Tag Archives: Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers Now Available


Handwritten postcard from Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Etta Russell, June 1, 1897, from the Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers, 1850-1907.

The  Cambridge Room is pleased to announce that the Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers, 1850-1907 are now available to research. A curated selection of the papers have been digitized and made available here.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a writer, minister, colonel, abolitionist, and activist. He was born on December 23, 1823 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Louisa Storrow Higginson and Stephen Higginson Jr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson graduated from Harvard College in 1841 and from Harvard Divinity School in 1847. He then served as a preacher, first in Newburyport, where he was deemed too radical, and later at the Free Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. During this time, Higginson became increasingly active in abolitionist activity. He wrote and preached against slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War and was active in the Boston Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. After supporting abolitionist settlers in Kansas following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he provided financial support to John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. During the Civil War, Higginson led the Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers, 1850-1907) Union’s first African-American regiment. He described his military service in the memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment.

After the Civil War, Higginson focused on writing, editing, and activism, living in Newport, Rhode Island, for about two decades before returning to Cambridge. As a writer, he published fiction, memoirs, and essays, working with publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and the Woman’s Journal. He wrote on issues such as women’s suffrage, temperance, and Reconstruction. Higginson was also an editor; he corresponded with Emily Dickinson and co-edited her poetry for publication after her death. Higginson served as a trustee of the Cambridge Public Library and was instrumental in establishing the collections of the Cambridge Room, the library’s archives and special collections. Higginson married Mary Channing in 1847. After her death in 1877, he married Mary Thacher in 1879. They had two daughters, Louisa, who died in infancy in 1880, and Margaret, born in 1881. Higginson died on May 9, 1911 in Cambridge and was buried in Cambridge Cemetery.

Collection Overview
This collection comprises letters written to and by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a manuscript of a portion of his book Cheerful Yesterdays, and pamphlets written by Higginson. The letters include discussion of Higginson’s time in England and work with the Cambridge Public Library. The manuscript contains the second chapter of Higginson’s memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays, “A Child of the College.” The pamphlets include speeches, sermons, reminiscences, and essays; topics covered include slavery and women’s suffrage.


Emancipation Proclamation, 150th Anniversary


Journey Toward Freedom:  An 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation
Keynote Speaker: Beverly Morgan-Welch, Director of the Museum of African American History
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 • 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Cambridge City Hall, Sullivan Chamber
795 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139

In 2013, the United States is observing the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. With President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the country took a decisive step towards abolishing slavery, paving the way for the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery across the land in 1865. In the 150 years since that time, this country has been taking the long, slow journey towards becoming a more equal, more just, more progressive society. Communities across the nation are finding ways to commemorate the historic anniversary of the document’s release – and Cambridge is no exception.

The Cambridge Room will be there with original documents from Cambridge’s Anti-Slavery Society and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Abolitionist and Colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Federally authorized black Civil War regiment.

Abolitionist Map of America App now available!


The app for Abolitionist Map of America has just been released!

Facebook: Find our material on the new @American Experience iPhone app! We have added several pins about Cambridge on the Abolitionist Map of America. Search for “American Experience” in the iTunes store to download the Mapping History app to your iPhone today! Browse and explore historical materials and videos significant to the abolitionist movement all across America! http://ow.ly/g4Eg5

Twitter: We have partnered with @AmExperiencePBS on the Abolitionist Map of America iPhone app. Download today!   http://ow.ly/g4Eg5

Abolitionist Map of America


We have partnered with PBS’s American Experience on the Abolitionist Map of America, an interactive website that explores events, characters and locations connected to the anti-slavery movement, one of the most important civil rights crusades in American history. An extension of the three-part series The Abolitionists, premiering Tuesdays, January 8-22, 2013 on PBS, the map engages communities around their local history, expanding upon the stories told in The Abolitionists and connecting them to real geographic locations. The map brings events from the past to life and integrates them into present-day America.

We have joined dozens of museums, libraries, archives and PBS member stations in populating the map with geo-tagged historical photos and documents, as well as more than 30 video clips from The Abolitionists. Unique individuals are also invited to upload their own content with the goal of creating a map that reflects the shared history of the movement and its indelible mark on local communities and the nation.

The Cambridge Room’s contribution to the map involves our connection to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Cantabrigian and radical abolitionist. To view the Abolitionist Map of America, click here.

Cantabrigians React to Declaration of Rights of Women, 1848

Women’s Suffrage Parade, Chicago, 12 May 1914, courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.

In response to the Seneca Falls Convention a few weeks earlier in which Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led a group of women to write the Declaration of Sentiments and an accompanying list of resolutions, our very own Cambridge Chronicle did a humorous piece, titled the “Rights of Women!,” published on August 10, 1848.  What looks like fictitious letters to the editor were sent in from Cantabrigians who feared the worst if women were given equal rights to men.  The entire article can be read here.

For a real laugh, read the anonymous excerpt below:  (Note the implication of cuckoldry.)

“I am a married man, Sir; an undoubted married man, Sir; a married married man without redemption, Sir! And you, sir, have made me so. I have been married eighteen months, and up to last week deemed myself the happiest married man in the world, Sir. I really, Sir, took the supremest delight in dandling our little Ned, not on my left knee, Sir, not on my right knee, Sir, but Sir, on both knees. But my real and anticipated happiness is gone- gone- gone, like the speculator’s farm, Sir, under the rap of your auctioneer hammer, Sir-Sir! That article has spoiled my wife, Sir, and hen-pecked me, Sir! Ever since last Thursday, Sir, the deuce has trod roughshod in my domestic circle, Sir. The exstacy of dandling Ned of my own free will has gone. My wife has read the Declaration of women’s rights, and she is now showing off her airs upon me, – me who took her for better or – worse, – me who married her for love, – me, her miserable husband!

Why, Sir, it’s now – “Get up and prepare the breakfast; sweep out and dust the rooms; feed Ned; make the beds.” After breakfast, its – “Stay at home and take care of Ned; I’ll attend to business in town; wash the clothes cook the dinner, and be sure to have it on the table precisely at noon, for I can’t be kept waiting in these ever memorable days of woman’s redemption.” After dinner, its “Dress yourself up; stay in the parlor; Miss Spriggins and Madam Jiggins and Squire Pliggins and Parson Biggins will all call this afternoon, and you must receive them while I am at work preparing my resolutions for the convention; and don’t fail to have tea ready by seven o’clock.” After tea, its’ – “The convention meets this evening; a new platform of women’s rights is to be discussed, and I am on the committee of five hundred to report it.; put Ned to bed early, and if he cries, give him a spoonfull of parregoric, or walk with him until I come home, which I hope to do as early as midnight ; leave the door unlocked, and if you hear four steps instead of two, only imagine it’s the chairwoman of the convention seeing me safe home.”

Here I am, Sir, all on account of you, Sir. I obey to the letter all that I am told, hoping for peace but finding none. I even wash the pots and kettles, and sing (or rather howl) lullabies to make Ned sleep; but nothing goes right. It’s convention all day and all night. If I ask my wife to read as she used to, before you interfered with your editorial humbug on women’s rights, she pulls out a string of resolutions, or the notes of a speech, or an extract from some French or German authoress, or a torn chapter from Miss Margaret Fuller, or a leaf from Mrs. Candle, and all is over with me! Oh, Sir, guilty as you are in thus paving the way for my wretchedness, you cannot be made to know the tithe of my agony! I sleep on needles, Sir! ; I walk on needles, Sir; I sit on needles, Sir! My whole life is a needle – a darning need, Sir! – that punctures me at every point; and all because of your article, Sir! I hope to get used to it. Only eighteen months of married existence gone, and half a century to Come! I call philosophy ot my aid, but as yet it eludes my grasp. I read Bishop Berkely, – I mean when Ned is asleep – and labor to think that women is not an entity, that tongues are nothing but sound, that needles have no points, and that I am neither a husband nor a man; but thus far I have read in vain. I hope to get used to it. Can you tell me, Sir, when the convention meets? Yours, &c.”

**A special thanks to Sarah Burks at the Cambridge Historical Commission for pointing out this article.**

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Abolitionist, Feminist, Lover of Literature, and Founder of the Cambridge Room Collection

Colonel Higginson, Commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized Civil War regiment of freed slaves, 1862.

History has been less than kind to native Cantabrigian Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  Few remember him and those who do, dismiss him as a relic of pedantic Victorian reform.  Yet Higginson was one of the most radical and influential men of his time, who stopped short of nothing in pursuit of his lifelong passions:  abolition, women’s rights, and literature.   And, he just happens to be the engine behind the Cambridge Room, the Library’s Archives and Special Collections.

Higginson’s fame as a radical came from his ideal of embracing of armed resistance to slavery.  Breaking down courthouse doors in Boston to free fugitive slaves, helping anti-slavery settlers in Kansas with a loaded pistol in his belt, preaching sedition, and giving money and moral support to John Brown, gave him the reputation among his fellow Harvard educated elite as a lunatic.  In 1862, Higginson took command of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves, a full five months before Massachusetts formed Robert Gould Shaw’s famous 54th.

Henry Williams, former slave and Sergeant of the First South Carolina Volunteers, 1862.

Higginson was as radical in his views of slavery as he was in his views towards women’s rights, believing “a woman must be a slave or equal; there is no middle ground.”  As early as the 1850s, he spoke on behalf of suffrage and professional opportunities for women.  He urged Massachusetts to reform its voting qualifications and he helped to found the American Women’s Suffrage Association, co-editing its journal.

Higginson with his daughter, Margaret, on a tricycle in Cambridge, 1885.

Despite being a successful author of non-fiction and fiction alike, Higginson yearned to be a celebrated poet.  Yet the closest he would come to literary greatness was in his friendship and support of Emily Dickinson.  In 1862, just before he enlisted in the army, Higginson received a letter from Dickinson which contained a few poems and a request for his tutelage.  The reclusive Dickinson sent Higginson over 100 poems throughout their 25-year correspondence.  It was Higginson who edited Dickinson’s first published book of poems after she died.  In his introduction, he declared her a “wholly new and original poetic genius.”

After living for two decades in Newport Rhode Island (where he desegregated the schools during his tenure on the School Committee), Higginson returned home to Cambridge in 1879.  Highly sought after as local hero, Higginson was asked to run for Mayor but declined.  He did, however, chair the Library’s Board of Trustees from 1889 to 1903.  Higginson wished to create a space dedicated to the cultural and literary history of Cambridge in the newly built library.  The Cambridge Memorial Room, as it was then called, was born with Higginson personally curating the materials from authors and collectors.  Today, the collection consists of approximately 1,000 rare books and pamphlets from privately published Cambridge family histories to books of poetry donated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s daughters.  It also includes Higginson’s oeuvre, in particular his activist and literary writings.

Higginson at 80 in 1903.

Examples of Higginson’s activist works along with collector’s editions of books that he curated are available in the Cambridge Room.  To view the materials, please contact the archivist here:  http://www.cambridgema.gov/cpl/askalibrarian.aspx.  To read more about the fascinating life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, take out any of the following books from the library:

White Heat:  The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2009)  There was a faint hint of romance to the correspondence between Dickinson and Higginson.   They met only twice, at Dickinson’s home in Amherst.   When Dickinson died, on May 15, 1886, Higginson went to her funeral. He read one of her favorite poems by Emily Brontë and wept over her open coffin.

The Secret Six:  The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown (1995) Read about the six prominent Northerners, who supported and financed John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Joining Higginson in his pursuit of abolishing slavery were Theodore Parker, Samuel Howe, Gerrit Smith, Franklin Sanborn, and George Luther Stearns.

The Magnificent Activist:  The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1823-1911 (2000) In 1859, the Higginson published the satirical “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” in the Atlantic Monthly.  He writes, “John is a fool; Jane is a genius:  nevertheless, John being a man, shall learn, lead, make laws, make money; Jane being a woman shall be ignorant, dependent, disfranchised, underpaid?”  After it was published, the Atlantic printed a rebuttal, distancing itself from Higginson’s radical views on women’s equality.  Higginson’s contemporaries were less comfortable with his views on women’s rights than they were with his views on slavery.

Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882) Higginson wrote this memoir from the journal he kept when he was the Colonel of the first black regiment in the Civil War.  Although slightly racist and condescending, it remains an unusual and empathetic social document.  His transcriptions of spirituals sung by his men are a remarkable contribution to African-American folk culture.  [Available in the Cambridge Room.]

Book plate from a Higginson donation to the Cambridge Public Library.