Thomas Wentworth Higginson
– May 9
) was an American
, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. During the Civil War
, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers
, the first federally authorized African-American regiment
, from 1862-1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disenfranchised peoples.
Early years and education
Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts
. He was a descendant of Francis Higginson
, a Puritan
minister and emigrant to the colony of Massachusetts Bay
. He was a grandson of Stephen Higginson
, a member of the Continental Congress, and a distant cousin of Henry Lee Higginson
, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
He graduated from Harvard in 1841, and was a schoolmaster for two years. He then studied theology at the Harvard Divinity School, becoming pastor first of the First Religious Society (Unitarian) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and then of the Free Church at Worcester in 1852–58.
Higginson’s deep conviction in the evils of slavery
stemmed in part from his mother’s influence. He greatly admired abolitionists, who, despite persecution, showed courage and commitment to the worthy cause. The writings of William Lloyd Garrison
and Lydia Maria Child
were particularly influential to Higginson’s growing abolitionist enthusiasm during the early 1840s.
At the end of his first year of divinity training, he withdrew from the school to turn his attention to the abolitionist cause. He spent the subsequent year studying and, following the lead of transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker, fighting against the expected war with Mexico. Believing that war was only an excuse to expand slavery and the slave power, Higginson wrote anti-war poems and went door-to-door to get signatures for anti-war petitions. With the split of the anti-slavery movement in the 1840s, Higginson prescribed to the Disunion Abolitionists, who believed that as long as slave states remained a part of the union, Constitutional support for slavery could never be amended. A year after leaving school, a growing passion for abolitionism led Higginson to recommence his divinity studies.
After graduating in 1847, Higginson married Mary Elizabeth Channing, to whom he had been engaged since 1843, and returned to ministry, which he saw as a conduit to spread his abolitionist message. He served as the pastor of the First Religious Society (Unitarian) in the conservative town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. During his two years as pastor, Higginson became unpopular for his bold support of liberal reform, and his actions would eventually lead to a request for his resignation. He supported the Essex County Antislavery Society and criticized the poor treatment of workers at Newburyport cotton factories. Additionally, the young minister invited Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson and fugitive slave William Wells Brown to speak at the church; in sermons he condemned northern apathy towards slavery.
Politics and militant abolitionism
The Compromise of 1850
brought new challenges and new ambitions for the unemployed minister. He ran as the Free Soil party
candidate in the Massachusetts Third Congressional District in 1850. Higginson called upon citizens to uphold God’s law and disobey the Fugitive Slave Act
. Though he lost the election, in 1852 he became pastor of the Free Church in Worcester. During his tenure, Higginson not only supported abolition, but also temperance, labor rights, and rights of women.
Militant opposition to the fugitive slave law was evident among many abolitionists during the 1850s and was also a feature of Higginson's abolitionist cause. The arrest and trial of free black Frederick Jenkins
, known as Shadrach, drove abolitionists to help him escape to Canada. When Higginson heard of the incident, Higginson joined the Boston Vigilance Committee
, believing that he had to do more than quietly help escaped slaves. He participated with Wendell Phillips
and Theodore Parker
in the attempt at freeing Thomas Sims
, a Georgia slave who had escaped to Boston
, and later in storming the Boston Courthouse in a struggle to free escaped slave Anthony Burns
Returning from a voyage to Europe for the health of his wife, who had an unknown illness, Higginson organized a group of men on behalf of the New England Emigration Aid
Society to utilize peaceful means as tensions rose after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
. The act divided the region into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, which would separately decide whether to allow slavery within its borders. Upon returning from the unsuccessful expedition, Higginson devoted himself once more to working against the apathy he felt in New England, speechmaking, fundraising, and helping to organize the Massachusetts Kansas Aid Committee
. He returned to the Kansas territory as an agent of the National Kansas Aid Committee, where he worked to rebuild morale and distribute supplies to settlers. After these experiences, Higginson was thoroughly convinced that abolition could not be attained by peaceful methods.
As sectional conflict escalated, Higginson continued to support disunion abolitionism, organizing the Worcester Disunion Convention
in 1857. The convention asserted abolition as its primary goal, even if it would lead the country to war. Higginson was a fervent supporter of John Brown
and is remembered as one of the “Secret Six”
abolitionists who helped Brown raise money and procure supplies for the intended slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
. When Brown was captured, Higginson attempted to raise money for a trial defense and made plans to help the leader escape from prison, though he was ultimately unsuccessful.
During the early part of the Civil War, Higginson was a captain
in the 51st Massachusetts Infantry
. From November 1862 to October 1864, when he was retired because of a wound received in the preceding August, he was colonel
of the First South Carolina Volunteers
, the first regiment recruited from former slaves for the Federal service. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
required that black regiments be commanded by white officers. Higginson described his Civil War experiences in Army Life in a Black Regiment
(1870). He also contributed to the preservation of Negro Spirituals by copying dialect verses and music he heard sung around the regiment's campfires.
Higginson was a strong advocate of homeopathy. In 1863 he wrote to Mary Channing Higginson - ".. and also Ms. Laura Towne, the homeopathic physician of the department, chief teacher and probably the most energetic person this side of civilisation: a person of splendid health and astonishing capacity.... I think she has done more for me than anyone else by prescribing homeopathic arsenic as a tonic, one powder every day on rising, and it has already, I think (3 doses) affected me.
In politics, Higginson was successively a Republican, an Independent and a Democrat.
After the Civil War he devoted most of his time to literature. His writings show a deep love of nature, art and humanity, and are marked by vigour of thought, sincerity of feeling, and grace and finish of style. In his Common Sense About Women (1881) and his Women and Men (1888) he advocated equality of opportunity and equality of rights for the two sexes.
Higginson is also remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to Emily Dickinson
In April 1862, Higginson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled "Letter to a Young Contributor," in which he advised budding young writers. Emily Dickinson, a 32-year-old woman from Amherst, Massachusetts sent a letter to Higginson, enclosing four poems and asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" (Letter 261) He was not — his reply included gentle "surgery" (that is, criticism) of Dickinson's raw, odd verse, questions about Dickinson's personal and literary background, and a request for more poems.
Higginson's next reply contained high praise, causing Dickinson to reply that it "gave no drunkenness" only because she had "tasted rum before"; she still, though, had "few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue" (Letter 265). But in the same letter, Higginson warned her against publishing her poetry because of its unconventional form and style.
Gradually, Higginson became Dickinson's mentor and "preceptor," though he himself almost felt out of Dickinson's league. "The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me," he wrote, "and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy." ("Emily Dickinson's Letters," Atlantic Monthly October 1891) After Dickinson died, Higginson collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd in publishing volumes of her poetry — heavily edited in favor of conventional punctuation, diction, and rhyme. But Higginson's intellectual prominence helped Dickinson's altered but still startling and strange poetry gain favor, becoming quick bestsellers and lasting classics.
Among Higginson's numerous books are:
- Outdoor Papers (1863)
- Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869)
- Malbone: an Oldport Romance (1869)
- Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (in American Men of Letters series, 1884)
- A Larger History of the United States of America to the Close of President Jackson's Administration (1885)
- The Monarch of Dreams (1886)
- Travellers and Outlaws (1889)
- The Afternoon Landscape (1889), poems and translations
- Life of Francis Higginson (in Makers of America, 1891)
- Concerning All of Us (1892)
- The Procession of the Flowers and Kindred Papers (1897)
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (in American Men of Letters series, 1902)
- John Greenleaf Whittier (in English Men of Letters series, 1902)
- A Readers History of American Literature (1903), the Lowell Institute lectures for 1903, edited by Henry W Boynton
- Life and Times of Stephen Higginson (1907)
Higginson published several memoirs, Cheerful Yesterdays (1898), Old Cambridge (1899), Contemporaries (1899), and Part of a Man's Life (1905). His collected works were published in seven volumes in 1900.
- Wells, Anna Mary. Dear Preceptor: The Life and Times of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963
- Edelstein, Tilden G. Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.
- Meyer, Howard N. Colonel of the Black Regiment: The Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1967.
- The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), edited by Howard N. Meyer, Da Capo Press, 2000, 600 pp, ISBN 0306809540.
- Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Knopf, 2008
- Caleb Crain, "The Monarch of Dreams" (a review-essay about Thomas Wentworth Higginson), The New Republic, May 28, 2001