Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1823 and died there in 1911 at the age of 87. His long life spanned one of the most momentous historical periods in American history and literature, and Higginson was engaged with almost all of the most significant political struggles and associated with the leading literary figures of the nineteenth century. Both as a Unitarian minister, editor, and writer, he spoke or wrote about slavery, war, women's suffrage, temperance, civil service reform, Reconstruction, and countless other issues of the day. His opinions and his actions on occasion cost him a pulpit, or a membership, or a friend, but the courage of his convictions guided an activist life that made him one of the most admired men of his century.

Higginson received his degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1847 and became minister of a Unitarian church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A radical abolitionist, he spoke passionately from the pulpit against the fugitive slave law. Higginson was too radical for the taste of his Newburyport congregation, but a second position in Worcester's Free Church was a more congenial home from which to pursue his anti-slavery work. Twice he participated in violent plans to rescue captured slaves who were jailed awaiting return to their masters in the South. In 1856 Higginson carried rifles and ammunition to Kansas to arm settlers who opposed Kansas becoming a slave state. He was a strong supporter of John Brown. When Brown was arrested after the failure of the raid on Harper's Ferry, Higginson was part of a group that planned an aborted attempt to break him out of jail. In 1862 he became the commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Black regiment in the Civil War. His book, Army Life in a Black Regiment chronicles his experience as Colonel Higginson. Throughout his life Higginson continued to be interested in the welfare of Blacks in a variety of ways. In 1867 he published in the Atlantic Monthly the first substantial collection of Negro spirituals to appear in America. Readers may read the lyrics he transcribed and hear audio clips by the Fisk Jubilee Singers online at

Higginson played a similarly important leadership role in the women's movement. He published many essays on women's rights and often compared the status of women without a vote to that of Blacks with no voice in the political process. With feminist Lucy Stone and others, he helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association and was co-editor for fourteen years of the organization's Woman's Journal. He frequently advocated equal pay for similar work, especially for teachers, and the right of women to vote and to have access to education. In addition to Stone, he was associated with other such feminist leaders as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Despite a long career as a leading radical voice against slavery and for women's suffrage, in addition to serving as the commanding officer of the first Black military regiment in U.S. history, Higginson is most often recalled today as the editor who corresponded with Emily Dickinson and co-edited with Mabel Loomis Todd the publication of Dickinson's first collections of poetry. Dickinson sent Higginson some of her poems after she read his 1862 essay, "Letter to a Young Contributor," which offered generic advice to writers submitting their first manuscripts. Though she initiated this correspondence in the same year Higginson joined the Army to fight in the Civil War, he nevertheless maintained contact with her in a correspondence that lasted until her death in 1886. He first met Dickinson in person in 1870, after he had published his own first novel, Malbone, in 1869. Although a poet and novelist himself, Higginson's most significant literary achievements were his correspondence with Dickinson, the memoir he published about her, and the publication of her first two volumes of poetry.

After the Civil War Higginson and his invalid first wife moved to Newport, Rhode Island where he continued his activist role in women's rights and local causes. Instead of seeking another pulpit, Higginson made his living by speaking, writing, and editing. After his wife died in 1877 he remarried in 1879 to Mary Thacher and moved back to Cambridge. His only child, Margaret, was born in 1881. In Massachusetts he was elected to the legislature in 1880, but was defeated in an 1887 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Beginning in 1877 he served as contributing editor of the Woman's Journal for fourteen years and as poetry editor of The Nation for twenty-six years. He continued an active publishing career until 1909 before his death in 1911.

A study of the life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson is an avenue to understanding many of the people, events, and issues that dominated American history and literature from the 1850s to 1910. Higginson was a prolific writer, publishing more than 500 essays in major journals, some of which have been collected in the thirty-five books he wrote or edited. His leadership role in the Abolitionist movement, his command of the first Black regiment in U.S. military history, his editorship of several journals, and his many writings on issues of the day earned Higginson a distinguished place in American history. His letters address both the most influential names of his times, as well as those, perhaps like Emily Dickinson when she first wrote to him, whose lives have no place in history. The correspondence, like the essays and books, is voluminous. The letters on this site represent only a fragment of that correspondence in the years after the end of the Civil War.

Bibliographical Note

Many of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's books are out of print, but The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1823–1911, ed. Howard N. Meyer (DeCapo Press, 2000) provides in paperback an admirable representative sample of the range of his non-fiction prose. Works of Higginson which indicate his range of subjects include Army Life in a Black Regiment, Carlyle's Laugh, Cheerful Yesterdays, Letters and Journals, Malbone: An Old Newport Romance, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Reader's History of American Literature, Common Sense About Women, Women and the Alphabet, and Part of a Man's Life.

Biographies include the first study by his widow, Mary Thacher Higginson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1914); Anna Mary Wells's study of his relationship to Emily Dickinson, Dear Preceptor (1963); Howard N. Meyer, Colonel of the Black Regiment (1967); Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm (1968); and James W. Tuttleton, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1978).

A growing number of electronic archival sites contain some of his letters, selections from his Civil War correspondence, the transcriptions of his Negro Spirituals, and data about the First South Carolina Volunteers.