John Brown, the Antislavery Entrepreneur (Part 4): Tony Horwitz

Mary Duenwald writes editorials on energy, health care and science for Bloomberg View. She was deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page and a senior editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Real Simple, the Sciences and Vogue.
Read More.
a | A

(This is the fourth of five excerpts from Tony Horwitz’s new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.”)

In the winter of 1857, John Brown quartered the fighters he had recruited for his invasion of Virginia at a sympathetic farm community in Iowa. There, the men drilled at what they called their “War College.”

Brown, out of money, headed east to raise more. Rather than speak in public venues, as he had the year before, he traveled under an alias, Nelson Hawkins, and sought discreet support from a small group he believed willing to back his “secret service.” In the fourth excerpt from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” Tony Horwitz describes Brown’s courting of covert backers called the Secret Six:

In late January 1858, Brown reached the Rochester, New York, home of Frederick Douglass and stayed for three weeks, feverishly plotting his attack on Virginia and sketching log forts he planned to build in the mountains. He was on fire in his correspondence as well, deploying a mix of flattery and exhortation in letters seeking financial support.

“I now want to get for the perfecting of by far the most important undertaking of my whole life from $500 to $800 within the next sixty days,” he wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a militant minister who believed in breaking apart the Union to destroy slavery. “Hope this is my last effort in the begging line.”

The fiery Higginson replied: “I am always ready to invest money in treason, but at present have none to invest.” Higginson was also busy raising money for the Underground Railroad.

Raising Money

“Rail Road business on a somewhat extended scale is the identical object for which I am trying to get means,” Brown shot back. He appealed to the minister’s considerable vanity as well. “I have been told you are both a true man & a true abolitionist,” he wrote, at the same time questioning whether this was so of others in their circle.

The same day, Brown sent a separate letter to Theodore Parker, one of the men named in his note to Higginson, and played the identical game. “I have written to some of our mutual friends,” Brown told Parker, “but none of them understand my views so well as you do.” Brown added that he wasn’t certain that these other friends were “deeply-dyed Abolitionists,” as Parker most assuredly was.

These sly, stroking appeals had their intended effect. In early 1858, Higginson, Parker and four other men agreed to support Brown’s mission. Though the group would become known as the Secret Six, it was composed of very public and prominent figures. Four were Harvard graduates, the most distinguished of them Parker, a radical Boston minister and eloquent orator who famously declared that the arc of the moral universe “bends towards justice.”

Higginson, a protege of Parker’s, was another Harvard Divinity School graduate, as well as a writer who mentored Emily Dickinson. But his literary and spiritual pursuits were paired with a pugilistic temperament that resembled Brown’s. A boxing and body-building enthusiast, he was intolerant of weakness and impatient for muscular action. “I long to see you with adequate funds in your hands, set free from timid advisers, & able to act in your own way,” he wrote Brown.

Samuel Gridley Howe was another well-bred man of action. The grandson of a participant in the Boston Tea Party, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and was inspired by Lord Byron to join Greece’s revolution against Turkey as a soldier-surgeon. Returning to Boston, Howe became a pioneer in the care of the blind, deaf and mentally disabled.

‘Battle Hymn’

He was married to the poet Julia Ward Howe, who would immortalize Brown’s spirit in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” -- and become so dispirited by her dashing, unfaithful husband that she wrote, “Hope died as I was led,/Unto my marriage bed.”

While Parker, Higginson and Howe brought ideological fire to Brown’s cause, George Luther Stearns provided money and guns. A self-made magnate, enriched by the manufacture of linseed oil and lead pipe, he was the Kansas Committee chair who had paid to send Brown 200 revolvers, while also pledging thousands of additional dollars. On his doctor’s advice, Stearns wore an extravagant beard to warm and protect his chest and throat from bronchial problems.

In other respects, he was the most conventional and business-like of the Secret Six -- in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “no boaster or pretender, but a man for up-hill work.”

The last two members of the Secret Six were already close associates of Brown: his wealthy upstate New York patron, Gerrit Smith, and the Concord teacher, Franklin Sanborn. It was to them, at Smith’s estate, that Brown first unveiled the nature of his “secret service.” Sanborn immediately scribbled a note to Higginson, filled with the aliases and coded language that Brown so often employed.

“Our friend Hawkins,” he wrote, is “entering largely into the wool business, in which he has been more or less engaged all his life. He now has a plan -- the result of many years’ study.” On the back of the letter were Brown’s penciled sketches of his mountain forts, labeled “Woollen machinery.”

A month later, in March 1858, the “secret committee” of six was formed to raise money and other aid for Brown and his men. But the alliance was fraught from the start. The Secret Six shared Brown’s seething hatred of slavery and his scorn for pacifist remedies. In other ways, they were poles apart.

The ‘Unseen Hand’

Brown’s old-school Calvinist faith differed greatly from the unorthodox theology that Parker and Higginson espoused. A man of very modest means, he resented begging in Brahmin parlors, amid what he called the “wealth, luxury, and extravagance of this ‘Heaven exalted’ people.” And he resisted his backers’ strategic advice, instead relying on his own judgment and the “unseen Hand” of Providence.

This obstinacy became evident when Brown first shared his “wool business” plans at Smith’s home. Sanborn and Smith immediately raised concerns about the “manifest hopelessness” of defeating slavery with a small guerrilla band. To which Brown confidently replied: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

Sanborn and Smith mulled the matter during a walk through the snowy fields of the upstate New York estate. They regarded Brown’s mission as “dangerous, and even desperate,” Sanborn wrote. Other members of the Secret Six also harbored doubts about Brown’s chances of success. But it was clear that nothing would deter him from going ahead. “We cannot give him up to die alone; we must support him,” Smith declared.

This humane sentiment wasn’t the only motive for backing Brown. The danger and desperation inherent in his plan appealed to the Secret Six, as did his faith that he was God’s instrument. Brown was no “milk-and-water” abolitionist, believing in talk and moral uplift. He was a blunt and righteous weapon, a human battering ram. Even if he failed, Brown might splinter the Slave Power and bring on the great conflict necessary to vanquish it.

“He is of the stuff of which martyrs are made,” Samuel Gridley Howe wrote a wealthy associate he hoped would give money to Brown. “Under his natural and unaffected simplicity and modesty there is an irresistible propensity to war upon injustice and wrong.”

Gerrit Smith, least secret of the Six, was more explicit. In March, as the conspirators formed their committee, he wrote an abolitionist congressman: “the slave will be delivered by the shedding of blood, and the signs are multiplying that his deliverance is at hand.”

(Tony Horwitz is the author of “A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Blue Latitudes,” “Confederates in the Attic” and “Baghdad Without a Map.” This is the fourth in a five-part series excerpted from his new book, “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” to be published Oct. 25 by Henry Holt and Co. The opinions expressed are his own. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Mary Duenwald at