Digital Collections -> Pathfinders -> Many Roads to Freedom -> John Brown -> Excerpt


Excerpt from Frederick Douglass, by Booker T. Washington:

"At the time to which I now refer, this man was a respectable merchant in a populous and thriving city, and our first place of meeting was at his store. A glance at the interior, as well as at the massive walls without, gave me the impression that the owner must be a man of considerable wealth. My welcome was all that I could have asked. Every member of the family, young and old, seemed glad to see me, and I was made at home in a very little while. I was, however, a little disappointed with the appearance of the house and its location. After seeing the fine store I was prepared to see a fine residence in an eligible locality, but this conclusion was completely dispelled by actual observation. It was a small wooden building on a back street, in a neighborhood chiefly occupied by laboring men and mechanics, respectable enough, to be sure, but not quite the place, I thought, one would look for the residence of a flourishing and successful merchant. Plain as was the outside of this man's house, the inside was plainer. There was an air of plainness about it which almost suggested destitution. My first meal passed under the misnomer of tea, though there was nothing about it resembling the usual significance of that term. It consisted of beef-soup, cabbage and potatoes-a meal such as a man might relish after following the plough all day or performing a forced march, of a dozen miles, over a rough road in frosty weather. Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish, or table-cloth, the table announced itself unmistakably of pine and of the plainest workmanship. There was no hired help visible. The mother, daughters and sons did the serving, and did it well. They were evidently used to it, and had no thought of any impropriety or degradation in being their own servants. Everything implied stern truth, solid purpose, and rigid economy. I was not long in company with the master of this house before I discovered that he was indeed the master of it, and was likely to become mine too, if I stayed long enough with him. He fulfilled St. Paul's idea of the head of the family. His wife believed in him, and his children obeyed him with reverence. Whenever he spoke, his words commanded earnest attention. His arguments, which I ventured at some points to oppose, seemed to convince all; his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious influence than while in this man's house.

"In person he was lean, strong, and sinewy, of the best New England mold, built for times of trouble, and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships. Clad in plain American woolen, shod in boots of cowhide leather, and wearing a cravat of the same substantial material, under six feet high, less than 150 pounds in weight, aged about fifty years, he presented a figure straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine. His bearing was singularly impressive. His head was not large but compact and high. His hair was coarse, his strong spare mouth, supported by a broad and prominent chin. His eyes were bluish gray, and in conversation they were fall of light and fire. When on the street, he moved with a long springing race-horse step, absorbed by his own reflections, neither seeking nor shunning observation. Such was the man whose name I heard in whispers; such was the spirit of his house and family; such was the house in which he lived; and such was Captain John Brown, whose name has now passed into history, as that of one of the most marked characters and greatest heroes known to American fame.

"After the strong meal described, Brown cautiously approached the subject which he wished to bring to my attention; for he seemed to apprehend opposition to his views. He denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter; he thought that slave-holders had forfeited their right to live, that the slaves had a right to gain their liberty in any way they could; did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate a slave, or that political action would abolish the system. He said that he had long had a plan which could accomplish this end, and he had invited me to his house to lay that plan before me. He said that he had been for some time looking for colored men to whom he could safely reveal his secret, and at times he had almost despaired of finding such men ; but that now he was encouraged, because he saw heads of such rising in all directions. He had observed my course at home and abroad, and he wanted my cooperation. His commend it. It did not, as some suppose, contemplate a general rising among the slaves, and a general slaughter of the slave-masters. An insurrection, he thought, would only defeat the object; but his plan did contemplate the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the South. He was not averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the carrying of firearms would be a good rule for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of their manhood. No people, he said, could have self-respect, or be respected, who would not fight for their freedom. He called my attention to the map of the United States. 'These mountains,' he said, 'are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the Negro race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to a hundred for attack; they are fall also of good hiding places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed, and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time. I know these mountains well, and could take a body of men into them and keep them there, in spite of all the efforts of Virginia to dislodge them. The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property; and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure. My plan, then, is to take, at first, about twenty-five picked men, and begin on a small scale; supply them with arms and ammunition and post them in squads of fives on a line of twenty-five miles. The most persuasive and judicious of these shall go down to the fields from time to time, as opportunity offers, and induce the slaves to join them, seeking and selecting the most reckless and daring.' "