Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
Without the material support of a half-dozen prominent northerners known as the Secret Six, John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry 150 years ago may well never have occurred
ON OCTOBER 17, 1909, a small group of former abolitionists quietly gathered in an imposing brick house in Concord, Massachusetts, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John Brown’s historic raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, then a part of Virginia. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Franklin B. Sanborn, and Julia Ward Howe, widow of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, did not want their meeting to attract attention despite the fact that Brown and his compatriots were being celebrated across the country. The two old men, along with Samuel Howe and three other long-dead comrades, had once formed an abolitionist cabal known as the Secret Six who supplied Brown and his men with money and weapons as he prepared for the assault. Those six ardent abolitionists had, in effect, been planning treason against the United States.
Katherine Mayo, the young reporter who brought them together, was seeking momentous revelations. “Why do you want to know of us?” Higginson had written to Mayo. “Did any historian ever bother to write down the name of the man who bought the donkey on which Christ rode into Jerusalem? We of the Six were as unimportant and incidental to the real story of John Brown as that ancient Judean is to the story of our Lord. . . . We do not deserve remembering. Although there was no Judas among us, there were six Peters, all who denied John Brown at least once through some word or act before the cock crowed.”
Higginson’s self-effacement, while perhaps genuine, was incorrect. The story of these six avid enemies of slavery- writers, preachers, businessmen is not just an obscure tale about the would-be financiers of a revolution; it is also the story of pacifists turned radicals, of hope for slavery’s extinction being shattered by deep societal and economic currents, and of inspired citizens planning a stand against fundamental evil only to flee the country and deny their involvement after Brown’s failure.
The Secret Six were not hardscrabble ruffians or ex-slaves but men of culture, education, and fortune, and, as such, an especial threat to the slave- holding plutocracy Five of the six were from Boston: Higginson a preacher and a writer; Sanborn a young
writer, teacher, and protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Howe a world- renowned physician who worked with the blind and deaf; Theodore Parker a well-known abolitionist and Unitarian preacher; and George L. Stearns a prosperous manufacturer. The sixth member, Gerrit Smith, was a rich upstate New York businessman and philanthropist.
These men had known Brown for years through their abolitionist and Underground Railroad connections. He, in fact, at one time lived in Timbucto, a free black enclave created by Smith in the Adirondacks. Except for Higginson, the six men had generally followed a nonviolent ideology and vented their outrage in words. But unfolding events would challenge their assumptions.
The new Fugitive Slave Act--part of the Compromise of 1850 legislation required U.S. citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitives to whom it denied jury trial, and overall it made the recovery process easier for slave owners. Northern abolitionists were outraged. Parker was so upset that his sermons took on a decidedly more violent tone.
The arrest (or, as abolitionists saw it, kidnapping) of former slaves Thomas Sims in 1851 and Anthony Burns in 1854 from Boston and repatriation to their owners in Virginia set off riots and profoundly influenced Higginson and Howe. The arrest of Jerry McHenry in Syracuse in 1852 likewise aroused Smith. Similar to the impressment of sailors by the British that had led to the War of 1812, the government-sanctioned “kidnapping” of Massachusetts citizens began to make many in Boston believe that such actions could only be answered by violence. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the subsequent bloodletting between pro- and anti-slavery factions in what came to be called “Bleeding Kansas” further inflamed the situation.
After much hard talk about a Northern abolitionist cabal by Mason and his committee colleague Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the committee found no proof of Northern complicity “It would be hard to conceive of a lamer or more impotent conclusion than that to which the whole affair has come,” the New York Times observed in June 1860.
In later years, various of the six wrote a good many reminiscences, biographies, and collections of letters. While they proudly proclaimed their support of the antislavery cause and Brown’s deeds in Kansas, they continued to deny their involvement in his ultimate act. Even Higginson did so, though he had accused his accomplices of saving themselves and leaving Brown to the gallows “Is there no honor among confederates?” he chided Sanborn in particular.
For the rest of his life, Higginson believed it was that year’s delay from 1858 to 1859 that doomed Brown. He also believed that only he and Brown did not realize that it would be a suicide mission the others saw it as a necessary martyrdom for the cause. In 1909 Higginson revealed to journalist Oswald Garrison Villard that he despised the entire secret committee himself included for their “betrayal” of Brown. Higginson’s own “crime” was his fevered naïveté in believing that Brown could raise the South.
There can be little doubt that Harpers Ferry intensified the already tense sectional strife and was one of the sparks that detonated the Civil War. The Secret Six influential abolitionists who had lost faith in political gradualism and saw hope only in armed conflict therefore have a certain place in history. Without their material support, the mad strike on the arsenal would never have had its astounding impact. As Victor Hugo wrote in 1859, the hangman of Brown was neither the judge nor jury, but the entire American Republic; and Brown’s death would, as indeed it did, “open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder.”