William Henry Brisbane Papers, 1829-1975


William Henry Brisbane, a native of South Carolina who settled in Wisconsin, was a physician, a minister, an editor and author, and a national leader in the temperance and abolition movements. He was born October 12, 1806 in the Beauford District of South Carolina. As a young boy he was enrolled as a cadet at the Norwich Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont. He preached his first sermon in 1828 and was ordained November 7, 1830. In 1835 he became editor of the Southern Baptist.

Until 1835 Brisbane held firmly to his pro-slavery beliefs, secure in the possession of his plantation and slaves, and he wrote pro-slavery essays for the Charleston Mercury. In July, 1835 he received an anti-slavery pamphlet with an extract from Elements of Moral Science by Francis Wayland. According to notes in his journal, Brisbane found that in attempting to refute Wayland's arguments, he realized that he must give up his republican principles or admit that slavery was wrong. Although he did not then announce himself as an abolitionist, Brisbane's actions in dismissing his overseer and his changed attitude toward his slaves turned Southerners against him. In 1837 he graduated from the medical school at Charleston, South Carolina. He sold all but three slaves, each for about $200 less than market price, and moved to Cincinnati. In 1841 he bought back his former slaves, took them to Cincinnati, and freed them along with the three he had previously retained.

At Cincinnati, Brisbane continued his preaching as well as his part-time practice of medicine. During his stay in that city he edited the Christian Abolition, the Philanthropist, and Crisis. In August, 1844, he was nominated by the Liberty Committee as a candidate for Congress. In his diary he wrote that he was unwilling to suffer the reproaches and defamation of a political candidate, yet he was unwilling to decline “lest I do injury to our holy enterprise.”

On a trip to New York and Boston in April, 1845, Brisbane and his wife visited Brook Farm, the experiment in communal living. Mrs. Brisbane was so enchanted that it was not until the following December that she could be persuaded to leave. On this trip Brisbane became acquainted with Horace Greeley, and he preached at a number of churches in Boston. In 1846 and 1847 he was in Philadelphia, editing the American Citizen, returning later to Cincinnati, where he operated a farm in addition to his other interests.

In 1853 he moved to Wisconsin to lay out a town site on the Wisconsin River in partnership with his friend Edward Harwood. He purchased land with a tavern and barn in Arena, where he also operated a ferry. He accepted the position of clerk of the Senate in Madison in 1854.

During his years in Ohio and Wisconsin, Brisbane's stature increased as a leader of the abolition and temperance movements. He was a delegate to a number of national conventions, and in 1859 he worked to secure the Republican nomination for his friend Salmon P. Chase. He was elected vice president of the American Medical Association at the Detroit convention in 1856. Despite his importance within the abolition movement, by 1859 Brisbane's financial condition was one of near poverty. Then, while at Fort Madison, Iowa in 1860, his home in Arena burned with all his possessions.

Brisbane served eight months as a chaplain of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry in 1861 and 1862 under Colonel C.C. Washburn, but resigned because of ill-health. Through his friend Salmon P. Chase, Brisbane received an appointment as tax commissioner of the District of South Carolina. In 1870 he returned to Arena, where he worked as a preacher and as a farmer until his death on April 6, 1878.