The difference between us is very marked

Today is Harriet Tubman Day in the US, in honour of an amazing woman who died on this day in 1913. This letter feels very fitting for such a moment.

Born into slavery in 1822, in later life Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” after risking her life multiple times to guide countless slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She also worked as a spy in the Civil War, and in 1863 led an expedition of 150 African American soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, liberating hundreds more people in the process. By all accounts an exceptional person. In 1869, an authorised biography of Tubman was published, and as it was being written, Tubman turned to friend and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass for some words of support. He responded with this wonderful, glowing letter.

Rochester, August 29, 1868

Dear Harriet:

I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is so soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You on the other hand have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt “God bless you” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony to your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.

Your friend,

Frederick Douglass

The Letters of Note newsletter is free to read, but you can support it by becoming a paying subscriber, for which you will receive additional ‘members-only’ emails. Or you can gift a subscription to someone else. Or you can donate. Or you can buy a Letters of Note book, of which there are many. Or you can simply share the newsletter with friends. Options are below, all of which help. Thanks x

Give a gift subscription


Look at these books!