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The Men Who Started the War

John Brown and the Secret Six—the abolitionists who funded the raid on Harpers Ferry—confronted a question as old as America: When is violence justified?

When does war start? When does violence become justified? When does it shift from prohibited to permitted and even necessary? Those questions hang in the air at Harpers Ferry, compelling us to ask: When did the Civil War actually begin—and end?

Brown drew the admiring attention of almost every prominent American writer—Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Longfellow, Whittier. But some among the nation’s northern elite did more than praise and defend Brown. Thinking back in his autobiography to events half a century earlier, and relying on a diary he kept in the 1850s, the abolitionist and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson reflected on what a duty to morality demands when “law and order” stand on “the wrong side” of right and justice.

For him, this was not a theoretical question. He was thinking about the role he’d played long before armies massed on battlefields. He was thinking about the process by which “honest American men” had evolved into “conscientious law-breakers,” until “good citizenship” became a “sin” and bad citizenship a “duty.” Higginson was one among a small group of prominent white men who had known about the Harpers Ferry raid in advance and provided the financial support that enabled Brown to buy weapons and equipment. They came to be known as the Secret Six.

During the 1850s, a succession of legislative and judicial measures had tightened slavery’s grip on the nation. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 compelled the North to become complicit in returning those who had escaped slavery to southern bondage. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 overturned the Missouri Compromise of a generation earlier, which had restricted the expansion of slavery into the northern territories. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, in 1857, established that no Black person could be considered a citizen or hold any “rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The perpetuation of slavery and racial injustice appeared to have become enshrined as an enduring national commitment, with the federal government assuming the role of active enforcer. Faced with such developments, the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass found himself losing hope of ending slavery through moral suasion or political action; he came to see violence as necessary if emancipation was ever to be accomplished. Slavery itself, he believed, represented an act of war. The justification for violence already existed; whether—and how—to use it became more a pragmatic decision than a moral one.