Terror, Practical And Impractical

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Of the Secret Six, Higginson had always been the most willing to put his body where his purse was. During the 1854 Boston struggle to keep the fugitive slave Anthony Burns from being returned to his master, Higginson had led the charge on the federal courthouse with a battering ram and suffered a saber slash on his chin for his trouble. He was now not content with letting the man he called “my brave, mad, noble friend” hang, so he helped hatch two rescue plots every bit as impractical as Brown’s own scheme had been. The first, the “German Project,” called for a handful of German immigrants who had fought in the Revolution of 1848, augmented by a few Bostonians and Ohioans from Brown’s hometown, to mount an attack on the fifteen hundred federal troops guarding the prisoner. When the Ohioans sensibly failed to materialize, Brown’s allies toyed with a “Richmond Plan,” which called for hired thugs to slip into the Virginia capital, kidnap the governor, then hold him hostage till Brown was released. This plot also failed to get off the ground. “It is an absurdity,” Higginson finally had to admit, “to suppose that we can induce by money the worst men in the country to do a desperate act hen anyone of them can make twice as much money by betraying it.”

When the Herald printed their names, the conspirators panicked; they lied, and some ran to Canada.

Then, when troops commanded by Jubal Early uncovered letters from the Secret Six in the farmhouse Brown had occupied outside Harpers Ferry, and the New York Herald printed their names in a story headlined THE EXPOSURE OF THE NIGGER-WORSHIPING INSURRECTIONISTS , the conspirators panicked. Gerrit Smith, always erratic and highstrung, now suffered a nervous breakdown. Apparently persuaded that he was about to be arrested and exhibited around the country in a cage, he was committed to an asylum by his friends. Howe published a notice in the newspapers claiming that the events at Harpers Ferry had been “unforeseen and unexpected” by him; his wife, Julia Ward Howe, even lied about her husband’s involvement to her own sister. “No one knew of Brown’s intentions,” she wrote, “but Brown himself and a handful of men.” Then Howe and Stearns fled to Canada. Sanborn soon scuttled across the border after them.

Later, back in the United States and summoned before a special Senate committee, Howe and Stearns would categorically deny ever having known that Brown planned a slave insurrection. “I should have disapproved of it,” Stearns assured Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, “if I had known of it.”

Higginson alone stood his ground. He told Howe his initial denial and subsequent flight had been “the extreme of baseness,” deplored his fellow conspirators’ perjury before the committee, and was further angered when the panel failed to give him the opportunity to proclaim his own unrepentant enthusiasm for Brown’s raid. Soon after the longed-for Civil War began, he volunteered to lead black troops into battle as what he called “partial expiation” for having helped send Brown and his followers to their deaths.

He lived on until 1911, haunted by the fate that had befallen Brown and his men but still true to his radical past. Brown should somehow have been shielded from his own madness, Higginson wrote toward the end of his long life; another scheme would have done as well. The “bombing of a few fine southern buildings,” he suggested, “or a few famous southern men, with notes crediting the blasts to some choice northern abolitionist groups, would have done the job. Such action would have brought disunion quickly, and without risk to any from our side. The Russian revolutionists, who were so efficient in making the tyrant Tsar Alexander II explode, have much to teach us about practical terror.”

A member of Hamas or the IRA or the Weathermen couldn’t have said it better.