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John Brown and the Secret Six

History is filled with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. I would like to look at a genuine conspiracy from the 1800s.

As a teen, I worked in construction and encountered some interesting individuals. One was an older black gentleman who frequently used the expression: “I’ll be John Brown.” I did not know if that was the equivalent of “I’ll be a ‘sob’” or something similar in the entertaining vernacular of the construction world. As I learned more history, it became clear that my assumption was correct—whether my co-worker intended it that way or not. John Brown is generally known as the abolitionist who was hanged for committing treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He routinely claimed to be a Christian as he simultaneously advocated murdering innocent people.

Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, the fourth of eight children. His parents were Owen Brown and Ruth Mills Brown, and his predominant ancestry was Puritan. His family moved to Hudson, Ohio, in 1805. The city had strong pockets of anti-slavery sentiment that his father identified with.

At the age of 16, Brown moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts; he attended a prep-school there and later an academy in Connecticut. He married Dianthe Lusk in 1820 (died 1832) and Mary Ann Day in 1833, eventually having 21 children, although not all survived. Over time, Brown lived in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, having a career laden with misfortune and poor decisions.

As the slavery issue heated up, Brown moved to Kansas in 1855. Upon arrival, he became active in the anti-slavery movement. It is doubtful many in the modern world would disagree with the anti-slavery sentiment; however, the tactics employed by Brown only exacerbated the problem. For example, Brown was part of the group that murdered five individuals in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas on May 24-25, 1856 (“The Pottawatomie Massacre”).

Brown’s efforts to take over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, proved to be his Waterloo. The first person killed by Brown and his “merry men” was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man, who worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a statue to Shepherd at Harpers Ferry; modern day authoritarians may have destroyed it by now.

How could such an erratic, sometimes emotionally-unhinged and fiscally-inept person like Brown traverse the country?

The simple answer: the Secret Six, a group of six wealthy Northerners who financed a good portion of Brown’s exploits.

Who were these individuals?

1. Gerrit Smith—A wealthy New Yorker who was a reformer and social activist, Smith initially supported deportation and colonization of Blacks but later switched to abolitionism. He owned the Great Wharves at the harbor of Oswego (N.Y.) and benefitted from the Federal Government’s free land policy.

2. Thomas Wentworth Higginson—Unitarian minister, author, and soldier with strong Puritan ancestry. In his youth, he was interested in the “utopian” Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and French socialist Charles Fourier.

3. Theodore Parker—Unitarian minister, speaker, reformer, and Transcendentalist. Parker supported Brook Farm and, like Higginson, was sympathetic to the ideas of Fourier.

4. Samuel Gridley Howe—Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Howe was a doctor and advocate for the blind. His wife, Julia Ward Howe, wrote the Unitarian song, Battle Hymn of the Republic (a version of this South-hating song appears in the Baptist and Methodist hymnals).

5. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn—New Hampshire-born journalist, author, social reformer, and abolitionist who was friendly to the transcendentalist movement.

6. George Luther Stearns—From Medford, Massachusetts, Stearns was an industrialist, merchant, and abolitionist. Being involved in the manufacture of sheet and pipe-lead, he stood to benefit financially from the North’s protectionist tariffs.

These men were generally anti-slavery, anti-Southern, socialistic proponents of centralized government. They had pretty much abandoned Christianity for Unitarian and/or humanist beliefs. It is likely they saw John Brown—a seemingly deranged individual—as a good vehicle to create havoc while they remained somewhat “behind the curtain.”

Ohio Senator Clement Vallandigham, who would eventually be arrested by the Lincoln Administration for exercising his free speech rights (likely a future article), interviewed John Brown in the autumn of 1859. Vallandigham deduced that Brown was simply a pawn in a large-scale conspiracy. The communist Vladimir Lenin, who is often compared favorably to Abe Lincoln, was known to use the phrase “useful idiots” to describe sometimes unknowing pawns. It can be convincingly argued that John Brown fit that mold.


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