BRATTLEBORO — On Feb. 6, 1870, Thomas Wentworth Higginson spoke in Boston about the “Sympathy of Religions.” In the address, he shared how religions from around the world have similar beliefs and share common sympathies with one another. He argued that people have more in common than they may think.
Higginson was a bit of a rabble-rouser. He was an abolitionist, an advocate for women’s equality and a defender of worker’s rights. He was involved in many radical political causes and engaged with the leading literary figures of the 19th century. During the Civil War he was commanding officer of the first regiment of freed slaves to fight for Union forces.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1823 and died there in 1911. He was the youngest of six children. When he was 10 years old his father died. His oldest brother, Francis, became a doctor and was 17 years older than Thomas.
In 1842 Francis moved to Brattleboro to practice medicine. His mother and two sisters moved to Brattleboro as well. For the next 50 years Thomas would be a frequent visitor to Brattleboro. The Higginson family home was located on Linden Street and was sold in 1893.
In 1841 Thomas graduated from Harvard College and began studying to become a minister. After a year he left his studies to join the abolitionist movement full-time. He followed the teachings of Thomas Parker and joined a more extreme branch of abolitionists who favored expelling slave-holding states from the country.
Thomas began to spend time in Brattleboro with his family while also continuing his abolitionist work. Eventually he went back to divinity school and graduated in 1847. He also married in 1847 and brought his wife, Mary Channing of Boston, to Brattleboro. He eventually took up ministries in Massachusetts.
In 1853 he spoke at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in favor of women’s voting rights. In the same year he was also a featured speaker at the Women’s Suffrage Convention in New York City. Higginson became close friends with abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone and worked with her on many campaigns.
In 1855 Lucy Stone married Henry Blackwell and Higginson officiated the wedding. The marriage was a very public affair and also promoted women’s rights. In the ceremony, Higginson read the following statement made by the couple, and then distributed the document to ministers as a model he urged other couples to follow.
“While acknowledging our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet in justice to ourselves, we deem it our duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to the present laws of marriage, as they refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being. Further, they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.”
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and Higginson joined a group that actively defied the law by protecting fugitive slaves. In 1854 his beliefs led him to launch an attack on a Boston federal courthouse in an attempt to free Anthony Burns, a captured slave. In the violent skirmish he received a saber wound and Burns was released to the man who claimed ownership of him. Higginson led protests in the Boston streets with tens of thousands of people. He was arrested for his role in the attack, but the charges were eventually dropped.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed for the possibility of slavery expanding into newly established territories of the United States. Higginson found this unacceptable and began raising money and organizing to populate Kansas with people opposed to slavery. Twice he traveled to Kansas and brought supplies, including weapons and ammunition, to the anti-slavery factions in the territory.
While in Kansas, Higginson met John Brown and became a believer in his radical approach to ending slavery through organized military-style uprisings. Higginson raised money to support Brown’s efforts and when Brown led a violent anti-slavery insurrection in Virginia, Higginson raised money for Brown’s trial defense. Higginson also began plans to help Brown escape from prison, but Brown got word back to Higginson that he did not want to be rescued. Some of the letters written to Brown by Higginson were written while he was visiting his family in Brattleboro.
In 1859, Higginson met Harriet Tubman in Boston and they became lasting friends. Tubman was in New England looking to raise funds to help pay for costs associated with relocating former slaves to the north. Higginson introduced Tubman at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Here is an excerpt from a letter Higginson wrote to his mother, “We have had the greatest heroine of the age here, Harriet Tubman, a Black woman, and a fugitive slave, who has been back eight times secretly and brought out in all sixty slaves with her, including her own family, besides aiding many more in other ways to escape. Her tales of adventure are beyond any fiction and her ingenuity and generalship are extraordinary. I have known her for some time and mentioned her in speeches once or twice — the slaves call her Moses. She has had a reward of $12,000 offered for her capture and will probably be burned alive whenever she is caught, which she probably will be, as she is going again.”
Higginson saw Tubman and other fugitive slaves as his teachers, writing, “We learned to speak because their presence made silence impossible.”
When the Civil War began, Higginson joined the military. In 1863 he was chosen to lead the first African-American regiment in the war. He was the commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers. Higginson wrote of the experience, “We, their officers, did not go there to teach lessons, but to receive them. There were more than a hundred men in the ranks who had voluntarily met more dangers in their escape from slavery than any of my young captains had incurred in all their lives.”
During the Civil War years, Higginson found himself collaborating with Harriet Tubman again. She was a Union spy working behind enemy lines along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. She led many people to Union lines and freedom. She also provided information that led to the successful invasion of Jacksonville, Florida.
Higginson wrote of the invasion, “The pretty town was our own without a shot. The surprise had been complete, and not a soul in Jacksonville had dreamed of our coming.”
In 1869 Higginson wrote a book called, “Army Life in a Black Regiment.” It is freely available online and an interesting read.
Higginson is also well known for his friendship and correspondence with the poet Emily Dickinson. He published a memoir of her, and co-edited Dickinson’s first published collections of poetry. He also served as poetry editor of The Nation magazine for 26 years.
In 1875 he published a textbook for public schools, Young Folks History of the United States. In the preface he wrote, “It will be noticed that less space than usual is given to the events of war, and more to the affairs of peace. This course has been deliberately pursued. It is desirable, no doubt, that the reader should fully understand the way in which every important war began and ended, and that he should read enough of the details to know in what spirit it was carried on. Beyond this, the statistics of sieges and battles are of little value, and are apt to make us forget that the true story of a nation lies, after all, in orderly progress. Times of peace, the proverb says, have few historians; but this may be more the fault of the historians than of the times.”
In 1983, Brattleboro historian Richard Michelman wrote a letter to the Reformer. He bemoaned the fact that the State of Vermont had decided to demolish the Higginson Cottage on Linden Street in order to make way for a new courthouse. He wondered if Vermont was more interested in protecting its heritage or destroying it.
In the 1870 address concerning the “Sympathy of Religions,” Higginson said, “There is a noble and a base side to every history.”