The Secret Six

Gerrit Smith
Gerrit Smith. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Secret Six was a loosely affiliated group that provided financial backing to John Brown before his raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Money obtained from the northeastern abolitionists of the Secret Six made the raid possible, as it enabled Brown to travel to Maryland, rent a farm to use as a hideout and staging area, and procure weapons for his men.

When the raid on Harpers Ferry failed and Brown was captured by federal troops, a carpet bag containing documents was seized. Inside the bag were letters establishing the network behind his actions.

Fearing prosecution for conspiracy and treason, some members of the Secret Six fled the United States for a brief period. None of them were ever prosecuted for their involvement with Brown.

Members of the Secret Six

  • Gerrit Smith: Born into a wealthy family in upstate New York, Smith was a vigorous supporter of various reform causes, including the American abolition movement.
  • Thomas Wentworth Higginson: A minister and author, Higginson would go on to serve in the Civil War, commanding a regiment of Black troops, and would write a classic memoir based on the experience.
  • Theodore Parker: A minister and prominent public speaker on reform topics, Parker had been educated at Harvard and was affiliated with the Transcendentalist movement.
  • Samuel Gridley Howe: A medical doctor and advocate for the blind, Howe was active in the abolition movement. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, would become famous for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
  • Franklin Benjamin Sanborn: A Harvard graduate, Sanborn was connected to the Transcendentalist movement and became involved in anti-slavery politics in the 1850s.
  • George Luther Stearns: A self-made businessman, Stearns was a manufacturer and was able to financially support various causes, including the abolitionist cause.

Actions of the Secret Six Before John Brown's Raid

All the members of the Secret Six were involved in various ways with the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. A common thread in their lives was that, like many other northerners, they believed the Fugitive Slave Law passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 had made them morally complicit in slavery.

Some of the men were active in what was called "vigilance committees," which helped protect and hide self-liberated formerly enslaved people who otherwise could have been arrested and taken back to enslavement in the South.

Discussions in abolitionist circles often seemed to focus on theoretical ideas which would never be implemented, such as plans to have New England states secede from the Union. But when New England activists met up with John Brown in 1857, his account of what he had done to prevent the spread of enslavement in what was called Bleeding Kansas made a convincing case that tangible actions had to be taken to end the practice of enslavement. And those actions could include violence.

It is possible that some members of the Secret Six had dealings with Brown going back to when he was active in Kansas. And whatever his history with the men, he found an attentive audience when he began talking about a new plan he had to launch an attack in hopes of bringing an end to enslavement.

The men of the Secret Six raised money for Brown and contributed funds of their own, and the influx of cash made it possible for Brown to see his plan into reality.

The vast uprising of enslaved people Brown hoped to spark never materialized, and his raid on Harper Ferry in October 1859 turned into a fiasco. Brown was arrested and put on trial, and as he had never destroyed documents that could implicate his financial backers, the extent of his support quickly became widely known.

The Public Furor

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was, of course, highly controversial, and generated enormous attention in the newspapers. And the fallout over the involvement of New Englanders was also a topic of considerable discussion.

Stories circulating naming various members of the Secret Six, and it was alleged that a widespread conspiracy to commit treason went far beyond the small group. Senators known to be opposed to enslavement, including William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, were falsely accused of having been involved in Brown's plot.

Of the six men implicated, three of them, Sanborn, Howe, and Stearns, fled to Canada for a time. Parker was already in Europe. Gerrit Smith, claiming to suffer a nervous breakdown, admitted himself to a sanitarium in New York State. Higginson remained in Boston, defying the government to arrest him.

The idea that Brown did not act alone inflamed the South, and a senator from Virginia, James Mason, convened a committee to investigate Brown's financial backers. Two of the Secret Six, Howe and Stearns, testified that they had met Brown but had nothing to do with his plans.

The general story among the men is that they did not fully comprehend what Brown was up to. There was considerable confusion about what the men did know, and none of them was ever prosecuted for involvement in Brown's plot. And when the pro-slavery states began seceding from the Union a year later, any appetite for prosecuting the men faded.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Secret Six." ThoughtCo, Oct. 19, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 19). The Secret Six. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Secret Six." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).