• Codie Eash

“Into a Perfect Steel-Trap” – Frederick Douglass and John Brown at Chambersburg


A state historical marker dedicated in 1994 on the north side of Route 30 in western Chambersburg reads, “FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND JOHN BROWN. The two abolitionists met at a stone quarry here, Aug. 19-21, 1859, and discussed Brown’s plans to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He urged Douglass to join an armed demonstration against slavery. Douglass refused, warning the raid would fail; the Oct. 16, 1859 attack confirmed his fears. Brown was captured with his surviving followers and was executed Dec. 2, 1859.” (Codie Eash, Aug. 14, 2019)

As vehicles today coast along Route 30 on the western side of Chambersburg, most travelers likely pay no mind to the navy blue-and-gold Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker near a bridge over Conococheague Creek, dedicated a quarter-century ago on Aug. 21, 1994.[1]

But upon this interpretive sign, hidden in the foreground of a Rent-A-Center, are the names of two of the most boisterous and seminal figures in 19th-century America. Neither man was a Pennsylvanian, but there, at the Franklin County seat 160 years ago, in the summer of 1859, these activists engaged in secretive talks involving a plot that would go a long way toward sparking the Civil War.

One was the formerly enslaved newsman, memoirist, and orator Frederick Douglass. The other was the fiery Connecticut-born abolitionist who, as Douglass later opined in his final autobiography, “has now passed into history, as one of the most marked characters, and greatest heroes known to American fame”—none other than John Brown.[2]


In their 12-year relationship, Brown requested Douglass’s “cooperation” in “the creating of an armed force which should act in the very heart of the south” to defeat slavery. Slaveholders, Douglass remembered Brown saying, “had forfeited their right to live,” and “slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could.” To Douglass, Brown’s formulation “had much to commend it,” and though it did not inspire the former to act violently on his own, Brown did succeed in making Douglass “less hopeful of...peaceful abolition.”[3]


In the intervening years, Brown had become infamous for his role in violent attacks against pro-slavery activists in Kansas. By the spring of 1859, he yearned to strike at the heart of the peculiar institution in Virginia.


In April, Brown visited Douglass’s home in Rochester, New York, where he was introduced to Shields Green, a formerly enslaved acquaintance of Douglass who had escaped from bondage in Charleston, South Carolina. Douglass noticed that “Brown saw at once what ‘stuff’ Green ‘was made of,’ and confided to him his plans and purposes,” to which the enthusiastic Green responded affirmatively, noting that he “believed in Brown, and promised to go with him wherever he should be ready to move.”[4]

In the months that followed, as Brown plotted his now-legendary raid against the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in modern West Virginia, he communicated with Douglass once more. “Brown wrote to me, and appointed an old stone quarry near Chambersburg, Penn., as our place of meeting,” Douglass recorded. Under the alias Dr. Isaac Smith, a fictional iron mine developer, Brown had been planning for Harpers Ferry by lodging at a home in Chambersburg since June, where he garnered supplies, many of which were to serve as weapons in the forthcoming raid. [5] (The house is located at 225 East King Street, which is today open to the public through the Franklin County Historical Society.)

John H. Kagi, an abolitionist attorney and schoolteacher who served as Brown’s secretary, asked Douglass to bring Shields Green, and carry any cash he was willing to provide as funding for the Harpers Ferry mission. Douglass obliged, and procured at least $10 (approximately $300 today) in New York City.

Upon his arrival on Friday, Aug. 19, 1859, Chambersburg residents reacted with “a good deal of surprise” that the de facto leader of black America “should come there unannounced,” Douglass wrote. He then delivered a speech at the Franklin Repository, next to the courthouse on the town square, perhaps as a cover for his true purpose in trekking to south-central Pennsylvania. Afterward, local hair stylist and Underground Railroad agent Henry Watson—who “was very busy in his barber’s shop, but he dropped all”—escorted Douglass and Green on “the road to the appointed rendezvous,” Douglass explained.[6]


“I approached the old quarry very cautiously, for John Brown was generally well armed, and regarded strangers with suspicion” considering his wanted status following the violence in Kansas, Douglass maintained. “He was there under the ban of the government, and heavy rewards were offered for his arrest....As I came near, he regarded me rather suspiciously, but soon recognized me, and received me cordially.”


Brown, disguised as a fisherman seeking aquatic prey in the Conococheague, “looked every way like a man of the neighborhood, and as much as at home as any of the farmers around there,” Douglass opined. “His hat was old, and storm-beaten, and his clothing was about the color of the stone quarry himself—his then present dwelling-place. He wore an anxious expression, and he was much worn by thought and exposure. I felt that I was on a dangerous mission, and was as little desirous of discovery as myself, though no reward had been offered for me.”

Douglass, Kagi, Brown, and Green “sat down among the rocks and talked over the enterprise which was about to be undertaken,” Douglass continued. “The taking of Harpers Ferry, of which Captain Brown had merely hinted before, was now declared as his settled purpose, and he wanted to know what I thought of it. I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me, such a measure would be fatal to running off slaves (as was the original plan), and fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government, and would array the whole country against us.”[7]

Brown offered a rejoinder and assured Douglass that he “did not at all object to rousing the nation.” In fact, said Douglass, “it seemed to him that something startling was just what the nation needed. He had completely renounced his old plan, and thought that the capture of Harpers Ferry would serve as notice to the slaves that their friends had come, and as a trumpet to rally them to his standard.” Brown particularly appreciated Harpers Ferry geographically as a place that possessed a proper “means of defense” from which it would be almost “impossible...to dislodge him if once in possession.”[8]


Douglass ardently opposed, but Brown could not be swayed. “I was no match for him in such matters, but I told him...that all his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive; that he would be surrounded at once and escape would be impossible,” Douglass warned. “He was not to be shaken by anything I could say, but treated my views respectfully, replying that even if surrounded he would find means for cutting his way out.”


At the center of Brown’s proposal was the concept of imprisoning “a number of the best citizens of the neighborhood” and “holding them as hostages...to dictate terms of egress from the town.” Douglass recalled, “I looked at him with some astonishment, that he could rest upon a reed so weak and broken, and told him that Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky-high.”

The men’s summit continued through the weekend, August 20 and 21. “Our talk was long and earnest,” Douglass stated; “we spent the most of Saturday and a part of Sunday on this debate—Brown for Harpers Ferry, and I against it; he for striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country, and I for the policy of gradually and unaccountably drawing off the slaves to the mountains, as at first suggested and proposed by him.”[9]

When it became evident that no matter the cost, Brown “had fully made up his mind and could not be dissuaded,” he turned to a new tactic: “Captain Brown urged us”—both Douglass and Shields Green—“to go with him,” said Douglass. “I could not do so, and could not but feel that he was about to rivet the feathers more firmly than ever on the limbs of the enslaved. In parting he put his arms around me in a manner more than friendly, and said: ‘Come with me, Douglass, I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.’”[10]


Douglass self-prescribed his denial as either “my discretion or my cowardice...perhaps it was something of both” in refusing to go with Brown. Green, however, turned to Douglass and “coolly saying in his broken way,” declared, “‘I b’leve I’ll go wid de ole man.’”


“Here we separated; they to go to Harper’s Ferry, I to Rochester,” Douglass lamented. Two months later, on Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and his raiding party (including Green) entered Harpers Ferry, and were ultimately executed for murder and attempting to incite an insurrection. Douglass would continue working patriotically in favor of emancipation and equal rights for decades—through Antebellum, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond—as a speaker, writer, presidential advisor, United States military recruiter, suffragist, civil servant, and diplomat until his death in 1895.[11]


Though Douglass disagreed with Brown's method in 1859, he saw him as a martyr for the antislavery mission. “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine...,” Douglass famously announced in a speech at Harpers Ferry in 1881. “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” And, he added for good measure, “If a monument should be erected to the memory of John Brown, as there ought to be, the form and name of Shields Green should have a conspicuous place upon it.” [12]

Brown, Green, and everyone with whom they served in 1859 “began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic...,” Douglass concluded in hindsight, while reflecting on his final meeting with them at Chambersburg weeks before their fateful departure. “The time for compromises was gone—the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union—and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s the lost cause of the century.”[13]




[1] “Frederick Douglass and John Brown,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/apps/historical-markers.html.


[2] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing Co., 1881), 279.


[3] Douglass, Life and Times, 279-282.


[4] Douglass, Life and Times, 322.


[5] Douglass, Life and Times, 322; “John Brown House,” National Park Service, https://www.franklinhistorical.org/john-brown-house.


[6] Douglass, Life and Times, 322-323.


[7] Douglass, Life and Times, 323.


[8] Douglass, Life and Times, 323-324.


[9] Douglass, Life and Times, 324.


[10] Douglass, Life and Times, 324-325.


[11] Douglass, Life and Times, 325.


[12] Frederick Douglass, John Brown. An Address by Frederick Douglass, at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, May 30, 1881 (Dover, NH: Morning Star Job Printing House, 1881), 9, 27.


[13] Douglass, John Brown, 28.

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