BROWN, John (1800-1859), Radical abolitionist. Autograph letter signed ("John Brown") to his "Wife, & Children, every one," Hudson, Ohio, 9 August 1855. 1 full page, 4to, on blue lined paper, some browning along folds, otherwise fine.
"OUR FRIEND [FREDERICK] DOUGLAS ... SEEMED MORE ENCOURAGED, & MORE EARNEST THAN EVER I SAW HIM"; BROWN PREPARES TO DEPART FOR "BLOODY KANSAS"
An important letter, written from the Ohio village in which he had spent his childhood, at a critical turning-point in Brown's passionate devotion to the anti-slavery movement. Prompted by the increasing conflict in Kansas between free-soil militants and pro-slavery factions, Brown had reached the fateful decision to resort to armed violence to further his cause, and was preparing to set out for Kansas with a wagon-load of weapons and ammunition to arm the embattled free-soil militants in a struggle ignited by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the new territories to slavery. The letter is also important in that it directly links two key figures of the abolitionist movement, Brown and former slave Frederick Douglass, revealing their mutually supportive relations, in spite of great differences in their temperaments. It strongly suggests that Douglass had been, to some degree at least, informed by Brown of his plans for violent actions in Kansas, and clearly shows that Douglass had made a commitment to aid Browne and his family during the struggle. Brown and his family had lived since 1849 in North Elba, a black settlement in northern New York that Brown founded on land donated by Gerrit Smith. Here, preparing to depart Ohio for Kansas, Brown passes on last-minute instructions concerning the maintenance of their home: "I reached here yesterday, & found all well but have not yet seen Father...Before I parted with Henry last Week, I had some talk...about...putting on the Shingles & Clapboarding the House over good. I wish Watson at once...secure enough of good clapboards & haul them in to the barn from the mill after he gets through haying. I want him to get John Thompson if he can, to take hold after haying while the weather is warm & finish off the outside of the house good," so that it "will be doubly as warm through the winter." He promises to "see that the money is sent to pay for it," and tells the family that he is "anxious to have the Cellar dug, & walled up; as that you will greatly need..." He concludes with a brief word on his plans, which include heading for Chicago, "the first of next Week, should nothing prevent."
Then Brown comments on his recent meeting with fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had also been traveling in the middle west: "Our friend Douglas (whom I saw day before yesterday) sent you all his warmest regards, & told me to say to you that if you found difficulty in getting along in my absence, not to fail of letting him know of it at once. He gave me a small contribution, & seemed more encouraged, & more earnest than ever I saw him before...."
Douglass and Brown had first met in 1848, and Douglass commented that Brown was "straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine. His bearing was singularly impressive...His eyes...were full of light and fire" (W.S, McFeely, Frederick Douglass, p.186). Brown expounded his visionary plan to establish a well-defended community of freed slaves in the Appalachian mountains. To Douglass, "any scheme for getting rid of slavery was worth hearing about; any foe of slavery was worthy of friendship -- and certainly one as wholly committed to the cause as Brown was...(McFeely, p.187). Ostensibly, Douglass remained an opponent of outright political violence, even in service of the anti-slavery cause, but in the Fall of 1856 "he was pressed into saying that a black man had as much right forcibly to resist attack as a white man, and when it came to Kansas, where violence was an everyday occurence, his sympathies were unequivocally with those doing battle with proslavery forces" (McFeely, p.189). Brown set out for Kansas with his wagon of munitions not long after this letter, to join the Osawatomie colony, where five of his sons were already established. At first he served as surveyor, but soon became captain of the local company of militia and de facto leader of the anti-slavery forces. The bitter conflicts on the frontier worsened and in May the following year Capt. Brown and a small party fell on a small settlement on the Potowatomie and savagely murdered five supporters of the pro-slavery faction.
The connections between Brown and Douglass resulted in the widespread belief that Douglass had actively aided Brown's later bloody attempt to arouse a slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry. The Governor of Virginia sought to have Douglass apprehended as a co-conspirator and the former slave was forced to escape to Canada and spent the next six months in exile.