In 1848 or 1849, Redpath and his family emigrated from Scotland to a farm near Kalamazoo, Michigan. He worked as a printer in Kalamazoo and Detroit, where he wrote antislavery articles under the pseudonym "Berwick." Then he worked as a reporter for Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune. An early assignment at the Tribune involved compiling "Facts of Slavery," a regular series of articles gathered from Southern newspaper exchanges. Beginning in March 1854, he traveled in the South to examine slavery for himself, interviewing slaves and collecting material published in 1859 as The Roving Editor: or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States. The book's production costs were covered by prominent antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith.
In 1855, Redpath moved to the Kansas-Missouri border and reported for a Free Soil newspaper, the Missouri Democrat, on the dispute over slavery in Kansas Territory. For the next three years, he was active in Kansas affairs, engaging in politics, writing dispatches, securing support in New England for Free Soil setters, and writing poetry about Kansas. In 1856, he interviewed John Brown just days after the massacre at Pottawatomie Creek. Redpath and Brown shared the same abolitionist views, and he became Brown's most fervent publicist. In 1858, Brown encouraged Redpath to move to Boston to help rally support for his plan for a Southern slave insurrection. After the failure of Brown's 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Redpath wrote a highly sympathetic biography of the executed abolitionist, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860).
Redpath returned East from Kansas in July 1858. During the Pike's Peak Gold Rush of 1859, he and fellow journalist Richard J. Hinton prepared a guidebook for gold prospectors, Hand-Book to Kansas Territory and the Rocky Mountains' Gold Region. It was hoped that the book would spur a greater number of Free Soil immigrants to settle in Kansas Territory, which included part of what later became Colorado.
In 1860, Redpath toured Haiti as a reporter and returned to the United States as the official Haitian lobbyist for diplomatic recognition, which he secured within two years. He simultaneously served as director of Haiti's campaign to attract free black emigrants from the United States and Canada. His Guide to Hayti (1860) is an anthology of articles by various authors on a wide range of Haitian subjects. Redpath hoped that immigration of skilled blacks to Haiti would elevate conditions there and dispel racial prejudice in the United States. After the Civil War, he abandoned his ideas when he recognized that North American blacks preferred to remain at home.
In 1863 and 1864, following the failure of Redpath's Boston publishers Thayer and Eldridge, he set up his own firm and began the series "Books for the Times," which included William Wells Brown's The Black Man, John R. Beard's Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches. In 1864, he published another series of cheap paperbound books, titled "Books for the Campfires," principally intended for distribution to Union soldiers. Later that year he abandoned publishing to serve as a war correspondent with the armies of George Henry Thomas and William Tecumseh Sherman in Georgia and South Carolina. In February 1865, federal military authorities appointed him the first superintendent of public schools in the Charleston, South Carolina region. He soon had more than 100 instructors at work teaching 3,500 African-American and white students. He also founded an orphan asylum.
In May 1865 in Charleston, Redpath organized what has been called the first-ever Memorial Day service to honor buried Union Army dead there. In 2014, however, this designation was disputed by Bellware and Gardiner in The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America. They point out that it was actually a cemetery dedication, not meant to be repeated annually and not unlike the one that took place at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863 that debuted Lincoln’s famous address. David Blight, the main proponent of this thesis confessed that he has no evidence that this cemetery dedication influenced General Logan to inaugurate the annual holiday.
His reputation as a radical abolitionist and his tentative steps toward integrating South Carolina's school caused worried military officials to replace Redpath and remove an irritation to Southern-born President Andrew Johnson. Ironically, Redpath served as the ghost writer of Jefferson Davis's history of the Confederacy.
Redpath Lyceum Bureau
In 1868, Redpath started the Boston Lyceum Bureau. Later known as the Redpath Bureau, it supplied speakers and performers for lyceums all across the country. It represented figures such as Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher, Susan B. Anthony, Lew Wallace and Frederick Douglass. The Redpath Bureau became the most prominent and successful agency of its kind. Leland Powers, a faculty at the Bureau, established his own school after Redpath left.
Redpath sold his interest in the Bureau in 1875 and lived alternately in Washington, D.C. and New York, when not traveling. At the end of the decade, his health declined but, in 1880-81, he reported on famine and the land war in western Ireland. Redpath was deeply affected by the extreme poverty of much of rural Ireland and he converted his friend and fellow-abolitionist David Ross Locke to support for Irish nationalism by taking him up the Galtee Mountains to show him the condition of smallholding mountain tenants. Redpath became an outspoken advocate of the cause of the Land League and Charles Stewart Parnell; pro-landlord commentators accused him of incitement to murder. Upon his return to the United States, he lectured on the lyceum circuit, wrote newspaper articles, and published Talks about Ireland and Redpath's Weekly, both devoted to Irish causes.
Redpath became editor of the North American Review in 1886. He died in 1891, shortly after being run over by a horse-drawn trolley in New York.
- The Roving Editor; or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States. A. B. Burdick. 1859.
- A Handbook to the Kansas Territory, J.H. Colton, 1859
- The Public Life of Capt John Brown. Thayer and Eldridge. 1860.
- Echoes of Harper's Ferry. Thayer and Eldridge. 1860.
- A Guide to Hayti. G.W. Colton. 1861.
- Talks about Ireland. P. J. Kenedy. 1881.
- John R. McKivigan, Forgotten Firebrand: James Redpath and the Making of Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
- McKivigan, John R. "James Redpath" in: Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
- Koontz, John P. "James Redpath" in: Writers of the American Renaissance: an A-to-Z guide. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003
- Boyd, Willis D. "James Redpath and American Negro Colonization in Haiti, 1860-1862." The Americas, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Oct., 1955), pp. 169–182.
- Hart, Jim A. "James Redpath, Missouri Correspondent," Missouri Historical Review, 57.1 (1962–63): 70-78.
- Horner, Charles F. The Life of James Redpath and the Development of the Modern Lyceum. New York: Barse and Hopkins, 1926.
- Pond, James Burton. Eccentricities of Genius: Memories of Famous Men and Women of the Platform and Stage. NY: G.W. Dillingham, 1900. Google books
- The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. 1904. Google books
- Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1915. Google books
- "James Redpath and the Pioneer Bureau he Founded." Lyceum Magazine. Aug. 1922.
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