Thomas Wentworth Higginson
December 11, 1823 – May 9, 1911.
One of six financiers of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.
A Unitarian minister.
Politically a dis-unionist.[i]
A member of the Secret Six.
A Colonel during the Civil War.
Interred, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge Ma.
Tom Higginson was born and resided his entire life in Worcester, Massachusetts. His lineage extends to Francis Higginson[ii], a Puritan minister of England, that immigrated to Massachusetts in 1629. Just one year later, Francis died of a fever that ravaged the Salem community. Tom’s grandfather, Stephen was a member of the Continental Congress. His father, also named Stephen, was a merchant, philanthropist and steward of Harvard University.[iii]
Tom was closely aligned with Reverend Theodore Parker. Both were Transcendentalists[iv] and Unitarian ministers. We will avoid a definition of Transcendentalism for now. Typically, the individuals associated with transcendentalism were also committed abolitionists. They were very vocal activists even if resistance to slavery led to violence. Of the Secret Six that financed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was perennially active in the fight against slavery. He risked imprisonment, his modest fortune and his life, challenging slavery.
Parallel in time with Boston Transcendentalist, Higginson formed the Worcester Disunion Convention of 1857. Their goal was identical to William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. If slavery could not be eliminated, the North must end any association with the South and a constitution that quietly endorsed slavery.
Tom’s hands-on resistance to slavery came in several events. He formed and supported the Underground Railroad in Worcester. He actively wrote against slavery almost to the point that he could have been accused of inciting riots, if not treason. He was in the fore-front of the attempt to free slave Anthony Burns, in 1854, from Federal custody at the Boston Court House. A cut from a saber on his chin speaks clearly to his level of participation. By 1856 he was transporting people to Kansas that supported Free Kansas in hopes of winning the vote to be a free state. The United States Congress left this decision to a referendum by the people of Kansas. He subsequently and secretly ran guns into the Kansas territory and was a member of the Kansas National Committee, made up mostly of New Englanders.
He penned several articles, “A Ride Through Kansas;” and “Assorted Lots of Young Negroes”, that stirred anti-slavery passions in the North. Both articles came to the attention of John Brown. They would meet in Boston in 1858.
John Brown insisted they had met before but Higginson could not recall this event though they were both in Kansas at various times. Perhaps it was not needed but John Brown's tails of his adventures apparently inspired Thomas Higginson.
In general, abolitionists seemed motivated to repeal the laws that pacified slavery. The likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner insisted slavery must be peaceably resisted. John Brown saw a slave revolt as the fix-all. Initially The Secret Six seemed to think that the funds sought ($500), would be invested to enhance the Underground Railroad. Meetings with John Brown continued in Boston for two years. By the time the funds were released each of the Six understood Brown’s plans to create a slave uprising and establish fugitive hideouts in the Allegheny Mountains.
While there were no delusions of Browns intent, the Secret Six accepted without confirmation that John Brown was the best strategist and leader to make this work. Why six highly intelligent transcendentalists bought into the Harpers Ferry assault is perplexing in the 21st Century. Nonetheless, they did and Thomas Higginson stated in his writings that “he loved John Brown.” There is evidence that Higginson planned to rescue John Brown before he was hanged. [v]
The after-math of John Brown’s raid on the Secret Six was life threatening. They could have been arrested without habeas corpus and hanged for treason. However, Thomas Higginson was one of two members, along with Franklin Sanborn, that did not flee for their personal security.
Sanborn was nearly arrested by U. S. Marshalls in Concord but was freed by an angry mob of one-hundred and fifty locals. Higginson continued to reside in Worcester and quickly volunteered to fight at the beginning of the Civil War.
Higginson served with the Massachusetts 51st Infantry as a captain. A serious wound in 1863 led to his retirement. In early 1864, President Lincoln authorized the use of colored soldiers. The First South Carolina Volunteers were drawn from escaped slaves from Florida and South Carolina. Higginson was appointed their colonel. He did not seek the position. To Higginson this was an important distinction. He felt better “that I did not seek the command of colored troops, but it sought me. . . . Under these circumstances I viewed the new recruits rather as subjects for discipline than for philanthropy.[vi]
There were intrinsic personal rewards for Higginson as Colonel of the colored regiment as only he could appreciate. In Higginson's eyes he had reached John Brown's aspirations leading colored troops against the South. The first black regiment was an experiment that many hoped would fail as much as others wanted it to succeed. Higginson seemed to relish the opportunity
This regiment pre-dated the Massachusetts 54th Regiment formed from freed black citizens. Higginson was not deterred that Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, declared that white officers of black regiments would be hanged upon capture.
Tom’s entire life from his adolescent years to his death challenged all civil rights issues from slavery, to suffrage to religious intolerance. His reputation layed dormant from 1869, until 1984 with the re-publication of his memoirs of “Army Life in a Black Regiment.”[vii] Howard N. Meyer commented in the re-introduction that [he] may have been correctly pigeon-holed as a “minor writer, but he deserves nonetheless to be remembered as a major American.” Indeed, he was true to the classic American cliché, “put your money where your mouth is,” and so he did.
[i] Politically a person that believes if slavery can’t be eliminated then free states should sever themselves from the United States. A belief that the Constitution made a covenant with slavery. Other notable dis-unionists were William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner.
[ii] Francis Higginson born 1588, Massachusetts Vital Records page 327 , available at NEGHS online at https://www.americanancestors.org/search/database-search?firstname=Francis%20&lastname=higginson&fromyear=1588&toyear=1700&location=salem%20ma&#name-140892803
[iv] Other transcendentalists were Hawthorne, Longfellow, Thoreau, Stone, Garrison, Phillips, Whitman and the Alcotts.
[v] The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Edited Howard N. Meyer, Da Capo Press, 2000.
[vi] Army Life in Black Regiment; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, By Howard N. Meyer. W. W. Norton & Company New York. Introduction page 29.
[vii] Army Life in Black Regiment; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, By Howard N. Meyer. W. W. Norton & Company New York.