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Fall 2021 catalog cover

The Penn Press list for fall 2021 includes hardcover releases, first-time paperbacks, and ebook editions intended for scholars, students, and serious general readers worldwide. Click here to explore our forthcoming books, grouped by subject area.

Ambivalent Conspirators
John Brown, the Secret Six, and a Theory of Slave Violence

Jeffrey Rossbach

312 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth 1982 | ISBN 9780812278590 | $79.95s | Outside the Americas £64.00
Ebook 2016 | ISBN 9781512806298 | Buy from Combined Academic Publishers £64.00
An Anniversary Collection volume

"An important contribution . . . the first full-scale treatment of the Secret Six. Of value to anyone interested in antebellum reform, abolitionism, Afro-American history, and the period of sectional crisis in general."—Lawrence N. Powell, Tulane University

"A study in motivation, in psychohistory . . . sensitive to evidence, motivation, public issues, private pressures and the interactions among them."—William H. Pease, University of Maine, Orono

The remarkable relationship among the six conspirators who aided John Brown in his famed 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry is dramatically exposed in this volume. Why did these six abolitionists, who were nominally pacifist, decide to subsidize an act of black violence? Jeffery Rossbach rejects the commonly held belief that Brown dominated them with his charismatic personality. Here he delves into the backgrounds and beliefs of the members of the Secret Six during their three-year involvement with the plan and gives us, for the first time, a revealing picture of the group's character.

Rossbach identifies the set of racial and political assumptions at the core of the Committee's rationale. He demonstrates how the conspirators, particularly Parker and Higginson, fused their ideas about political violence with those of the Journalist James Redpath and some free black leaders in the north. Essentially, the Six believed that the condition of slavery had rendered the black man docile, pliant, and prone to collective behavior. If slaves rallied to Brown's insurrectionary banner, they reasoned, their violent acts would have a cathartic effect on the Afro-American character and social outlook. The conspirators felt that just as the willingness to fight for freedom formed the basis of the Anglo-American character, so a violent uprising to free slaves and kill white oppressors must serve as the black man's first step toward the assimilation of a new and more individualistic value system. That system would more closely match the one held by the democratic, industrial North.

Surpassing previous studies by both conservative and revisionist historians, Rossbach shows how the secret committee's relationship with Brown was based upon their common social assumptions and personal aspirations. He suggests that they shared a system of beliefs that was emerging among urban professionals of the new industrial North. His work provides a fuller dimension to this key episode in American history.

Jeffery Rossbach is associate editor of The Black Abolitionist Papers at Florida State University.

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