A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

John Brown and the Secret Six

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 broke the Missouri Compromise by leaving it to a vote of the inhabitants to decide whether a state formed from the Kansas territory would allow slavery. In Boston, emigrant aid societies publicly appealed to colonists to win the battle for the territory at the ballot box, while in secret, these same members shipped “special supplies”—Colt revolvers and Sharps rifles—to Kansas.

The legend of “Captain” John Brown—murderous fanatic and/or heroic defender of the antislavery cause—was born in “Bleeding Kansas.” By 1859, with financial support from Northern abolitionists, including five members of the “Secret Six” who lived in the Boston area, Brown began to plan direct action against the South, in the form of an attack on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

God Himself is with Us for our Captain..., Garrison antislavery banner
Cotton, paint by unknown, Boston, 1843
John Brown
Daguerreotype attributed to John Adams Whipple, 1856

The "Secret Six", a group of abolitionists that offered financial support to John Brown and the insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia were: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. All but Smith were active in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. Smith was a reformer and politician from New York state.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Photomechanical, 1846
Samuel Gridley Howe
Photomechanical, halftone
Theodore Parker
Photomechanical of a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier
Franklin Benjamin Sanborn
Gerrit Smith
Photograph by Brady
George Luther Stearns
Engraving by J. A. J. Wilcox


Exhibition: 22 February - 24 May 2013

"'Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land': Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865" displays many important manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts from the Society's collections that relate to the Abolitionist movement in Boston. Visitors can view such items as the imposing table for The Liberator, which has not been on display in the Society's building for many years. The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.

Additional Online Resource

The Case for Ending Slavery features curricular resources and more than 50 primary sources from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Library of Congress that reveal how slavery, and debates about slavery, contributed to the formation of the United States.

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