Paving the Way to Harpers Ferry: The Disunion Convention of 1857

John Brown in 1859

Civil War historians can be a feisty, contentious lot. Arguments concerning causes of the war, capabilities of key military and political leaders, and historical memory began raging only a few decades after the war ended. Racial tensions and divisive partisan politics catapulted Civil War history back into the headlines in recent years. Social media amplifies the power of today’s activists to use their own versions of history to promote a present-day political agenda, with all sides claiming ownership to historical “truth.”

John Brown was one of the most controversial figures in the Civil War Era, beginning with his participation in violent guerilla warfare in Kansas Territory during the 1850s. When news broke of his daring raid and occupation of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, some journalists, politicians, and public figures denounced Brown as an insane, suicidal traitor while others began canonizing him as a brave martyr for racial justice. Historians debate his legacy to this day, but most agree that the Harpers Ferry raid itself was an “tipping point” event that rekindled widespread fears of slave revolts and hardened secessionist impulses in the Southern slave states. Numerous contemporaries argued that New York Senator William Seward’s 1858 prophecy of an “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery came true on that October day in 1859.

Historians eschew simple explanations for complex events. Circumstances leading to abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to incite slave rebellion via his now-famous raid involved decades of social, political, and cultural change. This process may be compared to building a nineteenth century paved road. Each paving stone connected with surrounding pavers in a bed of sand that allowed for some shifting, creating a sound, durable surface. But significant physical obstacles or financial constraints may cause the road to detour from its intended path until it reaches a destination. In the case of history, that destination is not always precisely what the builders had in mind when they began the project.

One of the paving stones laid on the path to Harpers Ferry but largely ignored by historians was an unusual gathering in the old city hall in Worcester, Massachusetts on January 15, 1857.[1] The event was organized by Harvard-trained Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, minister of the Worcester Free Church and a staunch abolitionist. He encouraged friends and neighbors to defy the Fugitive Slave Act and personally helped enslaved people escape to Canada. He was wounded in his cheek by a saber while manning a battering ram at the door of the Court House in Boston during an unsuccessful attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns. Higginson had visited Kansas in 1856 as part of his involvement in the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee.[2]

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In early January, 1857, John Brown arrived in Boston on the first stop of a fundraising tour that would eventually garner enough money and for his long-planned attack in Virginia. He met with Franklin Sanborn, secretary of the Kansas Committee, who introduced him to several associates who would become known as the “Secret Six.”[3] Higginson was too busy with convention preparation to spend time with Brown. He had invited key abolition luminaries to a political meeting to rally support for dismembering a Constitutional Union that William Lloyd Garrison called a “covenant with death and agreement with hell.”[4] The three-day meeting was extraordinary in tone and resolutions and should give pause to anyone who lays blame for the dissolution of the Union exclusively upon the slaveholding states.

Higginson’s invitation did not equivocate in setting the tone for the convention. The election of James Buchanan as president promised four more years of pro-slavery governance. This existential crisis was not due to partisan politics, Higginson declared, but the result of fundamental social, legal, and moral differences between the two sections. The Union was a failure; “a hopeless attempt to unite under one government two antagonistic systems of society, which diverge more widely with every year.” It was time to face hard truths, he argued, and consider a separation between slave and free states and “to take other measures as the condition of the times may require.”[5] It was a startling manifesto signed by 89 prominent community leaders in a state that prided itself as the cradle of the American Revolution.

Published Report of the Massachusetts State Disunion Convention 1857

Following an opening address by convention president and paper magnate Francis William Bird of Walpole, Higginson, chairing the business committee, read a series of resolutions that included calls to action. “This movement does not seek merely disunion,” he emphasized, “but the more perfect union of the Free states by the expulsion of the Slave states from the confederation.” The continued existence of the Union, to Higginson and his colleagues, was “the chief guarantee of slavery.” The sooner that disunion could be affected, the more peaceful it was likely to be; but it had to be done, even if that meant resorting to the use of force.[6]

The Reverend Samuel May Jr. then graced the speaker’s stand with an impassioned address that quoted the Declaration of Independence in claiming the right of the people to “alter or abolish” the government when it had become subversive of its founding principles. That rationale had buttressed Southern secessionist arguments for many years, leading many Northern politicians to equate disunion with treason. “We want men who will put their foot on this cry of ‘Treason,’ May exclaimed. The celebrated minister predicted that other states would follow Massachusetts’s example and form a new Union “on the basis of freedom, justice, and righteousness, as can never be mistaken, and never be again rolled back!” As long as Massachusetts remained in the Union, he claimed, her citizens were “conspirators against the rights and liberties of [their] fellow men.”[7] Disunion was a sacred duty.

More impassioned speeches by Garrison, Higginson, Wendell Phillips and others followed, advocating for prompt disunion and criticizing Republican politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson for sacrificing his anti-slavery principles to salvage a broken Union. Dissenting voices were also heard on the convention floor and via letter. Higginson announced further resolutions, including a call for a convention of free states. Several resolutions authored by fiery radical Stephen Symonds Foster of New Hampshire advocated for the creation of a new political party whose elected representatives would pledge to ignore the Federal government, decline to take an oath to the Constitution, and work to establish their states as independent communities.[8] In an earlier address, Higginson boasted that he had been looking for an opportunity to commit treason for ten years.[9] With colleagues like Foster and new acquaintance John Brown, that opportunity appeared close at hand.

Despite similar meetings held in Indiana, Michigan, and other states in the wake of Buchanan’s election, the efforts of Higginson, Garrison, Phillips and others to inspire a viable disunion movement across the free states failed[10]. They underestimated the strong feelings of loyalty that the Union engendered among conservative politicians and the apathy of the public at large on the slavery issue.[11] For historians, however, this seemingly insignificant event offers clear insights into the political goals and strategies of the most radical New England abolitionists. The Massachusetts State Disunion Convention and the year 1857 may be viewed as a watershed moment when these ardent men committed themselves to a drastic political reorganization of the American republic. For Garrison, abolitionism had been transformed from a reform movement “to a revolution more far-reaching, more sublime, more glorious than our fathers ever dreamed of.”[12]

But Garrison was a pacifist at heart, advocating nonresistant tactics. For Higginson and other members of what was to become John Brown’s inner circle, the failure of the disunion movement prompted them to ignore their pangs of conscience and embrace violent revolution to destroy the Union by force via an insurrection that would help plunge the dagger into slavery. They went all in with Brown and did not look back.

David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (University of Tennessee Press, 2020).

[1] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention held at Worcester, Massachusetts, January 15, 1857 (Boston, 1857).

[2] Jeffrey Rossbach, Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 24 ? 5, 32 ? 4, 69 ? 73.

[3] David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 208 ? 14.

[4] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 33.

[5] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 3.

[6] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 11 ? 12.

[7] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 13 ? 16.

[8] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 58 ? 9.

[9] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 30.

[10] The European (New York) 24 January 1857.

[11] For a convincing argument about the power and emotional resonance of the word “Union” in the North, see Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2011).

[12] Proceedings of the State Disunion Convention, 32.

10 Responses to Paving the Way to Harpers Ferry: The Disunion Convention of 1857

  1. This is, of course, the same man who took command of the First Louisiana. I cannnot agree with Higgy on everything, but what a guy!

    1. Thomas Wentlworth Higginson took command of the First South Carolina Volunteers, who called themselves “The First South.” He wrote a minor Civil War classic about the experience, “Army Life in a Black Regiment”

  2. Chicken or Egg?
    Although I enjoyed the Report of the 1857 Convention, the endless pursuit of “Who really started it?” is only of benefit to Southern interests that attempt to deflect attention from “the Evil of Slavery” to “the Evil Abolitionists and their Black Republican Allies.” And coupled with the resolve of moral Northerners to fight back, as revealed in the above report, it must be remembered that: 1) slavery was (and is) evil; 2) armed filibusters continued with their attempts to acquire more and more slave territory (think William Walker); 3) a stated goal of Southern leaders at annual “Agricultural Conventions” included “re-opening the African slave trade” 4) the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced Northerners to become complicit in perpetuation of slavery AND accept the Southern definition of “property” 5) Secession, Disunion, “Peaceful Separation” …all Furphys, involving smoke, mirrors and ignorance. There could never long be “Athens and Sparta” side by side, resident on the same continent. As Lincoln stated: “It will ALL either become one, or the other.” And William Seward was correct in sounding the alarm: “An irrepressible conflict WAS brewing.”
    Harpers Ferry was not a big enough spark; but Fort Sumter was.
    Thanks to David T. Dixon for sparking a new discussion.

    1. I agree. The meeting in Worcester was the abolitionists speaking to each other in Garrisonian terms of a “covenant of death.” Its rhetoric. Since at least 1850, southern politicians had been threatening to secede if a precious lock of slaveriy’s hair was touched.

  3. I am interested in John Brown’s partnership with Harriet Tubman. Can you recommend any honest books that deal with it? According to fire on the Mountain, she was supposed to join Brown in a Harpers Ferry raid in July 1859, but she fell ill.

    1. Hello Bruce. None of the dozen or so books I have concerning John Brown and his raid claim that Tubman planned to participate in the Harpers Ferry raid. She was somewhat supportive of Brown’s efforts although she did not attend his pre-raid convention in Canada. Check the source for that claim. I would refer you to Catherine Clinton’s 2004 biography of Tubman for her take on Tubman’s involvement with Brown. Have not read it but Clinton is a careful researcher and highly respected scholar.

  4. Awesome stuff! I’m learning about this right now in school. It’s mind-boggling to think that the idea of Disunion went back as far as the 1790s and continued to be brought up time and time again by both sides for different political purposes. The book by Elizabeth Varon is particularly insightful, as she covers the rhetoric of Disunion being used in various ways as a weapon to antagonize and further intensify sectional tensions. I’m of the mind the Disunion has been a process, slowing building and fermenting since the 1830s with the Nat Turner rebellion, the Nullification Crisis, and Missouri Compromise. I’m not done with the class or the book, so I don’t know how it evolved in that last decade before the war, but it’s been a wild ride for sure. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  5. I agree with 2 elements of your argument, David.

    1) The disunion convention is an (unfortunately) overlooked event in our reading of that period’s history.

    2) Were the proposals considered at the disunion convention really so radical? Consider that by this point, our Founders had already established 2 (increasingly) democratic governments, creating the 2nd in violation of the 1st’s rules! Ending slavery & making the Declaration of Independence actually mean something seem like as good a reason to me as the reasons for the Articles and Constitution.


    What should be the key meat of your argument–evidence of this disunion convention having scared Southern leaders and inspired them to secede first–is missing entirely. I can’t imagine, however, that the disunion convention played a role in their fears like the raid on Harper’s Ferry did. If Massachusetts wanted to leave the Union at that point, many slaveholders would have simply said “good riddance.” One has to assume they ultimately did not buy the argument that the South couldn’t survive economically without the North. Whatever the case, fascinating event in American/civil rights history.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ladd. My argument really has nothing to do with the role of the disunion convention in motivating Southern leaders to secede. I agree with you that it had little if any impact on that outcome, especially compared to Harpers Ferry. What I do argue is that this convention marked a turning point for radical abolitionists who were frustrated with the failure of moral suasion and now looked to more extreme means, like disunion, to help erase the stain of slavery from the U.S. When that effort drew little mainstream interest, they embraced violence and supported John Brown’s incendiary tactics. This progression from moral force abolition to a violent act that could help trigger disunion is why I believe that the disunion convention was a step on the road to Harpers ferry and eventually civil war.

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