Skip to main content


Terror, Practical And Impractical

June 2024
5min read

How a half-dozen pillars of the community became infatuated with the idea of shedding (someone else’s) blood

At Oberlin College one day in the autumn of 1961, I happened to find myself at the same lunch table with my classmate Rennie Davis. He was a quiet government major then, close-cropped, bespectacled, a former 4-H Club member, but already caught up in the romance of revolution. As I took my seat, he and a friend whose name I no longer recall were animatedly drawing up a plan to shut the college down. I listened, fascinated, as they discussed the pros and cons of occupying the president’s office, blocking the doors to the administration building, and employing passive resistance to confound the town cops, should the administration dare call them in. By the time the dessert plates had been cleared away my fellow diners both seemed satisfied with their plan, but for one thing. “Now,” Davis said, smiling as he gathered up his books for his next class, “all we need is an issue.” The Vietnam War would soon provide him with one, of course; he went on to become a prime mover in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), vowed to “turn the sons and daughters of the ruling class in this country into Vietcong,” and, as one of the Chicago Seven, was tried for having incited a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention (and ultimately found innocent).

The memory of that long-ago lunch and Davis’s boyish glee at the idea of revolution for its own sake came back to me while reading Edward J. Renehan, Jr.'s fascinating new study The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired With John Brown (Crown, $25.00). On the surface the half-dozen men who armed John Brown and encouraged him to pursue his suicidal mission at Harpers Ferry were equally implausible revolutionaries: a pair of liberal-minded Protestant clergymen, Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson; two wealthy philanthropists, Gerrit Smith and George Luther Stearns; Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, best known for his work among the blind; and Franklin Sanborn, a schoolteacher from Concord, Massachusetts. They were comfortable, book-loving men, for the most part, more accustomed to the tea table than the battlefield, who became so infatuated with the idea of destroying slavery by bringing on a civil war that they refused to recognize either Brown’s true character or the utter hopelessness of his self-appointed task. And after the shooting had died away, as Higginson, the most steadfast of the conspirators, later admitted, “Although there was no Judas among us, there were six Peters, all of whom denied John Brown at least once … before the cock crowed.”

As Renehan reminds us, Brown’s cause was wholly good, but he was himself mostly bad. Convinced that God had anointed him to destroy the evil of slavery, he lied, stole, and sometimes murdered without compunction. Even his antislavery allies in Bleeding Kansas grew wary of him, and with good reason: At least one of his victims, an unarmed settler named James Doyle whom Brown and his sons hacked to death with broadswords in the name of emancipation on Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, may not even have favored slavery. “When [we] went to Kansas,” his widow remembered, “… it was to get to a free state where there would be no slave labor to hinder white men from making a fair day’s wages; [he] never owned any slaves, never expected to, nor did not want any.”

Yet somehow, on his frequent fund-raising trips back East, this seedy, grim old zealot managed to dazzle men who in any other context would surely have seen him for what he was. Persuaded of the righteousness of their cause, frustrated by years of mostly fruitless agitation against a slave power that seemed to them to be growing not shrinking, and woefully ignorant of actual conditions within the slave states, they were eager to believe that a Man of Action—“a high-minded, unselfish, belated Covenanter,” Higginson called him, “a man whom Sir Walter Scott might have drawn”—had been sent to bring about a great slave rebellion in the mountains of Virginia. “We had felt in our heart to expect one such as he,” a reverential Sanborn wrote of his first meeting with Brown; “it had somehow been foretold.”

And when, in February of 1858, Brown began outlining his crazy plan, they thrilled at the sound of it. “The slave will be delivered by the shedding of blood,” Gerrit Smith promised a fellow abolitionist. Thereafter Smith and his five colleagues would call themselves the Secret Six; they reveled in cloak-and-dagger code names for Brown—Hawkins, Shubel Morgan—and sent him a steady stream of money, weapons, and advice.

Nothing Brown did seemed to shake their confidence in him. When the Harpers Ferry raid had to be postponed for a time and Brown went on a raid into Missouri instead, during which a defenseless slaveowner was summarily executed with a bullet through the head, Smith expressed only delight. “Do you hear the news from Kansas?” he asked. “Our dear John Brown is … pursuing the policy which he intended to pursue elsewhere.”

Even when word reached them of the debacle at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, which their funds had paid for—ten men mortally wounded, including two of Brown’s own sons, Brown himself wounded and dragged away in chains, not a single slave freed—Franklin Sanborn professed actually to be pleased: “The failure is a success; it has done more for Freedom than years of talk could. … It grieves me sadly to think that Brown must die, but he is ready for it; and if we cannot avert it, we must think it best. It will undoubtedly add millions to the righteous side.”

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.