To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown
John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
My Bondage and My Freedom
Biographers of men who lived in violent times have the special problem of dealing with the abstractions about means and ends that clutter the rhetoric of political systems in a state of polarization. When do men mean what they say? How a biographer’s subject responds to a call to action may come as near as anything else to exposing the inner quality of the man, the elusive combination of impulse, emotion practicality, and reason that we call character. The recent publication in paperback of the two standard biographies of Frederick Douglass, the first written in 1948 by Benjamin Quarles, and the second in 1950 by Philip Foner, who edited Douglass’s writings at the same time, invites a reconsideration of this dynamic editor and orator, America’s most important black abolitionist, who lived in violent times.
Two of Douglass’s three autobiographical works have also been reissued recently. The first of these is My Bondage and My Freedom, written in 1855, and the second is an illustrated edition of Douglass’s final autobiography, written shortly before his death in 1895. It appears now in a much edited and reduced version by Genevieve S. Gray, intended for young readers. The handsome drawings by Scott Duncan add much to the charm of the volume, although they have in some instances a very tenuous relation to the text. Benjamin Quarles’s Black Abolitionists, the first general study, contributes much to our understanding of Douglass by considering him in the company of his fellow black militants as they grappled with the question of means and ends in the antislavery cause.
A few years before the Civil War, Douglass faced the choice between the rhetorical justification of force in the emancipation of slaves, and the use of physical violence to that end. Stephen Oates’s exciting new biography of John Brown, together with a new edition of Louis Ruchames’s collected letters and eulogies of Brown, The Making of a Revolutionary, provide a fresh view of the man who brought Douglass to that choice.
The only book among the seven under review failing to mention the last meeting of those two famous abolitionists is the only one that was written before the meeting took place. When Douglass wrote My Bondage and My Freedom, he was thirty-eight years old, and had been well acquainted with John Brown for approximately seven years. John Brown had already caused Douglass to rethink his earler commitment to the pacifism of the Garrisonian abolitionists, but the relationship between the two men had not reached its dramatic culmination. This took place on August 19, 1858, two months before Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, when Douglass met Brown secretly in an abandoned stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three days the old guerrilla captain discussed with the young orator the uses of violence in the pursuit of justice.
The question was specific. Would Douglass join John Brown and his small band of raiders in their attack …