to spark a rebellion. I would add, it would have been a justified one if one ever could be, far more justified than the United States’ original rebellion against the British. Systematized forced labor, wage theft, rape, child-stealing, complete disenfranchisement, imposition of hunger and thirst, beatings, and enforced ignorance is a more dire set of provocations than unpopular taxes imposed without sufficient representation, in my view.
I make a brief stop in the Franklin County Museum in the Old Jail building right down the street from the John Brown house at 175 East King Street, where I find a nice map of old Chambersburg. The town was burned by a rogue contingent of the Confederate army on July 30, 1864 (some soldiers were horrified at the senselessness of this attack against civilians and did their best to help save lives and possessions), but the Old Jail and the John Brown House both survived.
I grab a cup of coffee and jot down some notes, then continue on my way east to Washington D.C. via (you may have guessed it) Gettysburg, about 35 minutes away. Though this place is central to the legacy of Douglass’ friend and hero Abraham Lincoln, the link to Douglass’ life and ideas is a little more indirect. But I find this fascinating essay by David Blight, noted Douglass scholar. It’s a perfect accompaniment for this account, since it so well explains how Lincoln’s and Douglass’ ideas converged ever more closely as the Civil War continued, and really ties the places and themes I explore in this day’s journey together very well. Here’s a selection from that essay:
‘…Lincoln asked Douglass to lead a scheme reminiscent of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. Concerned that if he were not reelected, the Democrats would pursue a negotiated, proslavery peace, Lincoln, according to Douglass, wanted “to get more of the slaves within our lines.” Douglass went North and organized some twenty-five agents who were willing to work at the front. In a letter to Lincoln on August 29, 1864, Douglass outlined his plan for a “band of scouts” channeling slaves northward. Douglass was not convinced that this plan was fully “practicable,” but he was ready to serve. Because military fortunes shifted dramatically with the fall of Atlanta, this government-sponsored underground railroad never materialized. But how remarkable this episode must have been to both Douglass and Lincoln as they realized they were working together now to accomplish the very “revolution” that had separated them ideologically in 1861. Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln performed a “verbal coup” that “revolutionized the revolution” at Gettysburg. By 1864, that performance reflected a shared vision of the meaning of the war. Ideologically, Douglass had become Lincoln’s alter ego, his stalking horse and minister of propaganda, the intellectual godfather of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.’ – from ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘
I arrive at Gettysburg, and it’s cloudy, a bit gusty, and dropping scattered rain, but not cold. The air feels soft, and the light’s getting a bit low.
The drive through the park is lovely, the grass is green, the park and its structures are beautifully maintained. I stop for a map, then head straight to the David Wills House. I arrive too late to go inside, however, though I do find another excellent blog, packed with photos of every part of the interior; scroll to the bottom of the page to find links to all of the posts in the series. Thanks, good people of the Gettysburg Daily!
Lincoln stayed the night before delivering the Gettysburg address, and likely gave it a final edit here. The house was packed with dignitaries and visitors here for the great event, the dedication of a national cemetery at the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Lincoln’s host David Wills was an attorney who had overseen the effort to recover the hastily buried bodies from the battlefield and re-inter them with more care at a specially dedicated Soldier’s National Cemetery to the east of the battlefield. This was no mean feat, as over 3,000 soldiers were killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863.
Lincoln’s address was not the only one delivered that day; orator Edward Everett’s was two hours long and well-received. But Lincoln’s brief speech, with its readily memorizable brevity and eloquence, made it the one that not only made it into most of the newspapers first, people could quote from it and recite it to one another straight away. And Lincoln’s high-pitched voice carried very well. Short but eloquent speeches had become a hallmark of Lincoln’s style, as had religious and dramatic themes which were very familiar to the public, references that resonated with them and could convey volumes in only a few well-chosen words. Lincoln had become, at this point, a masterful rhetorician, and his address transformed, for so many distraught and angry Americans, a senseless slaughter into a noble sacrifice.
I head two blocks north to 35 Carlisle St, where the old Gettysburg Railroad Station still stands. Built in 1859, it also served as a field hospital and military transport during the Civil War. The Gettysburg Daily blog also includes a wealth of detailed photos of the Gettysburg depot and the original location of the tracks that Lincoln’s train rolled in on near dusk on November 18th, 1863.
My last site to visit for the day takes me about a mile south, from Baltimore Street to Steinwehr Avenue to Taneytown Rd, aka Highway 134. There’s a handsome but simple old stone wall, originally built in 1864 and restored in 1980. There’s a gate about three quarters of the way down on my left, and a parking lot across the street on my right. I’m so glad I’m not continuing my drive yet, it’s just too nice outside to be content in a car. The clouds have cleared a little, and the setting sun makes quite a show on the clouds still there on the horizon, and the rain has gone.
I enter the gate and find that Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of the most moving and beautiful monuments I have ever visited, more than I expected. The flowering trees are in bloom, in every shade of pink, white, and cream, among the evergreens and those which are still bare of leaves or buds. It’s peaceful in the low warm light of the evening.
The sun in sinking fast, and the gates will be closing soon. I could continue my way down the path which winds around to my left to the tall white stone Soldiers National Monument, near the site where Lincoln delivered his address. But it’s a ways down and in the interests of time, I decide to start with a closer monument, to the right after you enter the gate. It’s a monument dedicated to the Gettysburg Address itself. The taller central stone is fronted by a strongly executed bust of Lincoln, flanked by two large plaques on the curved sides carved with stars and ceremonial hatchets. One plaque contains the Address, the other contains a selection from David Will’s letter to Lincoln, inviting him to participate in the dedication ceremony and to make some remarks. The letter was sent to Lincoln only 17 days before the ceremony, and scholars debate on the significance of the last-minute invitation. National cemeteries were a new thing, run by the states, and their dedications were usually officiated over by more local dignitaries; Wills may have thought it unlikely that the President, burdened with war cares, would be able to make it, only fully realizing Gettysburg’s true political significance as the event day drew near. In any case, Lincoln did grasp it, and contrary to popular mythology, prepared his remarks very carefully, as was his wont.
I find I’ve been lingering for awhile, and it’s closing time. I’m reluctant to go, but I suppose it’s for the best. I’m hungry and I don’t want to be searching for my lodgings late at night. So I continue the two hours further south to Washington D.C., looking forward to my next day’s adventures after a good night’s sleep.
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Sources and Inspiration:
‘An Official Invitation to Gettysburg.’ American Treasures of the Library of Congress online exhibition
Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
Brown, John. ‘Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court…‘, Boston, Massachusetts, circa December, 1859. On The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
‘Burning of Chambersburg Historical Marker.‘ Explore PA History website
‘The Cotton Economy in the South‘. American Eras, 1997, c. Gale Research Inc, via Encyclopedia.com
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
Franklin County Historical Society: ‘Old Jail‘ and ‘John Brown House (Ritner Boarding House)‘, website
Gettyburg Daily, assorted articles on the David Wills House, Abraham Lincoln, and Gettysburg (scroll down to see list)
‘Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station‘, Destination Gettysburg Philadelphia website
‘Gettysburg National Cemetery‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘John Brown (abolitionist)‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Linder, Douglas. ‘The Trial of John Brown: A Chronology.’ Famous Trials, an educational and non-commercial site maintained at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
The Register of the Lynn Historical Society, Volumes 8-12, by Lynn Historical Society
‘Resisting Slavery: St. John’s Congregational Church.’ in Our Plural History, a project of Springfield Technical Community College, MA
Rodríguez, Arlene. ‘Resisting Slavery: John Brown‘. in Our Plural History, a project of Springfield Technical Community College, MA
‘Shields Green‘. In Ohio History Central
The United States v. John Brown (all articles), 2010. University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law website
Wills, Garry. ‘The Words That Remade America: The Significance of the Gettysburg Address.’ Adapted from his book of the same name for The Atlantic, 2012
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In this piece, I focus on the brevity and the literary and biblical themes that made Lincoln’s Gettysburg address so memorable. In this fascinating podcast episode, Kevin Stroud discusses Lincoln’s direct, plain frontier style of speaking. Learn more about this and other presidents’ contributions to the history of the English language by listening to http://www.10usp.com/ep11-the-presidents-speech-kevin-stroud-the-history-of-english/
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