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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Frederick Douglass and John Brown

In August 1859, Douglass met with John Brown at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and learned of the plan to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown pleaded with Douglass to accompany him in the planned raid, but Douglass refused and attempted to dissuade Brown.  Read the lecture on John Brown “Delivered at Harpers Ferry and Sundry Other Places” (ca. 1890), in which Douglass spoke of his alleged involvement in the raid and his reference to a letter from Henry Wise, former governor of Virginia, to President Buchanan accusing Douglass of “murder, robbery, and inciting servile insurrection.”  Evaluate Douglass’ decision not to join Brown.

  • What was Douglass’ view of John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry? How did Douglas use the distinction between emotion and reason to justify his assessment?
  • How did Douglass explain his decision not to take part in the raid? What course of action do you think Douglass should have taken?  Explain your position.
  • How might history have changed if Douglass had agreed to join Brown at Harpers Ferry?