A Review of The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (Uncommon Books, 1993) by Otto Scott.

The Leftist political violence that has engulfed the disintegrating American nation for much of the past year traces its origin on the North American continent to the infernal life of the original American terrorist, John Brown. Like the terrorists of today who prey upon ordinary, everyday patriots, John Brown enjoyed the financial and media support of all of the leading lights of the North, who hailed the murderous maniac as a hero of “the people.” The grisly career of John Brown began in 1856, with the massacre of five innocents along the banks of Pottawatomie Creek as part of the paroxysm of violence known as Bleeding Kansas, and met its end with the abortive raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The cabal that armed, financed, and advised the terrorist was the Secret Six: The Unitarian (i.e., apostate) “Reverends” Theodore Parker and Thomas Higginson, the physician Samuel Howe, the industrialist George Stearns, the “social scientist” Franklin Sanborn, and the multimillionaire Gerrit Smith, the profligate heir to a partner of John Astor. These wealthy, influential, and—above all—fanatical abolitionists were animated by one purpose: to destroy the South and remake it in their image. When their efforts led “not only to bloody murder, but to a great…war, they were praised as patriots and humanitarians…But they really contemptible men who hired an assassin, armed a murderer, supported secret crime in the name of compassion, and dealt their country a terrible blow while claiming the motives of angels.”

The Northern Milieu

Religious apostasy combined with political fervor in the North to forge the new faith of militant abolitionism. New England was long a hotbed of heresy, as the grandchildren of the Puritans drifted into Unitarianism, denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and openly scorning the inerrancy of the Scripture, deconstructing the Word of God into tattered “mountains of footnotes, denials, and arguments.” Abolitionism infused with Unitarianism cloaked itself in the language of Christian rhetoric, in which slavery was rendered a “sin,” and Southerners incorrigible, unrepentant “sinners,” fit for nothing short of the fires of Hell.

The “Reverend” Theodore Parker, so far afield that even the theological liberals of the Boston scene ostracized him, began delivering heretical sermons at the Melodeon theater; his “Free Church” attracted hundreds of attendees every week, including Samuel Howe, his wife Julia Ward, and future Radical Senator Charles Sumner. In May, 1854, Parker, Howe, Thomas Higginson, and several others, including Wendell Phillips, orchestrated a violent, frenzied mob and led an assault on the Boston Courthouse to attempt to free a fugitive slave who had just been arrested. The men put their considerable oratorical skill to raise the temperature. Phillips cried, “The question is…whether Virginia conquers Massachusetts!” Parker continued, “Fellow subjects of Virginia!” The crowd echoed with resounding shouts of “No! Never!” A Court officer was murdered in the melee that ensued.

The destruction and reconstruction of the South, the last bastion of traditional America, became a crusade of religious dimensions. The South simmered “under a wave of denigration that issued from hundreds of Northern presses and hundreds more lecture platforms. The South’s culture and religion were denied, its classes mocked, its heritage and accomplishments ignored. Millions of Northerners regarded the South as a region of nightmare and evil.” Southern anger rightfully increased in proportion with “a Northern barrage that insisted the South revolutionize itself, dislocate its economy, and change its pattern of relations between the races—all to please the consciences of men in another region who would suffer no pain, loss, or change of status.”

The Constitution, abolitionists held, “was a lawyer’s contract that claimed no higher moral law than its managers, who represented themselves as reflecting the will of the people. Since such a will was undefined and indefinable, lawyers made up the rules and procedures of government as they went along, within limits that were often ignored, slyly subverted, or poorly guarded.” Though this is a salient point, especially with regards to the past century of constitutional abrogation and subversion, the abolitionists, just as Leftists today, really meant that the American system of government was ripe for the picking by anyone who cared to seize the initiative.

Bleeding Kansas

With the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in which the Missouri Compromise was overturned in favor of the principle of determining the status of slavery in the new territories on the basis of popular sovereignty, the Yankee Eli Thayer organized the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, the first of many organized bodies with the goal of pumping Northerners into the new State in order to use “squatter sovereignty” to ensure that Kansas would be a “free” State. Senator David Atchison, in large part responsible for moving Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce to support the Act, was understandably furious at the abolitionists’ brazen efforts to subvert the legislation that he had crafted so painstakingly.

Senator Atchison thus organized the Southern response, emulating the very tactics of their Northern adversaries. Missourians began inundating Kansas in order to seize the territorial government first. Due to their geographic proximity, they initially succeeded, though Kansas would eventually be officially admitted to the Union as a “free” State in early 1861, after the South had withdrawn its leaders from the Yankee Congress—and after Northern immigrants demographically overtook the Southern settlers, with Yankees constituting nearly ninety percent of the new settlers by 1857. For now, at least, Southerners overwhelmed the territorial elections, treating the event as a classic “romp, complete with rallies, buckboards, costumes, whiskey, shooting matches, and…parades. In the process, the thousands that poured across the border whooped and shouted…and defied…the territorial Governor to undo the election results.” Even without the invasion from Missouri, the Southern contingent would have won, having settled Kansas first.

The stakes of this conflict cannot be overstated; as immigrants filled the North, as the North conquered the West, as Northern industrial capitalism burgeoned, Southerners bore witness to their declining influence in the corridors of power. If more “free” States were admitted, “the precarious balance of power maintained since the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would tilt, and the South would inevitably become helpless against Northern votes.” Dixie thus moved inexorably “toward the condition of a garrison state in its own nation.” Senator John C. Calhoun understood that any shift in power against the South would be accompanied by a reinterpretation of the Constitution, the emancipation of slaves, and “the overthrow of Southern whites.” He warned that “in the hours of abolitionist triumph, the blacks would be raised to favor, office and power. The South would then become the abode of disorder, anarchy, and wretchedness.” It would not be long before Reconstruction proved the prescience of his dire warnings.

Northern abolitionists believed that only one avenue was left to their dark designs: political terrorism. There was precedent: within eight months of the launch of William Garrison’s Liberator, Nat Turner led his horde to massacre at least 57 whites in Southampton County, Virginia, shocking Southerners to their core at “the realization that men of their own race, in their own country, would consign them to death at the hands of another race.” By the 1850s, abolitionists had begun openly calling for Southern blood, “for sacrifices in the name of liberty” and in the name of their heretical god. The leaders of the Emigrant Aid Society, an umbrella organization with innumerable branches, started funneling arms into Kansas. Naturally, the territory rapidly degenerated into horrific violence that lasted for years thereafter. As George Stearns said, “A revolution was what the country needed.”

Enter John Brown. On a dark midnight in May, 1856, Brown, four of his sons, his son-in-law, and two companions butchered five innocent settlers and ruined the lives of the widows and orphans they left behind. As they slank from cabin to cabin, slicing their victims’ dogs to pieces as they went, they announced themselves as “the Northern Army.” James Doyle was shot point-blank in the face, his corpse badly mutilated just after he fell. His son, William, was stabbed in the face, slashed over the head, and shot in the side, while another of his sons, Drury, was beaten and hacked to death, losing his fingers and arms in the process. His head was cut open, and he was stabbed and hacked at long after death.

At the next cabin, Brown and his men dealt a similar death to the elderly Mr. Wilkinson, as Mrs. Wilkinson begged for her husband’s life. At the James Harris cabin, which its occupants had left unlocked, this being a safe community, Brown’s bastards awoke the men with swords at their throats, hissing, “The Northern army is upon you.” Here, they took one man to the Pottawatomie and sliced him to death. One blow of the saber severed his left hand, save for a strand of flesh, as he raised it in futile defense. His skull was opened in two places, “and he fell headlong into the shallows…the chilly waters of the river gradually carried away part of his brain.” Though the murders of these innocents made no secret of their acts, nary a one of them was ever brought to justice for their crimes.

The Pottawatomie Massacre was committed amidst a highly organized and coordinated plot to drive Southern settlers from Kansas. The Emigrant Aid Society accelerated its arms shipments, with Gerrit Smith publicly urging a “real war upon the Missourians.” In the summer of 1856, a series of savage attacks against Southern settlers erupted, their homes plundered and razed, their livestock stolen or slaughtered, their families humiliated and exterminated from the crimson plain. The guerrilla war was waged under cover of night, where “settlers were forced to declare for North or South—often before men whose purposes were hidden until after the declaration was made.”

Of course, such organized violence “could not have been possible, nor could it have proceeded, without a covering legend by Northern newspapermen, who shrouded its significance from the nation. That legend was woven and spread by a small coterie of rabidly abolitionist journalists in the territory,” who wrote florid tales of a fabricated “reign of terror” by Southern “Border Ruffians” against “Free-State” settlers. The propaganda was widely disseminated across the North, generating “a great wave of anger and indignation. It succeeded in etching an ineradicable image” of Southern barbarity. Beyond its imaginative mendacity, however, the real significance of the fiction is that “it appeared just before the opposing forces launched a real reign of terror.” Abolitionist agents-provocateur seeded the Northern presses with an endless stream of falsehoods, including numerous accounts which excused John Brown’s Pottawatomie murders by ridiculing the five victims as having gotten precisely what they deserved.

The Road to Harpers Ferry

 In 1847, a decade before Pottawatomie, John Brown met Frederick Douglass for the first time, at Brown’s home. After “a long preamble in which he cursed slaveholders as bitterly as a black man,” Brown elucidated his mission to the black leader. Essentially, Brown planned to marshal an army in the Southern heartland whose numbers would be supplemented by fugitive slaves. When Douglass inquired as to how Brown’s army would subsist, the terrorist replied: “Upon the enemy. Slavery was a state of war, and a slave had a right to anything necessary to his freedom.” This anticipated the later sermons of Theodore Parker, who would argue that slaves had a “right to kill” for “freedom.” When Douglass raised still more issues of practicability, Brown expressed the utmost confidence, yet happily conceded that “if the worst came, he could but be killed, and he had no better cause for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave.” Douglass spent the night contemplating Brown’s words. Like most abolitionists, Douglass expounded a policy of peaceful resistance; in Salem, Ohio, however, after his night with John Brown, the black leader said openly, for the first time, that slavery “could only be destroyed by bloodshed.”

After Pottawatomie, the terrorist embarked upon a fundraising tour, visiting, among others, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, who gave Brown not only money, but a letter of endorsement. Brown made his way to Gerrit Smith, and then to his old friend, Frederick Douglass. The murderer petitioned the Secret Six—Howe, Higginson, Parker, Sanborn, Smith, and Stearns—for thirty thousand dollars to arm and provision a force under his command to “fight for freedom” in Kansas. Parker, and likely his comrades as well, saw in Brown great potential as an experiment: “I doubt whether things of this kind will succeed. But we shall have a great many failures before we discover the right way of getting at it. This may well be one of them.”

Near the dawn of January, 1857, the Massachusetts Kansas Aid Committee met, voting to give Brown two hundred rifles stored in the cellar of the Reverend John Todd in Tabor, Iowa, plus four thousand ball cartridges and over thirty thousand percussion caps. Shortly thereafter, Brown sat for a meeting with Senator Charles Sumner. In New York, the terrorist appeared before the National Kansas Aid Committee, which, despite giving him a significantly cooler reception than he had had in Boston, cautiously endorsed his conspiracy to raise an insurrectionary army and attack the South. His plan now fully in motion, the fanatic charged ahead with more fundraising.

Brown spent a night with Ralph Emerson and Henry Thoreau, regaling the transcendentalists with the tales of his exploits in Kansas. Later, Emerson recalled that Brown had said that he “believes in two articles…the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence…Better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death, than that one word of either should be violated in this country.” With the enlistment of these literati in his program of carnage, John Brown “entered the literature of the nation—as a hero.” The writers gave Brown a donation, as did the railroad magnate John Forbes. On another trip, Brown called upon Douglass again, honing his plans in Douglass’s guest room.

Thomas Higginson needed no convincing, and began his own fundraising drive for Brown’s army. As Higginson remarked, “I am always willing to invest in treason.” Franklin Sanborn, for his part, only disagreed with the use of the word “treason,” declaring, more aptly than he could have known, that “the Union is evidently on its last legs, and Buchanan is laboring to tear it in pieces. Treason will not be treason much longer, but patriotism.” Speaking before the American Antislavery Convention in New York, Higginson declared that “the question of slavery is a stern and practical one. Give us the power, and we can make a new Constitution…how is that power to be obtained? By politics? Never. By revolution, and that alone.”

On March 5, 1858, Brown met the Secret Six in Boston. All of the men “had grown absolutely bloodthirsty…they cheerfully contemplated the shedding of innocent blood.” As Gerrit Smith wrote Representative Joshua Giddings, “The slave will be delivered by the shedding of blood—and the signs are multiplying that this deliverance is at hand.” Representative Giddings and Senator Sumner were not the only politicians involved in the proceedings, for Sumner’s senior Massachusetts Senator, Henry Wilson, was also aware of Brown’s bloody scheme. In fact, the two were observed dining together on at least one occasion.

When Samuel Howe introduced the terrorist to his young bride, Julia Ward, he praised Brown as a “very remarkable man…who seemed to intend to devote his life to the redemption of the colored race from slavery, even as Christ had willingly offered his life for the salvation of mankind.” Howe went so far as to give Brown his own rifle and two revolvers. Around this time, the Howes visited Charleston, South Carolina, as guests of Frank Hampton. Frank’s brother, Wade, graciously received the Howes at his mansion as well. In the face of the planter’s Southern hospitality, Dr. Howe was “stricken to think that war could sweep down on such people”—especially when Wade Hampton assured him, “We mean to fight for it.” Franklin Sanborn, fellow member of the Secret Six, wrote that “it shocked Howe to think that he might be instrumental in giving up to flames and pillage their noble mansions.” Howe cannot have been too concerned about the fate of the Hampton family, though, for his bloodlust was unslaked.

Brown’s army now numbered 21: sixteen whites and five blacks. As his preparations continued apace, he stoked the passions of his men by serving them a ceaseless barrage of pseudo-Biblical exhortations about “purging the land with blood.” In time, Virginia was selected as their staging area. Though he had originally planned to launch his attack on July 4, 1859, his preparations were not completed in time. By mid-August, he and his followers were established near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown met with Frederick Douglass once more, detailing his plan to seize the Federal arsenal and raise a servile insurrection against the whites. It bears repeating that, though the conspiracy in all of its details will never be fully illuminated, it is clear that the entire network of Northern abolitionists was intimately intertwined, and that practically every abolitionist leader was aware of and—whether tacitly or openly—endorsed John Brown’s program of mass murder.

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown and his army shifted into action. They entered Harpers Ferry and captured several hostages, while a second group abducted Lewis Washington, a descendant of the American Cincinnatus, plundering his home for good measure. Among the family heirlooms stolen were a pistol that had been given to our first President by the Marquis de Lafayette and a dress sword given by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart were dispatched to Harpers Ferry, where, within less than 36 hours, Brown’s attempt at fomenting a mass slave insurrection was brought to its ignominious end. By the final assault, ten of Brown’s terrorists were killed, with another seven later arrested and executed. One Federal soldier was killed, as were six civilians, including Mayor Fontaine Beckham. Though John Brown did not accomplish his mission on that October day, the war that he had hoped to spark was little more than one year away.

The Canonization of a Killer

Almost as soon as the debacle at Harpers Ferry was done with, the Secret Six got to work destroying any material evidence linking them to the terrorist. Several conspirators fled the country. One of Brown’s “soldiers,” Francis Merriam, managed to escape the raid, and was put on a northbound train by Henry Thoreau himself, traveling under the name “Mr. Lockwood.” John Brown’s carpetbag, recovered by the State of Virginia, contained several documents directly implicating Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and Representative Joshua Giddings. Senator James Mason and Governor Henry Wise, both of Virginia, as well as Representative Clement Vallandigham, the future Copperhead leader, knew full well “that Brown was a creature of the Emigrant Aid Society, of New England, of Ohio abolitionists, and of other Republicans. They sought to get him to admit these connections, and expose his sources of guns, pikes, money, and men. Brown said he acted alone. But the South…knew better.”

Indeed, “the North could not admit what John Brown could not admit. As in the case of the Pottawatomie murders, Northern newspapers and their readers began to avert their eyes and to deny the evidence.” The significance of the attack, as well as that of the lives of those innocents so ruthlessly slain, was minimized, while Brown’s “glorious goals” were incessantly lionized. In the South, however, Harpers Ferry was seen for exactly what it was: proof positive of the widely-held Northern desire “to see the whites of the South massacred…to impose a new morality.” As the murderer’s trial approached its inevitable conclusion, “the Northern press began an idealization unprecedented in the history of the nation. George Washington had never enjoyed such a press; Lincoln later would not be so well treated. Until Brown’s time, no American—including the heroes of the Revolution—had enjoyed such a steady series of admiring descriptions and slanted reportage as the terrorist received in the North.”

Ralph Emerson declared that “Brown was a hero of romance and seems to have made this fatal blunder only to bring out his virtues. I must hope for his escape at the last moment.” Brown was “the Saint, whose fate yet hangs in suspense, but whose martyrdom, if it shall be perfected, will make the gallows as glorious as the Cross.” After the execution, Thoreau outdid his friend, continuing the preposterous Unitarian heresy, writing that it was Brown’s doctrine “that a man has a perfect right to interfere with force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him…Some eighteen hundred years ago, Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.”

When Brown was executed, Colonel J.T.L. Preston shouted from atop his horse: “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such enemies of the human race!” Meanwhile, rallies of hundreds and thousands met, cannons fired, and church bells tolled across the North, mourning and commemorating the killer’s “martyrdom.” Wendell Phillips captured the Northern mood well: “The lesson of the hour is insurrection. Insurrection of thought always precedes insurrection of arms. We seem to be entering on a new phase…Virginia is a pirate ship, and John Brown sails the seas as a Lord High Admiral of the Almighty, with his commission to sink every pirate he sees…Harpers Ferry is the Lexington of today.” Southerners “were first amazed and then driven into fury by the Northern elevation of John Brown. Revelations that his raid had been incited, financed, and armed by famous persons in the North, and that other Northerners rose to praise the terror he created, imbued the people of the South with fear—and with a rising realization that something new and dangerous in racial conflicts was upon them.”

Southerners saw Harpers Ferry as the harbinger of doom that it was. Naturally, a siege mentality finally cemented itself in the South. The people of Dixie stood alone; the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court had proven that the institutions of the Union were unable to stymie the rising tide of blood, unable to quiet the voices of demons such as Representative Giddings, now publicly and gleefully looking forward to the time “when the torch of the incendiary shall light up the towns and cities of the South, and blot out the last vestiges of slavery,” unable to muzzle William Garrison, who had, at the time of the Kansas troubles, called for the shooting of all slaveholders, and said, “Who will go for the arming of our slave population?” The ferociously violent orations of William Seward, of Emerson, of Thoreau, of Phillips, and of Sumner, the subsidized distribution of Hinton Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South, the lunatic sermons of a bastardized faith, and an endless mudslide of Yankee vitriol “were a virtually unanswerable argument that the North was preparing to destroy the white South, in the name of the blacks.”

John Brown’s body was honored—worshipped might be more accurate—in several Northern cities on a multi-day funeral procession. In New York City, his Southern coffin was exchanged for one of Northern wood. For the duration of the tour, “the North indulged in a frenzy of mourning far greater than any ever before seen. Its intensity rose like a rocket on the day of Brown’s hanging, and remained high over the Northern skies for weeks. Buildings in Cleveland were draped in black; black-bordered poems and elegies appeared in newspapers; sermons were preached in hundreds of pulpits; rallies, demonstrations, and special prayer meetings were held.” In Concord, for example, Emerson, flanked by Thoreau and Amos Alcott, “presided over a ceremony in which poems and elegies were read, and a dirge, composed by Sanborn, was sung.” In hamlets, towns, and cities throughout the North, “militia assembled to fire salutes into the air while church bells tolled, as though for the passing of a great and revered national leader.” Soon, Julia Ward Howe would write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

John Brown’s body lies not buried. He marches now every day across our whilom land. His eyes blaze in the sallow, sunken face of every single Antifa and “Black Lives Matter” terrorist now working to destroy the American nation. Their spirit, the very same miasma that bestowed purpose upon Brown’s miserable shambles of a life, is captured no more wholly than by Ralph Emerson’s sneering words: “If it costs ten years, and ten to recover the general prosperity, the destruction of the South is worth so much.”

Neil Kumar

Neil Kumar is a law student who lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. He is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Sons of the American Revolution, with blood that has been Southern since the seventeenth century


  • Julie Paine says:

    Thank you for this review! It is well-written and not only illuminates an integral part of how the war came about but also connects it to modern-day hypocritical fanaticism about race.

  • scott thompson says:

    stumbled on this . not sure if true. In the midst of the epidemic, a ship seeking to disembark African slaves appeared off the coast of Brazil. One of hundreds of ships from the United States involved in the Brazilian slave trade, the Mary E. Smith had left Boston on August 25, 1855; in preparing for its departure from Boston harbor, the ship and its crew had raised the suspicions of U.S. and British authorities. https://read.dukeupress.edu/hahr/article/76/2/249/145801/An-Act-Even-of-Public-Security-Slave-Resistance

    a year after the fugitive slave ruckus international slave ships are under the nose of the secret six heroes departign from Boston harbor.

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