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Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Born (1823-12-22)December 22, 1823
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Died May 9, 1911(1911-05-09) (aged 87)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Signature Thomas Wentworth Higginson Signature.svg

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823 – May 9, 1911) was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, 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 disfranchised peoples.


Early yearsEdit

Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 22, 1823. He was a descendant of Francis Higginson, a Puritan minister and emigrant to the colony of Massachusetts Bay. His father, Stephen Higginson (born Salem, Massachusetts, November 20, 1770; died Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 20, 1834), was a merchant and philanthropist in Boston and steward of Harvard University from 1818 until 1834. His grandfather, also named Stephen Higginson, was a member of the Continental Congress. He was a distant cousin of Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a great grandson of his grandfather.[1]

Education and abolitionismEdit

Higginson attended Harvard College at age thirteen and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at sixteen.[2] He graduated in 1841, and was a schoolmaster for two years and, in 1842, became engaged to Mary Elizabeth Channing.

He then studied theology at the Harvard Divinity School. 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.

Marriage and familyEdit

He married Mary Channing in 1847 after graduating from divinity school.


A year after leaving school, a growing passion for abolitionism led Higginson to recommence his divinity studies and he graduated in 1847. Higginson was called as pastor at the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a Unitarian church known for its liberal Christianity.[3][4] 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.[citation needed] Higginson proved too radical for the congregation and was forced to resign in 1848.[5]

Politics and militant abolitionismEdit

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, circa Civil War years

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, but lost. Higginson called upon citizens to uphold God's law and disobey the Fugitive Slave Act. He joined the Boston Vigilance Committee, an organization whose purpose was to protect fugitive slaves from pursuit and capture.[5] His joining of the group was inspired by the arrest and trial of the free black Frederick Jenkins, known as Shadrach. Abolitionists helped him escape to Canada. He participated with Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker in the attempt at freeing Thomas Sims, a Georgia slave who had escaped to Boston. In 1854, when the escaped Anthony Burns was threatened with extradition under the Fugitive Slave Act, Higginson led a small group who stormed the federal courthouse in Boston with battering rams, axes, cleavers, and revolvers.[2] They could not prevent Burns from being taken back to the South. Higginson received a saber slash on his chin; he wore the scar proudly for the rest of his life.

In 1852 Higginson 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.

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 Company to use 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, whose residents would separately vote on whether to allow slavery within each jurisdiction's borders. Both abolitionist and pro-slavery supporters began to migrate to the territories. After his return, Higginson worked to keep activism aroused in New England by 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, working to rebuild morale and distribute supplies to settlers. Higginson became convinced that abolition could not be attained by peaceful methods.

As sectional conflict escalated, he 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 his intended slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. When Brown was captured, Higginson tried to raise money for a trial defense and made plans to help the leader escape from prison, though he was ultimately unsuccessful. Other members of the Secret Six fled to Canada or elsewhere after Brown's capture, but Higginson never fled, despite his involvement being common knowledge. Higginson was never arrested or called to testify.[5]

Woman's rights activismEdit

Higginson was one of leading male advocates of woman's rights during the decade before the Civil War. In 1853 he addressed the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in support of a petition asking that women be allowed to vote on ratification of the new constitution. Published as “Woman and Her Wishes,”[6] the address was used many years as a [1] woman's rights tract, as was an 1859 article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, [2] “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?”[7] A close friend and supporter of woman's rights leader Lucy Stone, he performed the marriage ceremony of Stone and Henry B. Blackwell in 1855 and, by sending their protest of unjust marriage laws to the press, was responsible for their "Marriage Protest" becoming a famous document.[8] Together with Stone, he compiled and published [3] The Woman's Rights Almanac for 1858,[9] which provided data such as income disparity between the sexes as well as a summary of gains made by the national movement during its first seven years. He also compiled and published, in 1858, [4] "Consistent Democracy: The Elective Franchise for Women. Twenty-five Testimonies of Prominent Men,” brief excerpts favoring woman suffrage from the speeches or writing of such men as Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher, Rev. Wm.H. Channing, Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith, and various governors, legislators, and legislative reports.[10] A member of the National Woman's Rights Central Committee since 1853 or 1854, he was one of nine activists retained in that post when that large body of state representatives was reduced in 1858.[11]

After the Civil War, Higginson was an organizer of the New England Woman Suffrage Association in 1868,[12] and of the American Woman Suffrage Association the following year. He was one of the original editors of the suffrage newspaper The Woman’s Journal, founded in 1870, and contributed a front-page column to it for fourteen years. As a two-year member of the Massachusetts legislature, 1880–82, he was a valuable link between suffragists and the legislature.[13]

Civil War yearsEdit

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 authorized regiment recruited from freedmen 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), which has been published online by Project Gutenberg ( He contributed to the preservation of Negro spirituals by copying dialect verses and music he heard sung around the regiment's campfires.

Later years and deathEdit

Thomas Wentworth Higginson grave

Grave of Thomas Wentworth Higginson

After the Civil War, he devoted most of his time to literature.[14] 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.

In 1891 Higginson became one of the founders of the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom (SAFRF). He edited its public appeal "To the Friends of Russian Freedom". Later, in 1907 Higginson was the vice-president of the SAFRF.

Higginson died May 9, 1911. He is buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the intersection of Riverview, Lawn, and Prospect paths.[15]


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 abolitionist enthusiasm during the early 1840s.


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."[16]

Political partiesEdit

In politics, Higginson was successively a Republican, an Independent and a Democrat.

Relationship with Emily DickinsonEdit

Emily Dickinson´s letter about her love

Letter and envelope from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson is remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to the poet 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 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. In White Heat (Knopf, 2008), an account of Higginson's friendship with Dickinson, author Brenda Wineapple credits Higginson with more editorial sensitivity than literary historians have assumed. Higginson's intellectual prominence helped gain favor for Dickinson's altered but still startling and strange poetry.

Selected list of worksEdit

  • Outdoor Papers (1863)
  • Malbone: an Oldport Romance (1869)
  • Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870)[2]
  • A Book of American Explorers (1877)
  • Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli[2] (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)
  • Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic (1898)
  • Cheerful Yesterdays (1898)[2]
  • Old Cambridge (1899)
  • Contemporaries (1899)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow[2] (in American Men of Letters series, 1902)
  • John Greenleaf Whittier[2] (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
  • Part of a Man's Life (1905)
  • Life and Times of Stephen Higginson (1907)

See alsoEdit


  1. Wikisource-logo Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1892) "Higginson, Stephen" Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography New York: D. Appleton 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Wilson, Susan. Literary Trail of Greater Boston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000: 119. ISBN 0-618-05013-2
  3. Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1999: 70. ISBN 1-57003-244-0.
  4. Owen, Barbara. "History of the First Religious Society", First Religious Society (Unitarian Universalist), Newburyport, MA. Accessed on 2010-08-14.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1999: 70–71. ISBN 1-57003-244-0.
  6. Million, Joelle, Woman's Voice, Woman's Place: Lucy Stone and the Birth of the Women's Rights Movement. Praeger, 2003. ISBN 0-275-97877-X, pp. 136–37, 173.
  7. Meyer, 2000, pp. 266–82.
  8. Million, 2003, p. 195.
  9. The Woman's Rights Almanac for 1858, Containing Facts, Statistics, Arguments, Records of Progress, and Proofs of the Need of It. Worcester, Mass: Z. Baker & Co.; Boston: R. F. Walcutt. [1857]
  10. "The Elective Franchise for Woman," National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 27, 1858, p. 3.
  11. New York Times, May 15, 1858, p. 4.
  12. Dubois, Ellen Carol, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869, Cornell University Press, (1978), p. 168.
  13. Merk, Lois Bannister, “Massachusetts and the Woman Suffrage Movement,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1958, Revised, 1961, pp. 16–17.
  14. Alexander K. McClure, ed (1902). Famous American Statesmen & Orators. VI. New York: F. F. Lovell Publishing Company. p. 222. 
  15. Wilson, Susan. Literary Trail of Greater Boston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000: 117. ISBN 0-618-05013-2
  16. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Christopher Looby (2000). The complete Civil War journal and selected letters of Thomas Wentworth .... University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-33330-2. 


  • Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) "Wikisource:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Higginson, Thomas Wentworth" Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press 

Further readingEdit

  • Marc A. Bauch: Extending the Canon: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and African-American Spirituals. Munich, Germany: Grin, 2013
  • Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York: Knopf, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4000-4401-6. plus Author Interview at the Pritzker Military Library on February 20, 2009
  • 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.
  • Meyer, Howard N., ed. The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1823–1911. DaCapo Press, 2000.
  • Wells, Anna Mary. Dear Preceptor: The Life and Times of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963


  • Muccigrosso, Robert, ed. Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 5:2543-46

Primary SourcesEdit

  • Meyer, Howard N. (ed.) The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2000. ISBN 0-306-80954-0.

External linksEdit

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