From body reform to reforming the body politic: transcendentalism and the militant antislavery career of Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Second-generation Transcendentalist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson played a leading role in the latter stages of the struggle against slavery. A principal member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which resisted attempts to capture fugitive slaves, Higginson also provided support for John Brown's assault at Harpers Ferry and served as colonel of the Union's first regiment of African Americans during the Civil War. Building on recent scholarship that portrays Transcendentalists as sympathetic to the antislavery cause, this essay argues that Higginson's militant approach to abolitionism drew directly on key components of Transcendentalism. It thereby offers a fresh interpretation of the emergence of antislavery violence in the 1850s, while underscoring a fundamental connection between the philosophy of Transcendentalism and radical abolitionism.