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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 341

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This is the grave of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Born in 1823 in Cambridge to an old Puritan family, Higginson started at Harvard at age 13 and graduated in 1841. He taught for a bit and then went to Harvard Divinity School. But he was more interested in politics and social reform than religion. He dropped out after a year to become active in the abolitionist movement. This seems to have happened after he read Lydia Maria Child’s famed Appeal, one of the most important anti-slavery tracts. This was as the United States began its unjust war to steal the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery. Higginson was outraged by this action. He started writing anti-war poems and basically canvassing door-to-door to organize against the war. He eventually did go back and get that divinity degree and became a Unitarian minister, taking a parish in Newburyport, Massachusetts with a reputation for reform politics in 1847. But he was really radical. He had the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the escaped slave William Wells Brown come speak at the church, while also denouncing northern apathy toward slavery from the pulpit week after week. This was all too much for his parishioners and he was forced out a year later. The final straw was a furious sermon lambasting the nation for electing the slaveholding Zachary Taylor to the presidency and slamming his own congregation for not caring enough about slavery. Turns out that attacking your own congregation is not a great way to remain in the pulpit.

Higginson continued in his radical politics even as he now was unemployed. He was a Free Soil candidate for Congress in 1850, joined the Boston Vigilance Committee to defy the Fugitive Slave Act and protect African-Americans in that city, and participated in the 1854 attempt to free Thomas Sims, an escaped slave recaptured. He was actually wounded in the attempt, being sliced on the chin with a sabre, which made him very proud. He was active in support of Free Soil in Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act and actively wanted a civil war if it would rid the nation of slavery. He helped John Brown raise money for his raid on Harpers’ Ferry; while other members of the so-called Secret Six fled when Brown failed, Higginson proudly stuck around and tried to plan an escape attempt for Brown. Higginson supported other causes as well, including women’s rights, which was definitely not universal among white male abolitionists.

During the Civil War, Higginson not surprisingly joined up. In fact, he became a colonel for the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment organized from freedmen. A genuine anti-racist, unlike many abolitionist, not only did Higginson lead his troops into battle, to the point he had to leave the military in 1864 after being wounded, but he also wrote about spirituals and attempted to introduce northern readers to black culture.

After the war, Higginson seems to have spent more time on writing and women’s issues than on fighting for African-American rights during Reconstruction. However, he did write Army Life in a Black Regiment in 1870, a narrative of his time leading those troops. He continued being active in the women’s suffrage movement, served a term in the Massachusetts state legislature in the early 1880s, advocated for an ecumenicalism based on all religions having many truths in common, wrote poetry, and also wrote a couple of books on equality between the sexes. He also wrote was something of a cut-rate Thoreau, writing similar but inferior nature books. Incidentally, Thoreau thought Higginson’s interest in women’s rights completely ridiculous and when the latter followed the former’s trip to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, he noted that it was a much better use of his time than going to some women’s rights meeting. A man committed to gender equality is not how one would describe Thoreau. He did however deeply respect Higginson’s abolitionism.

In his late life, he became interested in socialism and, with Jack London and Upton Sinclair, founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905, the unofficial student wing of the Socialist Party. He also was Emily Dickinson’s mentor when she was a young writer. He did much to promote her career, even as he gave her poor advice about changing her style and worried she wouldn’t ever become known. He died in 1911.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to cover more abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lydia Maria Child is buried in Wayland, Massachusetts, just as one example. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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