On John Brown and the Rise of the Radical Republican Abolitionists

LeeAnna Keith Recounts the Politics and Intrigue of the Harpers Ferry Raid

George L. Stearns looked the part of the most Radical Republican in America, with fervent eyes and an unusually lustrous long beard, which curled across his chest like the black locks of a woman’s hair. On doctor’s orders, Stearns was doing his best to comfort and protect his ailing chest with the distinctive whiskers. As a hands-on industrialist who made his fortune perfecting a type of lead pipe, he had sucked in enough toxins to permanently damage his lungs. His mind was clear, however, united with that of his wife, Mary Stearns, in passionate devotion to antislavery and other philanthropic causes.

The Stearnses had caught the Kansas Fever in the congregation of Theodore Parker. George became the number-one gun man in the Kansas program, buying Connecticut-made Sharps rifles and a smaller number of Colt pistols for settlers and paid heavies. Making deliveries, occasionally in person, and advising militant leaders in face-to-face meetings and in writing, he functioned as an unofficial war secretary for a conflict that was only beginning—recruiting, promoting, and strategizing for Free Kansas and the broader cause. Alongside these extralegal initiatives, Stearns played a major role as a Republican Party operative behind closed doors. Recruiting young men from the Kansas paramilitaries into patronage positions and elected offices, he helped to build a generation of Wild West Republicans for political and military service.

Kansas militants escalated their defiance of the outgoing Pierce administration’s territorial policies in 1857, acting to liberate the Topeka Convention delegates and their wives held on treason charges in a federal prison in Tecumseh. The agent of their liberation was John Kagi, a correspondent of a District of Columbia Republican newspaper, the National Era, who shot a US district judge in the groin and took a bullet in his own abdomen. Kagi was camping near Tecumseh in the company of John Brown and a motley group of armed desperadoes and displaced Ottawa and Pottawatomie Indians. By March the band of outlaws had succeeded in springing the Republican detainees and discouraging federal officials from persisting in their prosecution.

George Stearns and the National Kansas Committee sponsored another East Coast tour of Kansas gunslingers, inviting Richard Hinton and other hard-cores to solicit for donations in a series of speaking engagements. A highlight for Hinton was the endorsement of the Republican fighting Quaker and poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who quaintly instructed the younger man that “if thee must fight for freedom, fight well and to the end.” Stearns himself accompanied a shipment of armaments to Kansas, meeting Brown for the first time and persuading the old man to come to Boston for the fund-raising campaign. In what would soon be deemed a revolutionary act, the Massachusetts legislature hosted Brown, asking him to testify on Kansas matters at the statehouse.

John Brown found little to his liking in Boston’s high-toned abolition parlors, and he departed after only a handful of appearances. He delivered a letter of complaint to Reverend Parker, scolding Bostonians for their meager financial and personal contributions to the struggle. While Bostonians and Republicans dithered in their carpeted rooms, he objected, true patriots and Christians in his band were “hunted like wolves” and “sustained and cared for in part by Indians” in Kansas. The moral posturing of the “Plymouth Rocks, Bunker Hill Monuments, Charter Oakes, and Uncle Thom’s Cabins,” as he called them, filled the craggy militant with revulsion.

More disappointing still was the lack of responsiveness among black leaders, in Boston and elsewhere. Coequal with the never-ending campaign to raise funds was Brown’s recruitment effort. He needed fighting men, and by 1857 and 1858 his vision had already become broader than Kansas. The Boston Vigilance Committee’s Lewis Hayden was beyond the age of military service (like Brown himself), but if he would lend his prestige to John Brown’s emerging scheme for confronting slavery in the South, Hayden could deliver large numbers of recruits and other resources. No one would dispute that he was a Radical; that he and his wife defended their safe house with barrels of gunpowder was common knowledge along Boston’s Underground Railroad. But like his counterparts in black New York, Hayden held aloof from John Brown’s efforts to recruit him and his circle. He had set his sights on a government job in the Commonwealth and had no time for illegal schemes.

The hero of Osawatomie (never acknowledged as the murderer at Pottawatomie among Radical Republicans in those days) also reached out without success to the black activist and future Republican Martin Delany. Rather than take part in an invasion of the South, Delany chose to leave the country for Africa, departing to Liberia in April 1858 to initiate an organized emigration.

No one in Chicago wanted to be in the same room with John Brown.

Brown also contacted Harriet Tubman, the renowned slave rescuer, now living among black refugees in Canada. Tubman claimed to have seen Old Brown in one of her prescient dreams, and she offered her fervent encouragement. The woman known in Brown’s circles as the General was fully briefed on the conspiracy and its network of safe names and way stations, but she never made her way to Brown’s camp or sent an emissary. Her non-participation proved especially grievous to Brown in light of his early hopes. He considered her, rightly, as “one of the bravest persons on this continent.” Republicans met Tubman on the same ground as Brown: Radicals among them would make common cause with any dedicated to immediate action and personal commitment.

The General was a longtime protégé of William Seward, the senator and unacknowledged guiding spirit of that spring’s New York legislative initiatives. Seward helped Tubman maintain a small farm near his home in Auburn, offering her work when she was not on missions and keeping an eye out for the well-being of her aged parents. Through Brown she became associated with party Radicals such as Hayden and Franklin Sanborn, and more indirectly Parker, Higginson, and Howe. Unlike Brown, Tubman would survive to see the transcendent Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and she would cast her lot with the party on a permanent but low-profile basis. It was not her fight (before the Civil War) to require the party that embraced her race to also campaign for the political rights of her gender.

Another Republican woman, Lucy Stone, had found the personal dimensions of her political advocacy to be daunting by the spring of 1858. The State of New Jersey put her worldly goods up for auction in April as a result of her refusal to pay taxes to a government that did not acknowledge her right to vote. At the same time, Stone became dangerously sick. During her recovery, Stone apparently resolved to increase her dedication to the task of mothering (her infant daughter’s cradle had been among the items auctioned in the public sale). For a long hiatus, the woman most often identified as a partisan Republican in the 1850s became inactive. In her absence, Republican partisans did not desert her cause.

In fact, the spring of 1858 presented the first Radical Republican woman suffrage campaign, a breakthrough suitably aligned with the militants in Kansas. Free-Staters—officially a wing of the Republican Party since the Big Spring convention of 1856—initiated the latest of the territory’s string of constitutional conventions in the military town of Leavenworth near the end of March. From the outset, Radical proposals dominated the floor. Among those that did not succeed was a woman suffrage proposal.

Reporting to Higginson, the Kansas activist Samuel F. Tappan observed that the movement might have succeeded if prominent women in the territory had presented a petition as expected; apparently women did not yet see political participation as a duty of their citizenship, as he did. “The men are in advance of them on the question of women voting,” offered Tappan, and yet the vote “to strike out the word male stood 25 yeas to 50 nays.” And more would have voted in favor, had not “the necessity of union among Free State men” outweighed the urgency of woman suffrage. Even without it, Tappan thought the Leavenworth document to be “the best constitution in the country.” The same group that had overridden woman suffrage had voted to remove the word “white” from voting and militia service requirements by a large majority, and also endorsed the racial integration of schools.

Higginson remained dedicated to woman suffrage and other feminist campaigns in 1858 and all his life, and women reciprocated the minister’s attentions. A correspondent, Maria Felt, wrote to tell him that he had been the subject of a number of her conversations after she arrived in Kansas that spring. Using her connection to Higginson to make introductions, Felt had met a number of interesting young Republicans around the territory, including Richard Hinton, James Redpath, and Samuel Tappan himself, whom Felt found “certainly less gray-headed than I had expected.” They did not compare with Higginson, perhaps, flush that season with the admiration of readers of his new Atlantic Monthly article on fitness, “Saints, and Their Bodies.” After making a number of flirtatious comments, the lady concluded the letter with lines that Higginson later saw fit to cross out.

As for the cause of Free Kansas and racial equality, Higginson was all in, participating actively in the last rounds of violence between the factions. Increasingly this work aligned the East Coast sponsors and conspirators with Jim Lane, the would-be Kansas senator and paramilitary chief, instead of the more moderate Free-State “governor” Charles Robinson. At the head of the political curve, the contested territory offered an early glimpse of the split between the Radicals and others in the party—a vision complicated by the active militancy and nascent mania of Jim Lane himself, a future suicide. Nearly all were heavily invested in Kansas Territory railroad speculation, a liability that Reverend Parker noted in a letter to Charles Sumner on May 6. “The Land Fever is more contagious than the Presidential Fever,” he complained, “and equally fatal to the moral powers.”

In fact, the weaknesses of Kansas leadership became more pressing as the era of Kansas troubles started to ebb. A key breakthrough was the establishment of a federal military outpost at Fort Scott near the scene of conflict on the borders of Missouri and the slaveholding Cherokee Nation. The arrival of an antislavery military commander, Nathaniel Lyon, on May 30, 1858, effected the transformation of Fort Scott from an adjunct of the Democratic Party to a Radical Republican stronghold. Within months of his appointment, territorial Kansas ceased to bleed—though it remained excluded from the community of states, thanks to James Buchanan and Democrats in Congress.

Captain John Brown retained his war footing, staging his first direct assault on slavery. On December 20, 1858, Brown intervened to assist a Missouri slave named Jim Daniels in preventing the imminent breakup of his family by sale. “I am sure that Brown, in his mind, was just waiting for something to turn up,” remembered a participant, of Jim Daniels’s arrival in camp, “or, in his way of thinking, was expecting or hoping that God would provide him a basis of action.” Now he would test out the role of liberator in company with Radical Republicans.

The choice of Harpers Ferry as a target was not open to debate, however much Frederick Douglass and other insiders believed that it would be a strategic mistake.

Brown accompanied Daniels across the border to his master’s estate, while a group led by the charismatic Aaron Stevens, also known as Captain Whipple, attacked a neighboring property. Riding backup were a Free-State militant and political activist, James Montgomery, and dozens of jayhawkers under his command, veterans of a deadly recent standoff in the vicinity of Fort Scott. The term “jayhawkers,” first reported in national newspapers in January 1859, referred to armed antislavery bands such as Brown’s and Montgomery’s that took the offensive against Missourians and proslavery settlers in the territory. Jayhawkers went into battle that winter and never completely stopped fighting until after the end of the Civil War.

Brown’s raiders seized movable property as well as enslaved persons, including horses, a wagon and oxen, farm implements, and supplies for a journey. Brown saw these effects “as being owned by the slaves, having surely been bought with their labor.” He gave notice to the so-called master, awakening the household before light to report the raid through a closed window shutter. “We have come after your slaves and their property,” said Brown, introducing himself. “Will you surrender or fight?”

The Stevens party, taking control of “the contraband ‘Jane,’” let their actions do the talking, shooting a white man to death while his children cowered at his feet.

Eleven people liberated from slavery, including two women great with child, accompanied Brown to a safe house in Kansas, the Moneka home of Augustus Wattles. Wattles and his brother, John, were active in politics— formerly contributors to the Free-State Herald of Freedom and delegates to the Topeka Constitutional Convention. Since 1857 they had numbered themselves among the territory’s Radical faction, having parted ways with Governor Charles Robinson on the rectitude of participating in elections sponsored by the proslavery government in Lecompton. Now the Wattleses rode the swell of an emerging rupture between Brown and politically engaged militants in Kansas.

Augustus Wattles offered shelter to the refugees but scolded Brown on the propriety of seizing them and inflaming the conflict along the border with Missouri. He deplored the killing and the brazen robbery. Joined by Captain Montgomery, who was equally unnerved by the escalation, Wattles convinced Brown that Kansas settlers needed peace instead of more war. The brothers helped to place the refugees in sympathetic households around Moneka (including the home of the Republican physician and future major general James G. Blount). With Montgomery, they extracted a promise from Brown that he would not use Kansas as a base for the invasion of the slave states. Brown, Montgomery, and Wattles signed an itemized list of guarantees, while the old man sketched out what he saw as parallels between his own actions and the depredations of the proslavery party.

The jayhawkers also debated the best course for protecting the fugitives from being recaptured. Montgomery was on record advocating for the settlement of refugees from slavery among Free-State farmsteads in Kansas, a strategy he saw as cost-effective and morally upright. He chafed against instructions from the Radical benefactors back east that all fugitives be transported to Canada. Unlike the Boston Republicans, Frances Bird and George L. Stearns, Montgomery thought the best guarantee of safety lay with his own band of mobile and well-armed freedom fighters. “If Mr. Bird were here he would be disposed to take back what he said to me our first meeting; and agree that fugitives may be protected in Kansas,” he had written to Stearns. The fervently religious Montgomery cited the Bible to justify the policy of integrating former slaves into their own communities: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell among you, even within thy gates, in a good place where it liketh him best.”

Brown’s raid was so inflammatory, however, that to accommodate the eleven in proximity to Missouri was to invite a civil war. Despite the inconvenient timing—set against the backdrop of another winter of historic cold—the conspirators resolved to move the party on to Canada at the earliest possible date. “I have considered the matter well,” Brown decided. “You will have no more attacks from Missouri; I shall now leave Kansas; probably you will never see me again; I consider it my duty to draw the scene of the excitement to some other part of the country.”

Amid the darkness of winter, Jim Daniels’s wife had her baby, and Brown delayed his party’s departure to accommodate her convalescence. When it finally got moving on January 20, 1859, the rescue mission included twelve fugitives, one foot soldier, and John Brown himself. They would make their way across Kansas and the plains in a covered wagon, stopping first in Lawrence to gather support from what remained of the militant faction of the Free-State Party.

In Lawrence, Brown encountered more resistance from the Republican peace party. William A. Phillips had been a Brown protégé, a reporter for the New York Tribune, and an outspoken Free-Stater, who had once been dragged off to Missouri, tarred, and feathered. Meeting with the old man in January, Phillips made the case for a political solution to the slavery crisis, asking Brown to lay down his weapons and vote Republican. Republicans were cowards, Brown objected: “They have compromised so long that they think the principles of right and wrong have no more any power on this earth.” Brown kissed Phillips on the cheek, wiping away tears, and said goodbye. “I never saw him again,” Phillips later recalled.

Other Republicans aided Brown that winter without registering complaints. John B. Abbott and his wife, veterans of the Wakarusa Wars and National Kansas Committee, offered food, shelter, and clothing to Brown’s refugees. Crossing out of the territory, Brown took refuge with Burns Rescue organizer Martin Stowell at his farm in Peru, Nebraska. Brown asked for donations and permitted Stowell’s friends to peek inside the covered wagon and to judge for themselves if the mission was justified.

While still among friends, Brown learned that the governor of Missouri was offering $3,000 for his capture and that President Buchanan had added a federal bounty of $250. He responded in kind, offering $2.50 to anyone who would lock up James Buchanan and taunting would-be captors. “It is perfectly well-known that I will not be taken alive,” Brown said.

Brown was not the only antislavery activist making jokes about James Buchanan in January 1859. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania—soon to be sworn in to Congress as the Radical Republican representative from Buchanan’s home district—quipped that if the president were to stop advocating the Southern cause in Washington, the South could always get him back under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act.

John Brown—fearing neither courts nor men—continued his trek across the frozen Northwest with the twelve fugitives from Missouri. Before dawn on March 11, 1859, his party arrived in Chicago, one of the last U.S. way stations of the Underground Railroad. They were aided in the final stages of their flight by a Radical Republican, Allan Pinkerton, already a famous detective, destined to become one of the great conservatives of the late nineteenth century.

Brown knocked on the door of Pinkerton’s house on Adams Street at 4:30 a.m. in the company of Aaron Stevens and the journalist and militant John Kagi. Brown and the detective, who answered with a pistol in his hand, embraced “like brothers.” Pinkerton served breakfast and set about finding local accommodations for the crew. The fugitives were secreted at Pinkerton’s and in the home of a black Chicago Underground Railroad operative, O. Wagoner. An African American couple, John and Mary Jones, took in the white men in Brown’s entourage over the objections of Mrs. Jones.

The Joneses were highly educated and opinionated about politics, but their opinions mattered little in antebellum Illinois, which was a bastion of white supremacy as well as patriarchy. John Jones would eventually align himself with the Republicans, presenting a written testament in 1865 on civil rights abuses in Illinois just as the party took control of the legislature for the first time. In 1859 the standing of a man like Jones relied entirely on the mutual respect he cultivated with civic leaders such as Pinkerton. Cooperation of this kind on the Underground Railroad and with Brown laid the foundation for the short-lived interracial Republican Party in Illinois and elsewhere in the Reconstruction North.

John Brown was dangerous company, company that would not be taken alive. “Four or five of the roughest looking men I ever saw,” Mary Jones later remembered: Stevens enormous and boisterous, Kagi masked by a dreadful beard, and all of the company ragged and filthy from months living as fugitives and outlaws. Brown himself was clad in rags and boots so tattered that the Joneses purchased him a set of clothes.

John Jones resisted John Brown’s effort to recruit him for his secret service (in the presence of two men other than Brown who would die at Harpers Ferry). The suit that Jones, a clothier, contributed would have to suffice as his contribution to the plan. Death was hovering, imparting every aspect of the party’s passage through Chicago with an air of ceremony. “I guess John Brown was hung in these same clothes,” said Mary Jones.

Back at Pinkerton’s, a second baby was born, bringing the total number of fugitives to thirteen. The detective, meanwhile, set out to raise money to facilitate the final passage of the company by rail. He directed his appeal to the Republican Party—though later, after Pinkerton’s disappointments as a military spy and his alignment with General George B. McClellan, a Democrat, he would falsely identify his coconspirators as Democrats. Republicans were meeting that week to discuss a recent verdict in Ableman v. [Sherman] Booth, the Wisconsin slave rescue case that had inflamed states’ rights tensions across the North. Calling themselves the Chicago Judiciary Convention, a body of lawyers and Republicans were preparing formal resolutions on behalf of defendant Sherman Booth when Alan Pinkerton interrupted their work with his urgent business. Pinkerton could count on a number of respectable men in the room to assist in his cause.

Gentlemen, I have one thing to do and I intend to do it in a hurry. John Brown is in this city at the present time with a number of men, women and children. I require aid, and substantial aid I must have. I am ready and willing to leave this meeting if I get this money; if not, I have to say this. I will bring John Brown to this meeting and if any United States Marshal dare lay a hand on him he must take the consequence. I am determined to do this or have the money.

No one in Chicago wanted to be in the same room with John Brown. Pinkerton raised $600 and gained the assistance of the superintendent of the Michigan Central Railway, who secured a boxcar and provisions for the journey to Detroit. Pinkerton accompanied Brown to the railroad station as he traveled ahead of his party to arrange for the ferry to Canada. “Friends,” said Brown, “lay in your tobacco, sugar, and cotton, because I intend to raise the prices.”

After delivering the fugitives to safety, John Brown stopped in Cleveland, looking for money and recruits among participants in a recent slave rescue in Oberlin, Ohio. He plotted with a future African American Republican, George DeBaptiste, who recommended setting off simultaneous explosions in fifteen Southern churches on a designated Sunday—a proposal that Brown rejected as immoral. He saw his family briefly and visited his benefactor Gerrit Smith in New York State, who gave him $400. He endured a number of fruitless interviews with his good friend Frederick Douglass, who could not be persuaded of the wisdom of escalation. Through it all, he labored under the symptoms of malaria, saved his money, and issued orders to his scattered cadres.

Brown dogged the Republicans and “Plymouth Rocks” of Massachusetts one last time. On May 8 he appeared in the Town Hall in Concord, speaking about Kansas but alluding to a wider war. “Our best people listen to his words,” wrote Bronson Alcott, “Emerson, Thoreau, Judge [Ebenezer] Hoar [of the state senate and Massachusetts Supreme Court], my wife.” Though the penniless Alcotts could not, many Concord residents opened up their wallets for Brown’s campaign—“without asking particulars,” as Alcott put it. “The Captain leaves us much in the dark concerning his destination and designs for the coming months.” The effect was conspiratorial and thrilling. He was “the manliest man I ever saw,” said Alcott, using the same phrase his famous daughter had employed to describe Henry Thoreau.

From Concord, Brown made a quick commute into the heart of Republican Radicalism. Boston was a Democratic town with an especially influential Radical fringe, many of whom had been drawn into the Brown conspiracy by May 1859. Among his closest collaborators—later called the Secret Six—no fewer than four lived in the metropolitan area, and all of those were also active in party politics. George L. Stearns, Franklin San-born, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson learned the specifics of what became the Harpers Ferry plot in a series of meetings in Brown’s room at the United States Hotel and in the medical office of Burns rescuer Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Reverend Parker—one of the Six—had recently left Boston for the Caribbean in a doomed effort to restore his health.

Many important details of the Harpers Ferry raid remained undecided in the spring of 1859: the training site and staging area; weapons caches, including Brown’s order for a thousand iron pikes (to be used as weapons by rebelling slaves) and its past-due bill (to be paid by George L. Stearns); the estimated number of likely fighters; and of course the timing of the attack.

The choice of Harpers Ferry as a target was not open to debate, however much Frederick Douglass and other insiders believed that it would be a strategic mistake.

Above all, Brown called on his Massachusetts allies to raise money. Brown needed money for weapons, rent, mounts, and equipment for his raiders. He needed money to pay salaries, having narrowly escaped the hazards of not paying when Hugh Forbes, the disgruntled drillmaster, had revealed details of his plan to Senator Henry Wilson and others the previous year. He needed money to sustain his own wife and his nine surviving children, some of whom had also volunteered their lives to the fight. These demands were a pittance, Brown maintained, when juxtaposed against the magnitude of property in slaves, which accounted for more wealth than all of the bank assets, stock shares, railroads, and manufacturing capacity and inventory in the country combined, and which had insinuated itself into every institution of the Northern economy. Northern capitalists must be willing to gamble from their own stacks if they were sincere about their intentions to eradicate the national scourge. And yet everywhere Brown saw them reveling in fine clothing and eating the best foods in the most comfortable rooms.

“I am going on a dangerous errand and may never see you again,” said Brown.

Even the most dedicated of the Massachusetts Radicals existed in a state of opulence entirely unknown in the personal experience of John Brown and his large family. Brown had tried and failed to make his way as an entrepreneur and a farmer, and since he had dedicated himself in entirety to the antislavery cause years before he had subsisted meanly and only by constant solicitation. His experience stood in marked contrast to that of his chief backers George Luther and Mary Preston Stearns. Since his religious epiphany of 1854, George Luther Stearns had proven to be the most dedicated and most resourceful of the Boston reformers. Stearns and his equally militant wife had each raised tens of thousands of dollars for Free Kansas and John Brown—the husband through his network of pipe fitters and abolitionists, and Mary Stearns in company with women reformers of the Boston metropolitan area.

The Stearnses personally contributed a thousand dollars in the spring of 1859 and would have given more had Mr. Stearns agreed to Mary’s proposition that they sell their home and give their all for Brown’s “sublime purpose.” Instead they kept their stately Medford mansion, Evergreens, and dedicated their tremendous energies to organizing and fund-raising.

During his stay in Boston in the final year of his life, John Brown made arrangements to honor George Stearns for his efforts in a way that would educate men of Stearns’s social milieu. To do so, the old revolutionary invited his friend to meet him at the Parker House hotel at a weekly gathering of Boston’s rich and powerful Republican club.

Parker House was a marvel of modern refinement, newly relocated to a splendid marble edifice erected in 1855 and richly appointed. Its chefs had already pioneered some classic American recipes, including the signature Parker House rolls, Boston cream pie, and lemon meringue pie. Parker House was the place to be, as Stearns later explained to a committee of Congress: “If a literary club wish to dine, they go to the Parker House; if a political club wish to dine, they go to the Parker House.” Brown declined to seat himself at its opulent tables, “excusing himself by saying that he must eat sparingly and fare hard, as became a soldier.” He had come to tap the pocketbooks of Boston’s political elite and to leverage his local popularity to elevate the standing of his ally Stearns in their midst. It was the May 28, 1859, meeting of the so-called Bird Club, the Republican gathering named for its host, the Walpole paper factory magnate Frank W. Bird.

Brown had arrived in the company of Dr. Howe, a regular participant in Bird Club functions since the early 1850s. Before Stearns arrived, the old man tangled with United States senator Henry Wilson, another regular. Introduced to Wilson, Brown immediately began to complain about Wilson’s public denunciations of Brown after the disclosure of his plans by the unfaithful lieutenant Hugh Forbes. “Senator Wilson,” he said stiffly, “I understand you do not approve my course.” The senator was unapologetic, reproving Brown for his plotting and specifically criticizing the recent slave raid in Missouri. “I am opposed to all violations of law, and to violence,” said Wilson, insisting that such actions “lay a burden on the anti-slavery cause.” As Wilson remembered it later, Brown scolded him for his compromising attitude. “He responded with some positiveness and no little emphasis: ‘I do not agree with you, sir.’”

Stearns arrived at the Bird Club late in the afternoon, after the dishes had been cleared and the men had settled in to smoke (“Oh, if I could have the money that is smoked away during a single day in Boston,” Brown had said in 1857, “I could strike a blow which would make slavery totter from its foundations!”). Brown greeted him warmly, allowed twenty minutes or so for the typically shy manufacturer to make acquaintances, then departed very publicly in company with Stearns and Howe. The conspirators retired to Brown’s room for a final meeting, after which the captain reached into his boot and presented Stearns with a pearl-handled Bowie knife that he had seized from a Missouri opponent.

“I am going on a dangerous errand and may never see you again,” said Brown; “I wish you to keep this bowie as a token of my respect.”

George Stearns and others in the Harpers Ferry conspiracy had nurtured a civil war before the Civil War, starting in Kansas and moving headlong toward the captain’s final destination. To the extent that Republican donors such as Bronson Alcott or Ralph Waldo Emerson, party organizers such as Stearns, whose career behind the scenes was still in its beginning stages, and partisan organizations such as the Chicago Judiciary Convention played a role, the plot was partially a Republican Party initiative. So long as the conspiracy remained a secret, Radicals could enjoy the thrill of participation without paying a political price.

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when it was grand

From When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War by LeeAnna Keith. Used with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by LeeAnna Keith.

LeeAnna Keith
LeeAnna Keith
LeeAnna Keith teaches history at the Collegiate School for Boys in New York City. She is the author of The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction.





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