A Reviewer's Notebook - 1979/4

From a libertarian point of view, Otto Scott is America’s most exciting contemporary historian and biographer. He has two strings to his bow. With a clear understanding of Albert Jay Nock’s distinction between social power and political power, Scott alternates his studies. Part of his writing life is devoted to a critical appraisal of creative business enterprises (see, particularly, his story of the Raytheon company, which developed radar). His "other career," which he pursues with a sense of dutiful but nevertheless exhilarating vengeance, is dedicated to exposing the great "fools of history.”
These fools are political types who have led mankind astray by insisting on a "higher law" that has no grounding in human nature. His book on the French revolutionary fanatic Robespierre was a devastating dramatization of what can happen to a country when a politically powerful person assumes that he and he alone has been ordained to define and impose a "general will." The Scott biography of King James I of England was a study of absolutism allied to vice and frivolity that might have cost Britain more if it had not been an island. And now Otto Scott, with his The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Conspiracy (Times Books, 3 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10016, 375 pp., $15.00), has dared to apply the name of "sacred fool" to the man whose attempt to seize the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and incite a slave rebellion was one of the prime harbingers of the American Civil War.

John Brown of Osawatomie, Kansas, has been the subject of admiring biographers and the inspiration of one great poem, Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body. Mr. Scott dissents; he calls John Brown a murderer.

Killing and Plunder

The record clearly sustains Mr. Scott. On May 23, 1856, Old John Brown (he always seemed old to his contemporaries) led four of his sons, his son-in-law and two others on a killing expedition along Pottawatomie Creek in what was then called Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas territory was being contested between southern slaveholding sympathizers and northern Free Soilers, but Old Brown, in assuming that he was part of a "northern army" and hence privileged to kill in the name of the Abolitionist "higher law," was in no way concerned in knowing whether his victims were slaveholders or even interested in anything other than pioneering on the plains. Mr. Scott surmises that one of Old Brown’s confused motives was a desire to force a nation into a new pattern by creating terror. Brown claimed a religious sanction for invoking a symbolic vengeance on innocent men and women, but he and his murder party were also interested in loot. They wanted horses, saddles, guns and bowie knives, and they were particularly happy to walk off with a fine grey horse belonging to Dutch Henry, the big cattle dealer of the area.

Old Brown and his party were never brought to justice for five Pottawatomie murders that widowed two women and left behind a number of fatherless children. One reason for the oversight was the disorganized condition of the Kansas territory. But, more importantly, the country as a whole was bemused by the clamor of the sectional issue. The Fifties were the decade of the Dred Scott decision, the caning of the self-righteous Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by an outraged South Carolinian, Representative Preston Brooks, and the incendiary controversies of the Boston Abolitionists (Garrison, Wendell Phillips et al.) and the southern fire-eaters who wanted secession. The journalists of the time were partisan, and those who wrote for northern papers from Kansas took Old Brown at his own estimate that he was engaged in a highly moral crusade.

Supporting intellectuals

To Mr. Scott, the real scandal of the whole Brown story was the behavior of the Massachusetts intellectuals. The Concord group was particularly blameworthy for making Brown a hero. Ralph Waldo Emerson excused the Kansas violence by saying "better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death, than that one word" of the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence "should be violated in this country." Henry David Thoreau agreed with Emerson that Brown was a "transcendentalist saint."

The more "liberal" of the Boston clergy echoed the Concord non sequiturs. But the real culprits, as Scott’s careful research shows, were the members of the committee he calls the Secret Six. This group was composed of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Reverend Theodore Parker, the millionaire Gerit Smith, Franklin B. Sanford, the town antiquarian of Concord, and George Luther Stearns, an idealistic Massachusetts lead pipe manufacturer. The Secret Six supported Old Brown with introductions, immoderate praise, and good hard cash. Unwilling to go to Kansas in person to fight the so-called Border Ruffians from the South, they satisfied their guilt feelings by supplying money and arms for Brown’s activism. Announcing that "a revolution was what the country needed," Stearns at one point drew up a subscription list to provide regular shipments of Sharp’s rifles to Kansas.

Pacifist Beginnings

The ironic thing about the Abolitionist movement, insofar as the clergy was involved in it, was that it had begun in pacifism. Theodore Weld, the theology professor who trained scores of agents in a "school of abolition," was the gentlest of souls. The Reverend William Ellery Charming, the acknowledged leader of the Unitarian movement, complained that William Lloyd Garrison, the "liberator," and his vociferous circle were "too precipitate" and "lacked tact." But as the "irrepressible conflict" of the Civil War approached, Theodore Parker proclaimed that "all the great charters of Humanity have been writ in blood." The free man, he said, "has a natural right to help the slaves recover their liberty . . . and as a means to that end, to aid them in killing all such as oppose."

Parker, who boasted of helping to fund John Brown, lay dying in Italy when the poorly planned and stupid raid in the Harpers Ferry arsenal misfired. He might not have survived the ordeal of returning to the United States to stand trial in Virginia as an accessory to Brown’s treasonable act. To do the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson justice, he was willing to appear in court and was rather miffed that nobody asked him. But the rest of the "secret six" scurried for cover when Lieutenant Jeb Stuart captured Brown after a thirty-six-hour engagement at the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Howe, Stearns and Sanborn, fearful that they might be exposed as accessories to Brown’s act of treason, ran away to Canada. Gerit Smith, the millionaire, pretended lunacy.

Frederick Douglass, the leader of northern black freedmen, had tried to dissuade Brown from his mad escapade. But when the raid on the arsenal actually took place, Douglass fled to Canada and England. He was under no illusions about his safety if he had been called upon in a Virginia court to explain his conversations with Brown before the sanguinary event took place.

Otto Scott does not draw modern parallels in The Secret Six. But his contempt for intellectuals who support violence in the name of the "higher law" obviously extends to western liberals who favor bloody solutions in Rhodesia, South Africa or wherever. The "secret sixes" are always with us.