John Brown has often come down to us as a lone nut, bent on an suicidal mission, but this is far from the truth.
Brown was part of a larger movement to free slaves that grew with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which required the return of escaped slaves to their masters with all its potential for torture and death at their hands) and the large Underground Railroad movement.
It’s little understood that Brown was intimate with northern politicians, industrialists, ministers, and folks from all walks of life, including the leading intellectuals of the era – the Transcendentalists.
Civil War historians, particularly those with a southern bent, have long claimed no association between the Transcendentalists, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson (who said Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross”) and Henry David Thoreau. “Actually,” John Brown biographer David Reynolds notes “had the Transcendentalists not sanctified the arch-Abolitionist John Brown, he may very well remained an obscure tangential figure.”
Brown met many of the Transcendentalists through Frank Sanborn who was himself a Transcendentalist. Sanborn was also the organizer of a group of John Brown backers known as the Secret Six, all but one of whom (Gerrit Smith) were close to the Transcendentalist tradition.
Brown met with the Secret Six a number of times in 1858 and 1859 to discuss his plans to make a raid on southern slaveholders. After the failure of the raid, the Secret Six were revealed by the New York Times and the New York Herald and four of the six fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. One denied his role and had himself committed to an insane asylum; the other suffering from TB, died in Europe.
The Secret Six:
Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was a journalist-reformer, social scientist, and an early biographer of transcendentalism’s key figures, including several volumes on both Thoreau and Emerson. He had met John Brown while serving as Secretary of the Massachusetts Kansas Commission which had supplied Brown with two hundred Sharps rifles, ammunition, and other support during the Kansas-Missouri Free Soil fight. Sanborn was one of the most radical of the Secret Six, a vocal supporter both before and after the raid, and was crucial to supplying Brown with arms and money for the raid on Virginia. Sanford was also politically connected, arranging to have John Brown speak before the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1857 as part of an effort to get $100,000 to aid the Kansas free soil settlers.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a minister and a disunionist who opposed the Mexican War. He was defiantly opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act and was not afraid to take direct action to rescue slaves, and he did so on several occasions. In 1851, when the escaped slave Anthony Burns was about to be forced to return to slavery in Virginia, Higginson led a group that stormed Faneuil Hall in Boston. Using a battering ram to break down the door they fought their way into the building with axes, cleavers, and pistols, killing one of the jailers. The raid was ultimately unsuccessful (Higginson was slashed in the face with a saber) and on June 2nd Anthony Burns was led trough a cordon of federal troops holding back throngs of protesters between the courthouse and the ship that would return him to slavery. After the Harpers Ferry raid Higginson formulated a plan to rescue John Brown from his jail cell, but Brown refused to take part. During the Civil War, Higginson was Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment. Higginson spent the rest of his life fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women, and other disenfranchised.
Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was the husband of leader for the suffrage of women and composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Julie Ward Howe. Samuel Howe fought for Greek independence from Turkey (and was dubbed “The Lafayette of the Greek Revolution”) and then for Polish independence from Russia before returning to America to become a advocate for better treatment for the mentally and physically challenged, particularly the deaf and blind. Howe was active in the Underground Railroad and vehemently opposed the Fugitive Slave Act. He was with Higginson at Faneuil Hall, and was responsible for the rescue of a number of slaves. He was a director of the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and his book about fugitive slaves who made it to Canada, The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West, was published in 1864. After the war he was active in the Freedman’s Bureau, established by the federal government to aid newly freed slaves and other refugees from the war.
George Luther Stearns was a wealthy factory owner and chairman of the Massachusetts Kansas Committee. He was the chief financier of the Emigrant Aid Company, whose goal was the settlement of Kansas by free soil advocates. Stearns was primarily responsible for supply pikes and Sharps rifles to the raiders and supported Brown financially before and after the raid. During the Civil War Stearns was a particularly successful recruiter of blacks for the Union Army bringing some 15,000 into the ranks. He recruited the first African American state units, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, and after the war he helped found the Freedman’s Bureau. His funeral eulogy was given by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Theodore Parker was the eleventh of as many children from a poor farming family; his grandfather was the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington during the American Revolution. Parker gained entrance to Harvard but couldn’t afford to attend. He learned to speak Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German and studied outside the Harvard system, but nonetheless received a degree from Harvard Divinity School. Parker was a women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform advocate before the Fugitive Slave Act turned his attention more directly to abolition. As leader of the 28th Congregational Society of Boston (which had some 7,000 congregants) he ministered to Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Among his congregants were also several escaped slaves, some of whom were hidden in the Parker home. He was involved in a number of slave rescues and although indicted, never convicted. During the Bleeding Kansas period, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. Following Harpers Ferry Parker wrote, in all caps for emphasis: “One held against his will as a slave has a natural right to every one who seeks to prevent his enjoyment of liberty.” He fell ill in 1859 and moved to Florence, Italy to be with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning – he died in May of 1860.
Gerrit Smith was the member of the secret six with the closet ties to North Elba, NY. He was born in Utica and was a cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He attended Hamilton College, and became a more radical abolitionist after seeing a mob break up a anti-slavery meeting in Utica in 1835. Smith served in the House of Representatives and was a candidate for U.S. President in 1848, 1852, and 1856. He is known locally for his establishment of a community of free blacks on about 120,000 acres in North Elba, where he also sold John Brown his farm. During the Kansas free soil movement he met Brown and financially supported him, from then until the raid on Harpers Ferry. After the raid future Confederacy President (but then a U.S. Senator) Jefferson Davis attempted to have Smith arrested, tried and hung with Brown. This upset Smith so much that he claimed to have a nervous breakdown and admitted himself to the state’s insane asylum in Utica for several weeks. Smith supported the Civil War but afterward believed that the North was also to blame for slavery and so advocated leniency during reconstruction. In perhaps the strangest twist of events of the whole John Brown affair, Smith joined with Cornelius Vanderbilt and Horace Greeley to underwrite the million dollar bond which freed the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, the man who had once sought to have him hanged, but who had been imprisoned for two years without being charged.
“The Last Days of John Brown” is a multi-part series about the life and final days of John Brown and his compatriots, who helped spark the Civil War. You can read the entire series here.
Photo: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn