William Henry Brisbane



Born into an aristocratic South Carolina slaveholding, planter family with royal Scottish roots, William Henry Brisbane (1806-1878) became both a Baptist pastor and medical doctor. Principally, he was a slaveholder-turned-abolitionist.

Brisbane published the first Baptist periodical outside Philadelphia, which was devoted to the defense of slavery. As his attitude changed and his rhetoric softened, he lost subscribers. When he sold most of his slaves in 1837, he was forced to flee to Cincinnati. There he came under the influence of such abolitionist leaders as James Birney, Gamaliel Bailey, and Salmon Portland Chase. Eventually, Brisbane freed his remaining slaves. Then, on a quick trip south, he repurchased his slaves, and freed them.

He became associated with Levi Coffin, "the reputed president of the underground railroad" in Indiana (later writing the preface to Coffin’s reminiscences, which has become an abolitionist classic), and brought him to Cincinnati where the two operated a free soil, free labor grocery business and continued to operate a line on the underground railroad. Consequent to his stand against slavery, he was dismissed as pastor of Cincinnati’s First Baptist Church.

Through letters smuggled into the South and by personal interviews, he persuaded out of slaveholding, by argument and his own example, a significant number of southern ministers and educators. He became associated with such other abolitionists as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Blanchard, Sherman Booth, Carl Schurz, Moncure Conway, Mansfield French, Quincy Gillmore, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, George W. Julian, David Hunter, Arthur and Lewis Tappen, Theodore Weld, the Grimké family, Joshua Giddings, and William Lloyd Garrison.

He moved to Wisconsin in 1853 and founded the town of Arena on the Wisconsin River where he operated an inn and ferry. Dr. Brisbane had practice medicine in Ohio as well as in his native state and he did so in Wisconsin and was elected vice president of the American Medical Association. He became chief clerk of the state senate and then pastor of Madison's First Baptist Church. He lost that pulpit as well by preaching against slavery and became regimental chaplain of the 2d Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry, deploying to Missouri.

His old friend Chase, now Lincoln's treasurer secretary, appointed him chairman of the U.S. Direct Tax Commission for South Carolina. He returned to the low country where he confiscated for the government the abandoned plantations of his neighbors and relatives. In the words of the Beaufort County history, "…he became, among the white people, the most hated man in the Beaufort District." On New Years Day 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective, it was he who read it to Black Union troops and freed slaves in a ceremony at Port Royal.

At the end of Reconstruction, he returned to Arena where he farmed, practiced medicine, pastored, and was in popular demand as a political speaker. He published several books and many pamphlets both for slavery and against it (the greater production). He also wrote anti-slavery novels and books on biblical studies.

This biographer refers to William Henry Brisbane as "Barnabas to the abolitionists."

I have already published a number of periodical pieces on WHB. I offer
here a bibliography on Brisbane.