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Frederick Douglass

Controversial Reformer

Douglass was now experiencing a revolutionary thought in his approach to end slavery. He was pulling farther away from Garrisonian ideals and approaching a more dramatic need to create action. He revamped his newspaper as a Liberty party vehicle, naming it Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851. The Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott case in 1857 made a radical activist out of Douglass, who no longer wanted to sit on the sidelines and hope for a peaceful and moral outcome. He became vocal in how he stood on issues regarding slavery, hoping to spur a movement for change. He wrote the following words in regard to his negative thoughts on the use of the underground railroad:

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe something to the slaves south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother. (Douglass, p. 71)

Some of Douglass’ words could be considered inflammatory in regard to his stand on the basic tenets of American thought and ideals. Even though Douglass was a church-going man and had received much of his early education and training within the sanctuary of the church, he now found that many of the church’s adherents overlooked and even condoned the practice of slavery. As he pointed out:

I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. These are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen. They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors. (p. 83)

One of the pivotal moments for Douglass was when John Brown asked him for his support in his planned raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Douglass was an advocate for drastic measures in order to enact the necessary change in the status quo, but he felt that Brown’s plan to take over the federal arsenal would end in failure. He refused to take part in the raid, but upon the failure of Brown’s mission and later capture, Douglass was implicated in the botched attempt and was forced to flee to Great Britain by way of Canada. It was only upon hearing the news of his beloved daughter Annie dying in 1860 that he returned to the United States. By now the Civil War was underway.

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