The Secret Six, or the Secret Committee of Six, was a group of men who secretly funded the 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry by abolitionist John Brown. Sometimes described as "wealthy," this was true of only two. The other four were in positions of influence, and could, therefore, encourage others to contribute to "the cause."
The Secret Six were Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns. All six had been involved in the abolitionist cause prior to their meeting John Brown, and had gradually become convinced that slavery would not die a peaceful death.
Of these six men, only Smith and Sterns were truly "wealthy"; the others consisted of two Unitarian ministers (Parker and Higginson) a doctor (Howe), at a time when men of medicine were "middle class", and a teacher (Sanborn).
Involvement with John Brown
Brown was planning to capture weapons from a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and lead a slave rebellion in the South. While it is unclear whether these men knew of Brown's ultimate plan, it is known that some were ambivalent regarding the use of violence as a way to bring about the destruction of slavery. Brown met with the Six several times over the course of 1858 and 1859 to discuss how he would attack the slave system.
In October 1859, Brown's plan failed. During and after his trial, the New York Times and the New York Herald began to link the names of the Six with Brown's. On November 7, Smith had himself confined to an insane asylum, denying that he had been involved in supporting Brown. Howe, Sanborn and Stearns fled to Canada temporarily to avoid arrest. Parker was already in Italy, a guest of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as it was believed the Italian climate was helpful to those suffering from tuberculosis.
"We did not know that Brown meant to begin there, in Virginia, at Harper's Ferry," Sanborn insisted. Like Gerrit Smith, Sanborn felt justified in making public statements which told a part of the truth, but not the whole truth. "We expected he would go farther west, into a region less accessible, where his movements might escape notice for weeks, except as the alleged acts of some marauding party."
|“||Sanborn was nearly kidnapped. Great ferment in town. Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper's carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in.||”|
On the night of April third, five federal marshalls arrived at Frank Sanborn's home in Concord, handcuffed him and attempted to wrestle him into a coach and take him to Washington to answer questions before the Senate in regard to his involvement with John Brown. Approximately 150 towns-people rushed to Sanborn's defense. Judge Ebenezer R. Hoar issued a writ of replevin, formally demanding the surrender of the prisoner. In a letter to a friend, Louisa May Alcott wrote, "Sanborn was nearly kidnapped. Great ferment in town. Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper's carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in."
Parker, dying of tuberculosis, remained in Italy until his death in 1860. Higginson was the sole member of the Six to stay in the United States and to publicly proclaim his support for Brown. He even developed a plan to have Brown rescued from his jail cell, but Brown did not want any part of it. Higginson asked Sanborn upon the latter's absconding to Canada, "Can your clear moral sense justify our holding our tongues in order to save ourselves from the reprobation of society, even as that nobler man whom we did provoke to enter into danger becomes the scapegoat of that reprobation, going for us even to the gallows?"
In January 1863, a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation was held at the home of George Sterns and attended by Sam and Julia Ward Howe, Frank Sanborn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and John Murray Forbes. Higginson, who was busy commanding a black regiment of Union soldiers, sent his regrets. Garrit Smith did not respond to Sterns' invitation. A marble bust of John Brown, created by sculptor Edwin Brackett, was unveiled at this time.
In 1867, Gerrit Smith helped post bail to release the imprisoned former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Smith’s wife wrote to Sanborn in 1874, confirming that her husband had destroyed every one of his letters having anything to do with John Brown. Sanborn likewise combed through his own papers and letters, weeding out anything implicating himself or his cronies in Brown’s raid. Only some letters to Theodore Parker, which came back to Sanborn a year and more after his death, were not destroyed at this time.
For the remainder of their lives, Higginson, Sanborn and Sterns made periodic pilgrimages to Brown's grave in North Elba, New York. Frank Sanborn saw to it that the daughters of John Brown received an education in Concord, and even after the turn of the twentieth century took a measure of responsibility for Brown's children and grandchildren.
Higginson expressed the wish that disunion could have been achieved "without the sacrifice of Brown" and believed a counter-proposal to the Harper's Ferry scheme should have been made—one that protected Brown from himself, believing the Six should have perceived "the madness that dwelled within him-- the insanity that sat stealthily beside his great, selfless nobility."
After Sanborn's death in 1917, the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a bill applauding him for his various life works, with special mention given to Sanborn's role as "confidential adviser to John Brown of Harper's Ferry, for whose sake he was ostracized, maltreated, and subjected to the indignity of false arrest, having been saved from deportation from Massachusetts only by mob violence."
- Clark, Tom Foran. The Significance of Being Frank: the Life and Times of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.
- The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired With John Brown, by Edward Renehan. (1997) (ISBN 1-57003-181-9)
- Ambivalent Conspirators: John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence, by Jeffery Rossbach. (1982)
- The Significance of Being Frank: The Life and Times of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, by Tom Foran Clark. 
- The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, by Otto J. Scott. (1979) (ISBN 0-8129-0777-9)
- Trent, James W., Jr. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.