Looking Back to our Future

Frederick Douglass Meets John Brown

 

George Will’s recent column about Frederick Douglass provides a dollop of salve to those whose pride in America has been wounded by the twisted rantings of puerile Washington politicians.

If anyone had reason to promote cynicism and despair it was the runaway slave from Maryland. But rather than spreading vitrol, Douglass used his considerable oratorical and literary skills to stoke from the dirty ashes of servitude the flames of freedom.

After a speech in Springfield, which at the time was a way station in the underground railroad, Douglass was introduced to the fervent and self-righteous abolitionist John Brown. Brown had recently moved to Springfield to establish a wool trading house. Douglass took an immediate liking to the severe white man who shared Douglass’hatred of slavery. 

Over dinner that evening Brown presented Douglass with a plan to use guerrilla tactics to raid Virginian plantations and free the slaves. Douglass considered the plan folly and counseled Brown to pursue non-violent measures.  Brown, who would hang 11 years later for treason after a botched raid of an arms arsenal in Harpers Ferry Virginia, believed that only blood would wash away the stain of slavery. The Civil War proved Brown correct in this assessment. 

But long after “John Brown’s body was mouldering in the grave” Douglass continued to inspire those who believed American ideals included all regardless of where they came from or the color of their skin. Black history month not only gives us the opportunity to look backward, but also to look forward with hopeful eyes to the future. Even during our bleakest hours great leaders have emerged. The challenge we face is not a dearth of leadership, but the culling of intellectual indolence.

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