See “John Brown in Massachusetts,” in The Atlantic Monthly for April, 1872.
At the beginning of the year 1858, nobody in Massachusetts, except here and there a fugitive slave perhaps, had heard of John Brown’s plan for the invasion of Virginia though he had made much progress toward its execution. He had enlisted men and engaged the English Garibaldian, Hugh Forbes, to drill them; but this engagement was quite unknown to Brown’s Massachusetts friends, who had never seen Forbes, and only heard of him casually and incidentally. They had never been consulted by Brown in regard to paying Forbes, nor, of course, had Brown given Forbes any assurances that they would pay him the salary stipulated, between Forbes and Brown; of which in fact, they knew nothing whatever. It was therefore with much surprise and mystification that, about Christmas-time, 1857, Dr. S. G. Howe and Mr. Sanborn began to receive passionate and denunciatory letters, written by Forbes, complaining of ill-treatment at their hands, and assuming to hold them responsible for the termination of his engagement with Brown, by which, he said, he had been reduced to poverty, and his family in Paris, deprived of pecuniary aid from him, had suffered great hardship. Two of these letters were addressed to Senator Sumner, and were forwarded by him to Dr. Howe and Mr. Sanborn, who in great ignorance as to what such abusive epistles meant, answered them with some curtness and severity. This correspondence temporarily closed in January, 1858, and the substance of it was communicated to Brown, then in Kansas, with the request that he would explain the meaning of Forbes’s anger, and state what their real relations with each other were. Before replying to this request, which probably was not received till weeks afterward, Brown suddenly left Kansas without the knowledge of his friends there, and appeared, in the beginning of February, 1858, at the house of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. From there he wrote, February 2, to Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, F. B. Sanborn, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking them to aid him in raising a small sum of money to carry out “an important measure in which the world has a deep interest.” This, he tells Mr. Parker, is his only errand at the East, and he goes on: “I have written some of our mutual friends in regard to it, but none of them understand my views so well as you do, and I cannot explain without their committing themselves more than I know of their doing. I have heard that Parker Pillsbury, and some others, in your quarter, hold out ideas similar to those on which I act, but I have no personal acquaintance with them, and know nothing of their influence or means. Do you think any of our Garrisonian friends, either at Boston, Worcester, or in any other place, can be induced to supply a little ‘straw,’ if I will absolutely make ‘bricks’? I must beg of you to consider this communication strictly confidential, unless you know of parties who will feel and act and hold their peace.”
Brown’s letters of the same date and for a few weeks after, to Colonel Higginson and Mr. Sanborn, were of a similar tenor, though rather more explicit, but they conveyed no distinct intimation of his plans. He wrote to Higginson, February 2, from Rochester: “I am here, concealing my whereabouts for good reasons (as I think), not, however, from any anxiety about my personal safety. I have been told that you are both a true man and a true abolitionist, and I partly believe the whole story. Last fall I undertook to raise from five hundred to one thousand dollars for secret service, and succeeded in getting five hundred dollars. I now want to get, for the perfecting of by far the most important undertaking of my whole life, from five hundred to eight hundred dollars within the next sixty days. I have written Rev. Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, and F. B. Sanborn, Esquires, on the subject, but do not know as either Mr. Stearns or Mr. Sanborn are abolitionists. I suppose they are.” On the 12th of February he wrote again in response to a remark in Higginson’s reply about the Underground Railroad in Kansas: “Railroad business on a somewhat extended scale is the identical object for which I am trying to get means. I have been connected with that business, as commonly conducted, from my boyhood, and never let an opportunity slip. I have been operating to some purpose the past season, but I now have a measure on foot that I feel sure would awaken in you something more than a common interest, if you could understand it. I have just written my friends G. L. Stearns and F. B. Sanborn, asking them to meet me for consultation at ——. I am very anxious to have you come along, certain as I feel that you will never regret having been one of the council.” It was inconvenient for any of the persons addressed to take the long journey proposed, and on the 13th Mr. Sanborn wrote for himself and Mr. Stearns, inviting Brown to visit Boston, and offering to pay his travelling expenses. To this request Brown replied, February 17th: “It would be almost impossible for me to pass through Albany, Springfield, or any of those parts, on my way to Boston, and not have it known; and my reasons for keeping quiet are such that, when I left Kansas, I kept it from every friend there; and I suppose it is still understood that I am hiding somewhere in the Territory; and such will be the idea until it comes to be generally known that I am in these parts. I want to continue that impression as long as I can, or for the present. I want very much to see Mr. Stearns, and also Mr. Parker, and it may be that I can before long; but I must decline accepting your kind offer at present, and, sorry as I am to do so, ask you both to meet me by the middle of next week at the furthest. I wrote Mr. Higginson of Worcester to meet me also. It may be he would come on with you. My reasons for keeping still are sufficient to keep me from seeing my wife and children, much as I long to do so. I will endeavor to explain when I see you.” This letter was written from Rochester.
There was no doubt in the mind of Mr. Sanborn that the promised explanation would clear up the mystery of Forbes’s letters, which had grieved as well as annoyed him and the few friends of Brown in Boston who had seen them. Therefore, when Mr. Stearns was still unable to accept this second and pressing request from Brown for a meeting in Central New York, Mr. Sanborn determined to go, and invited Colonel Higginson to join him at Worcester on the 20th, but in fact he made the journey alone, and reached the place of meeting on the evening of Washington’s birthday, February 22d. A few friends of Brown were there gathered, among them another Massachusetts man, Mr. Edwin Morton of Plymouth, now of Boston, but then residing in the family of Mr. Gerrit Smith as tutor and private secretary.1 In the long winter evening which followed, the whole outline of Brown’s campaign in Virginia was laid before the little council, to the astonishment and almost the dismay of all present. The constitution which he had drawn up for the government of his men, and such territory as they might occupy, and which was found among his papers at the Kennedy Farm, was exhibited by Brown, its provisions recited and explained, the proposed movements of his men indicated, and the middle of May was named as the time of the attack. To begin this hazardous adventure he asked for but eight hundred dollars, and would think himself rich with a thousand. Being questioned and opposed by his friends, he laid before them in detail his methods of organization and fortification; of settlement in the South, if that were possible, and of retreat through the North, if necessary; and his theory of the way in which such an invasion would be received in the country at large. He desired from his Massachusetts friends a patient hearing of his statements, a candid opinion concerning them, and, if that were favorable, then that they should co-operate with him and persuade others to do so. This was the important business which he had to communicate on the anniversary of Washington’s birthday.
After what has passed in the last ten years, no one can picture to himself the startling effect of such a plan, heard for the first time in the dismal days of Buchanan’s administration, when Floyd was Secretary of War, and Jefferson Davis and Senator Mason omnipotent in Congress. Those who listened to Captain Brown had been familiar with the bold plots and counter-plots of the Kansas border, and had aided the escape of slaves in various parts of the South. But to strike at once at the existence of slavery, by an organized force, acting for years, if need be, on the dubious principles of guerilla warfare, and exposed, perhaps, to the whole power of the country, was something they had never contemplated. That was the long-meditated plan of a poor, obscure, old man, uncertain at best of another ten years’ lease of life, and yet calmly proposing an enterprise which, if successful, might require a whole generation to accomplish. His friends listened until late at night, proposing objections and raising difficulties, but nothing shook the purpose of the old Puritan. To every objection he had an answer; every difficulty had been foreseen and provided for; the great difficulty of all, the apparent hopelessness of undertaking anything so vast with such slender means, he met with the words of Scripture, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” and “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
To all suggestions of delay until a more favorable time, he would reply, “I am nearly sixty years old; I have desired to do this work for many years; if I do not begin soon, it will be too late for me.” He had made nearly all his arrangements; he had so many hundred weapons, so many men enlisted, all that he wanted was the small sum of money. With that he would open his campaign with the spring, and he did not doubt that his enterprise would pay. But those who heard him, while they looked upon the success of Brown’s undertaking as a great blessing and relief to the country, felt also that to fail, contending against such odds, might hazard for many years the cause of freedom and union. They had not yet fully attained the sublime faith of Brown when he said, “A few men in the right, and knowing they are right, can overturn a king. Twenty men in the Alleghanies could break slavery to pieces in two years.”
On the 23d of February the discussion was renewed, and, as usually happened when he had time enough, Captain Brown began to prevail over the objections of his friends. At any rate, they saw that they must either stand by him, or, leave him to dash himself in pieces alone against the fortress which he was determined to assault. To withhold aid would only delay him, not prevent him; nothing, short of betraying him to the enemy would do that. As the sun was setting over the snowy hills of the region where they met, the Massachusetts delegate walked for an hour with the principal person in the little council of war, leaving Captain Brown to discuss religion with an old captain of Wellington’s army who, by chance, was a guest in the house. The elder of the two, of equal age with Brown and for many years a devoted abolitionist, said, “You see how it is; our old friend has made up his mind to this course of action and cannot be turned from it. We cannot give him up to die alone; we must stand by him. I will raise so many hundred dollars for him; you must lay the case before your friends in Massachusetts and see if they will do the same. I see no other way.” The same conclusion had been reached by his younger companion, for himself, and he engaged to bring the scheme at once to the attention of the three Massachusetts men to whom Brown had written, and also of Dr. S. G. Howe, who had sometimes favored action almost as extreme as this proposed by Brown.
Sanborn returned to Boston on the 25th of February, and on the same day communicated the enterprise to Theodore Parker and Colonel Higginson. At the suggestion of Parker, Brown, who had gone to Brooklyn, New York, was invited to visit Boston secretly, and did so early in March, taking a room at the American House, in Hanover Street. He registered himself as “J. Brown,” instead of writing out the customary “John” in full, and remained for the most part in his room (No. 126) during the four days of his stay. Parker was one of the first persons to call on him, and promised aid at once. He was deeply interested in the project, but not very sanguine of its success; he wished to see it tried, however, and gave Brown substantial proof of his interest and support; while Brown in return gave him the fullest confidence in respect to the whole movement. Parker left the country, never to return, early in the following year; but he was kept informed in a general way of the progress of the affair, and as late as September 29, 1859, three weeks before the outbreak at Harper’s Ferry, he wrote to inquire what Captain Brown was doing, and said: “I wish I had something now to drop into the hat for the same end. Tell me how our little speculation in wool goes on, and what dividend accrues therefrom.”
Two years after the death of Parker, in 1860, one of his executors found among his papers this letter of Brown’s, which has never been printed, written just before his visit to Boston, in March, 1858. It was not addressed to Mr. Parker, but had been sent to him by the person who received it.
— N. Y. 24th Feb’y, 1858
MY DEAR FRIEND: — Mr. X. has taken the liberty of saying to me that you felt half inclined to make a common cause with me. I greatly rejoice at this for I believe when you come to look at the ample field I labor in, and the rich harvest which (not only this entire country, but) the whole world during the present and future generations may reap from its successful cultivation, you will feel that you are out of your element, until you find you are in it, an entire unit. What an inconceivable amount of good you might so effect, by your counsel, your example, your encouragement, your natural and acquired ability for active service. And then, how very little we can possibly lose? Certainly the cause is enough to live for, if not to —— for. I have only had this one opportunity in a life of nearly sixty years; and could I be continued ten times as long again, I might not again have another equal opportunity. God has honored but comparatively a very small part of mankind with any possible chance for such mighty and soul-satisfying rewards. But, my dear friend, if you should make up your mind to do so, I trust it will be wholly from the promptings of your own spirit, after having thoroughly counted the cost. I would flatter no man into such a measure, if I could do it ever so easily.
I expect nothing but to “endure hardness,” but I expect to effect a mighty conquest, even though it be like the last victory of Samson. I felt for a number of years in earlier life, a steady, strong desire to die, but since I saw any prospect of becoming a “reaper” in the great harvest, I have not only felt quite willing to live, but have enjoyed life much; and am now rather anxious to live for a few years more.
Your sincere Friend,
In a collection of Brown’s letters, this would rank among the first for the light it sheds on his life and character. The reference to his longing for death in his youth is one of the few revelations made by him of his early mental struggles, and, no doubt, means that he was unfortunate in love, and in other ways found the world a melancholy place. His early religious experiences, occurring at the same period, must have deepened the sadness which sprang from disappointed affection; but the strength of his religious faith finally overcame it, and gave him peace of mind. The allusion to the last victory of Samson is repeated in one of his letters from prison, in November, 1859, when he wrote to his old schoolmaster, Rev. H. L. Vaill, “Had Samson kept to his determination of not telling Delilah wherein his great strength lay, he would probably have never overturned the house.” This comparison of himself to Samson was not from vanity, but under a profound sense of a divine mission, like that of the Hebrew champion; and he never entered upon his dangerous expeditions in Kansas or elsewhere, without thoughts to which Milton has given utterance in his “Samson Agonistes”: —
Happen what may, of me expect to hear
Nothing dishonorable, impure, unworthy
Our God, our law, my nation or myself, —
The last of me or no I cannot warrant.
Captain Brown reached Boston Thursday, March 4, 1858, and left it Monday, the 8th, for Philadelphia. On Friday and Saturday, in Boston, he had seen at his hotel Theodore Parker, Dr. Howe, Messrs Sanborn, Stearns, and Higginson, and perhaps one or two other persons. He kept himself private, however, and did not, as when he was in Boston a year before, go to the Sunday-evening reception at Mr. Parker’s in Exeter Place, where he had met Mr. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and other antislavery leaders in 1857. He therefore communicated with Parker on Sunday, March 7th, by letter; and this letter, an unusually long one for Brown, is printed in Weiss’s “Life of Parker.”3 He begins by an apology for writing letters on Sunday, and goes on to ask Parker to draw up for him an address to the officers and soldiers of the United States Army, whom he soon expected to meet as opponents, as he had in Kansas. Such an address had been prepared six months before by Forbes, and a copy sent to Parker; but Brown was not satisfied with this, and in this letter gives directions for composing a better address, and also another paper “intended for all persons, old and young, male and female, slaveholding and non-slaveholding”; and a third tract “for every male and female” prisoner on being set at liberty, and to be read by them during confinement. It does not appear that Parker ever tried his hand at these papers, or that they were prepared by any person. It may be worth mentioning, however, that Parker sent Brown from his library on this Sunday the report of McClellan on the European armies, which was then a new book, and was thought likely to be of service to Brown. At the same time Brown praised Plutarch’s Lives as a book he had read with great profit for its military and moral lessons, and particularly mentioned the life of Sertorius, the Roman commander who so long carried on a partisan warfare in Spain. He wished to get a few copies of Plutarch for his men to read in camp, and inquired particularly about the best edition.
Although Brown communicated freely to the persons above named his plans of attack and defence in Virginia, it is not known that he spoke to more than one person in Boston of his purpose of surprising the arsenal and town of Harper’s Ferry. Both Dr. Howe and Mr. Stearns testified before Mason’s committee, in 1860, that they were ignorant of Brown’s plan of attack, which was true so far as the place and manner of beginning the campaign were concerned. It is probable that in 1858 Brown had not definitely resolved to seize Harper’s Ferry, since, when he spoke of it to the person referred to, he put it as a question, and did not seem to have made up his mind to a course of action so immediately hazardous. He then argued that it would strike great terror into the whole slaveholding class to find that an armed force had strength enough to capture a place so important and so near Washington; and it was to inspire terror, rather than to possess himself of the arms there, that he then proposed to capture the arsenal. It is believed that Theodore Parker was aware of this half-formed plan of Brown’s, but it was not communicated to his men until a year and a half later, or just before the attack was actually made. Charles Plummer Tidd, one of Brown’s men, who escaped from Harper’s Ferry, afterwards enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment under the name of Plummer, and died under Burnside in North Carolina, is authority for this statement. He said that when Brown called his small company together in October, 1859, on the Maryland shore of the Potomac, and disclosed to them his plan for the capture of the town, they all declared that it would be fatal to attempt it, and refused to take part in it; even his own sons, except Owen, being unwilling to follow their father to what they said would be certain defeat and death. But Brown had now decided upon his course, and adhered to it inflexibly; he would make the attack with a single man, if only one man would obey him. His sons, finding their father so determined, and knowing how impossible it was to change his purpose, first gave in their adhesion; they believed it to be a fatal scheme, but they would not desert him. Gradually all the others came round to the same opinion, and the attack was made with precisely the result that Brown’s followers had predicted. We have no reason to doubt that Tidd’s statement was true in substance.
On the departure of Brown from Boston in March, 1858, the five persons mentioned—Parker, Howe, Higginson, Sanborn, and Stearns—formed themselves into a secret committee to raise for him the money (now set at $1,000) which it was agreed should be raised in New England. Each of the five was to raise $100, and as much more as he could, Dr. Howe having hopes of securing a larger subscription from his friend Mr. George R. Russell. Mr. Stearns was made treasurer of the committee, and ten days after Brown’s departure $250 had been paid in. By the 1st of April $375 had been collected, and on the 20th of April $410, Of which Stearns, Parker, and Higginson had each paid $I00, Sanborn $60, and Howe $50. Stearns pledged $200 more, and Brown had collected $260 outside of New England; so that the small sum judged necessary for beginning the enterprise was nearly made up, either in money or pledges, before the 1st of May, at which time Brown was on his way from Iowa to Ohio, with the arms that had been stored in Iowa, and with some of his men. He was to enlist others in Canada about May 8th, and to strike his first blow in the latter part of the same month. On the 28th of April Brown was in Chicago; on the 2d of May at Chatham, in Canada. But, meanwhile, a formidable obstacle had appeared. Hugh Forbes interposed again, writing from Washington, and threatened to disclose the whole plan to the Republican leaders, and even to the government.
Forbes’s letters, as before, were addressed to Howe and Sanborn, neither of whom had yet seen him, but who both knew now, from Brown, what the relation had been between Forbes and himself. In these letters of April and May Forbes insisted that Brown’s enterprise should stop, that Brown himself should be dismissed as the leader of the movement, and Forbes be put in his place; and these demands were accompanied by a threat of making public the whole transaction, so far as it had gone. To increase the difficulties of the situation, Forbes had evidently learned, from some quarter, of the countenance given to Brown, since the 1st of March, by his Boston committee. On the 2d of May these letters were submitted to this committee, Howe, Parker, Sanborn, and Stearns being present, and Higginson being informed of them by mail. Parker, Sanborn, and Stearns at once said that the blow must be deferred till another year, and in this opinion Howe partially coincided. Higginson thought otherwise, and so did Brown, who declared that he would go forward, in spite of Forbes and his threats, if the money promised him should be furnished. Here, however, another difficulty sprang up. Forbes, early in May, carried out his threat so far as to inform, Senators Hale, Seward, and Wilson and Dr. Bailey, in general terms, of Brown’s purposes, and Wilson wrote to Dr. Howe, earnestly protesting against any such demonstration. As the rifles which had been purchased by the Massachusetts Kansas Committee and intrusted to Brown by them were still, so far as Senator Wilson and the public knew, the property of that committee (though really, as has been explained, the personal property of Mr. Stearns, the chairman), it would expose the Kansas Committee, who were ignorant of Brown’s later plans, to suspicions of bad faith, if those arms were used by him in any expedition to Virginia. This awkward complication seems to have decided Dr. Howe in favor of postponing the attack, and both he and Mr. Stearns, as members of the Kansas Committee, wrote to Brown that the arms must not be used for the present, except for the defence of Kansas. Brown saw that nothing further could then be done, and yielded, though with regret, to the postponement. About the 20th of May Mr. Stearns met Brown in New York, and arranged that hereafter the custody of the Kansas rifles should be Brown’s, as the agent of Stearns, the real owner, and not of the nominal owners, the Kansas Committee. On the 24th of May a meeting of the Boston secret committee, with one of the principal friends of Brown’s plan outside of New England, took place at the Revere House in Boston, — Parker, Howe, Sanborn, and Stearns being present, as before; and it was agreed that the execution of the plan should be postponed till the spring of 1859. In the mean time a larger sum of money—from two to three thousand dollars—was to be raised, and Brown was to throw Forbes off his track by returning to Kansas and engaging in the defence of the Free-State men on the border; the alleged property of the Kansas Committee was to be so transferred as to relieve that committee of all responsibility, and the secret committee were, in future, to know nothing in detail of Brown’s plans. Brown was not himself present at this Revere House meeting, but came to Boston the next week, and was at the American House May 31st. Here he met all the committee, Higginson included; and, in the two or three days that he stayed, the Revere House arrangement was completed. He received the sole custody of the arms which had belonged to the Kansas Committee, and five hundred dollars beside; was to go to Kansas at once, but after that to use his own discretion; and, though still believing the postponement unwise, he left New England in good spirits the first week in June. He reached Kansas June 26th, with about ten men, and in a week or two after was on the border, near the scene of the Marais des Cygnes murders of May 11th. Remaining in that vicinity, guarding the Free-State settlers for about two months, most of that time he was himself ill with ague. On the 10th of September he was at Osawatomie, whence he wrote, “I have often met the ‘notorious’ Montgomery,4 and think very favorably of him.” He was associated with Montgomery in the border warfare of the autumn and winter of 1858, and finally just before Christmas, made his famous incursion into Missouri, and brought away a party of slaves, with whom he travelled in January and February, 1859, from the border of Southern Kansas, through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, to Detroit, where he arrived March 12th, and landed his fugitives safely in Canada. In the latter part of March, 1859, he was at Cleveland, where he sold publicly the horses he had brought from Missouri. In April he visited his family at North Elba, and in the early part of May was in Boston, where he remained for more than three weeks, visiting his friends in the city and its vicinity, and making final arrangements for his Virginia expedition. Before leaving Boston for the last time, Wednesday, June 1, 1859, the sum of $2,000, which had been promised him at the Revere House meeting a year before, was made up and placed to his credit. More than half this sum—$1,200—was the gift of George L. Stearns, who must have furnished the old hero, first and last, at least $10,000 in money and arms. Of the other $800, half was raised in Massachusetts, by private subscription or at public meetings, of which he held several during this visit. He spoke in the Town Hall at Concord (where he spent a portion of his last birthday5 on Sunday evening, May 8th, to a large audience, hastily gathered; for he had arrived in town unexpectedly the night before, from North Elba. The fame of his last exploit in Kansas had preceded him everywhere, and there was much eagerness to hear what he would say about it. He described briefly his expedition into Missouri, and the way in which he had brought off the party of slaves; but when he went on to assert that it was right to repeat such incursions, and to take property, or even life, in forcibly setting slaves free, his audience winced under it. They applauded his successful deed, but were not ready to encourage its repetition. Some agreed with him, however, and a small contribution was raised at the meeting. He left Concord at noon the next day, — his birthday, — and never returned thither.
John Brown also spoke at one of the Boston Anniversary meetings in Tremont Temple, the last week in this same May, and was present on Saturday, May 28th, at the weekly dinner of the “Bird Club,” which then met at the Parker House. The late Governor Andrew was a member of this club, as were Dr. Howe and Mr. Sanborn, and Mr. Stearns joined it on this particular day, having gone there to meet or escort his friend Brown. Governor Andrew was not present at this meeting of the club, but it was probably on the following Sunday evening that he met Brown for the first and last time, at a friend’s house. In his testimony before Senator Mason’s committee, in February, 1860, Mr. Andrew made this statement respecting his own contribution to Brown’s fund: —
“After having met Captain Brown one Sunday evening at a lady’s house, where I made a social call with my wife, I sent him twenty-five dollars as a present. I did it because I felt ashamed, after I had seen the old man and talked with him, and come within the reach of the personal impression which I find he very generally made on people, that I had never contributed anything direct towards his assistance, as one who I thought had sacrificed and suffered so much for the cause of freedom and of good order and good government in the Territory of Kansas. He was, if I may be allowed to use that expression, a very magnetic person, and I felt very much impressed by him. I confess I did not know how to understand the old gentleman fully, because when I hear a man talk upon great themes, touching, which I think he must have deep feeling, in a tone perfectly level, without emphasis and without any exhibition of feeling, I am always ready to suspect that there is something wrong in the man’s brain. I noticed that the old gentleman, in conversation, scarcely regarded other people, was entirely self-poised, self-possessed, sufficient to himself, and appeared to have no emotion of any sort, but to be entirely absorbed in an idea which preoccupied him and seemed to put him in a position transcending an ordinary emotion and ordinary reason. In parting with him, as I heard he was a poor man, I expressed my gratitude to him for having fought for a great cause with earnestness, fidelity, and conscientiousness, while I had been quietly at home, earning my money and supporting my family in Boston, under my own vine and fig-tree, with nobody to molest or make me afraid. ... I am constitutionally peaceable, and by opinion very much of a peace man, and I have very little faith in deeds of violence, and very little sympathy with them, except as the extremest and direst necessity. My sympathy, so, far as I sympathized with Captain Brown, was on account of what I believed to be heroic and disinterested services in defence of a good and just cause, and in support of the rights of persons who were treated with unjust aggression.”
This is a statement truly characteristic, not only of Governor Andrew, but of Brown as he was viewed by many people in Massachusetts; and such small sums as were given him in 1858 and 1859, by persons not acquainted with his plans, were mostly given under such impressions as are here so generously described. The whole amount of these contributions, however, did not exceed five hundred dollars in Massachusetts, and probably were less than half that sum. Out of a little more than four thousand dollars in money which passed through the hands of the secret committee, in aid of his Virginia enterprise, or was known to them as contributed, at least thirty-eight hundred dollars were given with a clear knowledge of the use to which it would be put. The gifts of arms made by Mr. Stearns amounted in value to twice as much perhaps, and these also were contributed with a full undstanding that they might be used as they were.6
Brown’s hotel, during his last visit to Boston, was the United States House. He was attended, generally, in his movements about the city and its neighborhood, by a faithful henchman, Jerry Anderson, a youth from Indiana who was shot at Harper’s Ferry. Both were in rustic dress, but Brown, from his marked aspect and his flowing gray beard (which he first began to wear in Kansas in the summer of 1858), attracted much attention in the streets. He has been described by Judge Hoar (who had seen him in Concord, and perhaps had contributed to his fund from the same motives as Governor Andrew), in one of these street rambles, as calmly walking up Court Street in the midst of the hurrying throng, with his jack-knife in one hand and an apple in the other, which he was peeling and eating, quite unconscious of observation, while his young henchman, less accustomed to cities, walked a little behind him, gazing up at the signs and windows. Another remembers him plodding his way to the Providence Railroad Station, burdened with a heavy carpet-bag, and still escorted by his body-guard. At this time he always went heavily armed, being proclaimed an outlaw by President Buchanan, who offered three thousand dollars for his arrest, and by the governor of Missouri, who offered two hundred and fifty dollars more. When this fact was mentioned to Brown, he sometimes said, in his dry way, that he would pay two dollars and fifty cents to anybody who would safely lodge James Buchanan in any jail in the free States. He moved about in Massachusetts entirely without fear or precaution, except his pistols and his henchman, and at this time always went by his own name. It is believed that no effort to arrest him was made outside of Kansas.
In course of his stay in Boston he spent an evening at the house of a gentleman where William Hunt, the painter, was also a guest, and an appointment was made with Brown that he should give Hunt a sitting for his portrait. It is unfortunate that this sitting never took place, for his portrait by Hunt would now be the best representation of him in his last year. Brackett the sculptor, whose fine bust of him has already been mentioned, also met him at this time; but the studies and measurements for his bust were made in a brief visit to Brown in his cell at Charlestown in the following November. Brown sat for his photograph to a Boston artist named Heywood, and it is from this picture, a half-length standing figure, with the hands behind the back, and the face turned a little aside from a front view, that all the common portraits of him are taken. It was used by Brackett in modelling his bust, in which, however, the features are somewhat idealized. The suit in which this picture was taken is the same that he wore in Boston two years before, and he was wearing a portion of it when captured at Harper’s Ferry. The attitude chosen was a common one with him, and some of our readers may remember him pacing a ball, a prairie, or a hotel corridor with his hands thus clasped behind him.
Leaving Boston on the first day of June, 1859, Brown went to Collinsville in Connecticut, where he arrived June 3d, and renewed his old contract for a thousand pikes, which were made by Charles Blair of that town, and forwarded in August and September, to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, whence they were taken to the neighborhood of Harper’s Ferry. In the interval between June and September Brown had moved his men and arms from Canada and Ohio to Chambersburg, and thence to the Kennedy Farm, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, about five miles from Harper’s Ferry. This farm was rented by Brown early in July, and its two farm-houses were occupied by him and his men for the three months preceding his attack, October 16th. During this time Brown was frequently absent, often in Chambersburg, to which place all his letters were sent. About a month after he took possession of the Kennedy Farm his supply of money gave out, and he wrote earnestly to his Boston committee for three hundred dollars, with which he could begin his campaign. He made no further communication of his plans, nor was it known to any of his Massachusetts friends exactly where he was or what he was doing. The money asked for was raised by Howe, Stearns, Sanborn, and Higginson, and sent to Chambersburg in small drafts, as requested, the last of it reaching Brown about the 20th of September. In the mean time he had been visited at Chambersburg by Frederick DougIass, who was previously acquainted with the general plan of action, but does not seem to have been wholly satisfied with what Brown communicated to him at their last interview. The time for striking the blow was still delayed, more from want of money than for any other reason; and it might have been postponed till the spring of 1860, perhaps, but for another remittance from Massachusetts under circumstances so singular as to be regarded by Brown’s friends as providential.
There was then in Boston a young man, who afterwards died as a soldier in the Union Army, a grandson of Francis Jackson, the famous antislavery leader. He was named for his grandfather, Francis Jackson Merriam. His father was dead, and he had inherited a small property, which he was eager to devote to some practical enterprise for freeing the slaves. He was at this time twenty-two years old, enthusiastic and resolute, but with little judgment, and in feeble health; altogether, one would say, a very unfit person to take part actively in Brown’s enterprise. He had heard something of this from James Redpath, with whom he had travelled in Hayti, and was fully determined to join Brown’s party. Early in October, having learned in some way that Brown was to be seen at Chambersburg, young Merriam called upon Sanborn, who had never seen him before, though acquainted with his family, and declared his purpose of visiting Brown, offering himself and his little fortune for his cause. Sanborn tried in vain to dissuade him from going, and suggested that he should first invest a portion of his money, and be guided by circumstances as to the future. This good advice Merriam declined, and insisted that he should start at once to find Brown, which he did, leaving Boston on the 7th of October. By Sanborn’s advice, he called to see Colonel Higginson at Worcester, on his way, and was still more unfavorably received by that gentleman, who strongly opposed his wild scheme. He went on, however, met Brown at Chambersburg about a week before the attack was made, gave him six hundred dollars in gold, and joined the little band at Kennedy’s. His money reached Brown but a day or two before the attack, and was probably nearly all that the military chest of the invaders of Virginia contained when they crossed the Potomac on Sunday evening October 16, 1859, to capture the town of Harper’s Ferry. Merriam himself was not in the attacking party, but remained to guard the arms, with Cook, Tidd, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and O. P. Anderson, at the school-house on the Maryland side. He escaped with his companions, all of whom, except Cook, got safely away.
Merriam, after many adventures, reached Canada safely; but the scenes he had witnessed, and the fate of his leader and comrades, unsettled his mind completely. He planned another raid into the slave States, and at the risk of his life, if captured, he returned to Boston early in December to urge Brown’s friends there to aid him in the mad enterprise. It so happened that he reached Boston at the very time of Brown’s execution. He took refuge with his physician, Dr. David Thayer, and sent for his uncle, James Jackson, Mr. Wendell Phillips, and Mr. Sanborn to call and see him. They found him full of his new scheme, and very unwilling to obey their earnest injunctions to return at once to Canada. He finally consented to do so, and went to the Fitchburg Railroad station to take the night express train for Montreal. But, in his distracted state of mind, he took the wrong train and was left at Concord early in the evening, where he must pass the night. He had presence of mind enough to go to Sanborn’s house, where he was sheltered and provided for; but his host, out of regard for the young man’s safety, refused to see him, or to recognize him by any name but that of Lockwood, which he had assumed. He passed the night in Concord, and early in the morning was driven in a friend’s carriage by Henry Thoreau to the neighboring railroad station of South Acton, where he took the first train for Montreal, and safely arrived there. Mr. Thoreau only knew his companion as “Lockwood,” and, though suspecting him to be one of the Harper’s Ferry fugitives, was cautious not to inquire his true name of any person, until shortly before his own death in 1862, when the story was told him.
It is unnecessary to speak here of the events at Harper’s Ferry, or the subsequent history of the affair. Our purpose has been simply to put on record a few facts which have come to our knowledge concerning the origin and progress of the plan of attack there made, and the relation which a few persons, living or dead, bore to John Brown and his great enterprise. We have shown it to be exclusively his own, carried out by him with the help of a few men and women whom his strong purpose and magnetic personality attracted to his assistance. It is not known that any of these friends regret or blush for the aid they were able to render to a hero as undaunted, as patient, and as completely under Divine guidance as any whom history or romance describes. Those who are dead did not; those who are still living need not. But if an imagined regard for the reputation of the living or the dead should tempt kinsmen or friends to forget or disown the share of any man in this mysterious affair, let them remember what Sir Kenelon Digby says of his father’s connection with the Gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes. “All men know,” pleads the fair Stelliana, in Sir Kenelon’s Private Memoirs, “that it was no malitious intent or ambitious desires that brought Sir Everard Digby into that conspiracy, but his too inviolable faith to his friend that had trusted him with so dangerous a secret, and his zeal to his country’s ancient liberties.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Morton and Sanborn had been classmates at Harvard College, where they graduated in 1855, and have ever since been intimate friends and correspondents. Much of the subsequent correspondence with Brown and his friends passed through their hands, and it is probable they may have the key to anything that is still unexplained in the movements of Captain Brown, during the twenty months that followed the February conference about to be described. Both were young men, Sanborn being twenty-six and Morton a year younger; and both had been abolitionists from boyhood. Both also were of unmixed New England descent, as John Brown was; Morton being descended from a kinsman of Nathaniel Morton, the first secretary of Plymouth Colony, and his friend from the founder and first minister of the old New Hampshire plantation of Hampton. The other Massachusetts members of Brown’s secret committee, Parker, Higginson, Stearns, and Howe were of the same Puritan ancestry; and it may be worth, mentioning that while Higginson’s earliest American ancestor was the first minister of Salem, Sanborn’s ancestor, Rev. Stephen Bachiler, was the first minister of Lynn, and probably had among his parishioners there, in 1635-36, Thomas Parker, the first American ancestor of Theodore Parker. ↩
- The original of this letter is now in the possession of Mrs. Mary E. Stearns of Medford, the wife of George L. Stearns, who, not less than her lamented husband, was a generous and true friend of Brown. To her we are indebted for Brackett’s noble bust of Brown, which stands in her house. ↩
- Vol. II p. 164. The "address you saw last season," mentioned in this letter, is the same spoken of in the letter of September 11, 1857, on page 162. ↩
- This was James Montgomery of Kansas, a brave partisan, afterwards colonel of a colored regiment in South Carolina. He has lately died in Kansas. ↩
- Brown was born May 9, 1800, and was in his sixtieth year at his death. ↩
- The biographer of George Stearns, when his Life shall be written, should not omit the list of his contributions to Brown and his cause. ↩