Indicted for rescuing the fugitive slave John Price in Ohio in 1859, Charles Langston declared that African Americans had the “right of self preservation,” as the laws of the slaveholding republic offered them no protection. In his speech, which elicited the grudging admiration of even his opponents, Langston connected his own condition of rightslessness with the plight of the runaway slave.1 The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 crystallized abolitionists’ commitment to direct action. The fugitive slave rebellions during this decade of crisis coalesced slave resistance, a tradition of self-defense among black communities, and revolutionary abolition.

The fugitive slave issue was no sideshow in the sectional conflict over slavery. Radical Republicans and antislavery lawyers, determined to keep the North free soil, lent their political and legal expertise to “freedom seekers” and their defenders. Abolitionist ideas about law, democracy, civil disobedience, and human rights received a national and international hearing.2 As popular revulsion against fugitive rendition in the North grew with each minibattle, abolition took a revolutionary turn. Long influenced by slave resistance, the fugitive slave controversy dominated the movement on the eve of the war. Confronting slaveholders and their agents in their own backyard prepared abolitionists for a revolutionary, remorseless war against slavery.


The fugitive slave law was the most reviled part of the sectional Compromise of 1850 among abolitionists. Prigg v. Pennsylvania had swept aside personal liberty laws but encouraged state-level noncompliance. The new federal law bypassed the laws and practices of the free states and threatened the freedom principle in the North. Passed in response to growing opposition to fugitive slave rendition in the 1840s, it instigated a series of abolitionist rebellions. It bypassed the rule of law by requiring all fugitives to be brought before federal commissioners and flouted due process by disallowing the testimony of suspected fugitives, trial by jury, and habeas corpus. It criminalized any help rendered to suspected fugitives with up to six years’ imprisonment and a thousand-dollar fine, encouraged the kidnapping of free blacks, and forced northern citizens to act as slave patrollers by allowing federal marshals to form a posse comitatus of adult armed citizens to apprehend runaways. It added, abolitionists noted, meanness to injustice by awarding federal commissioners a double stipend, ten dollars for a guilty verdict and five for innocence. The excuse given was the extra paperwork involved in rendition. The intrepid antislavery jurist George Stroud calculated that the certificates of rendition cost only sixty cents, at one cent for every ten words, making the ten dollars a bribe for officials.

The law wreaked havoc in northern black communities, and hundreds fled to Canada. Nearly half and sometimes the entire congregations of black churches in Boston and upstate New York fled for safety. More fugitives, nearly three hundred, were rendered back to the South under the new law—some in the border states being summarily kidnapped back into slavery—than were saved by vigilante action, according to Stanley Campbell. A recent study challenges Campbell’s conclusion, noting how often he failed to account for attempted and successful rescues. Campbell also mischaracterized a number of kidnappings as renditions. Resistance to the law was greater in the upper north, where free soilism was ascendant. In the 1850s nearly eighty fugitive slave rescues were attempted in the North. Whatever the numbers, the impact of the law and renditions on northern antislavery sentiment is hard to underestimate. William H. Furness, who argued that “through the Fugitive Slave, Christ speaks to us,” posed the sectional question. The South, he pointed out, threatened secession unless runaways were rendered back, and, to comply, the North “must forget our fathers . . . disown our Christianity . . . deny our God.” “[Let us instead] resolve to be free and make free.”3

Even before the bill became law, abolitionists issued a call to arms to resist it. In early August, Smith, as president of the New York State Vigilance Committee, and Ray, its secretary, convened a “fugitive slave convention” at Cazenovia. Nearly two thousand men and women met at an apple orchard. The convention, attended by Douglass, Loguen, the Edmonson sisters, and the fiancée of the incarcerated Chaplin, was a good representation of fugitive slave abolitionism, and the document it approved, Smith’s “A Letter to the American Slave from those who have fled American Slavery,” its most comprehensive statement. Douglass seconded its arguments. Calling slaveholders pirates and abolitionists in the AASS and the Liberty Party “friends and brothers to us,” the address, written on behalf of the thousands of fugitive slaves, was suffused with revolutionary rhetoric, assuring slaves that when an insurrection takes place “the great mass of the colored men of the North . . . will be found by your side, with deep-stored and long-accumulated revenge in their hearts, and with death-dealing weapons in their hands.” They would not hesitate to “shoot an American slaveholder,” for “if the American revolutionists had excuse for shedding one drop of blood, then have the American slaves excuse for making blood flow ‘even to the horse bridles.’” The Cazenovia address was a blueprint for radical abolitionist action during the fugitive slave crisis of the 1850s. It was not a cry in the dark, either, as David Yulee of Florida read excerpts from it in the Senate.4

The Fugitive Slave Act bolstered the emerging consensus among abolitionists that the use of violence in self-defense by slaves and their allies was justified. The WASS adopted the new slogan of the nonresistant Henry C. Wright: “Death to kidnappers.” In a letter to Haughton, he warned that “our homes” would be “baptized” by either “our blood” or that of slave hunters and kidnappers. Wright’s overnight conversion to physical resistance to slavery was a telling statement of the law’s impact. His evangelical opponent, Nathaniel Colver, active in fugitive slave rescues, agreed. He argued that no constitution or law could allow a fugitive slave rendition from Massachusetts. The most radical statements of opposition came from black abolitionists. A meeting of Boston’s colored citizens led by Hayden and Nell and addressed by Garrison, Hilton, John J. Smith as well as Henson, the Crafts, and Milton Clarke, issued a platform of “vigilant action,” stating that the law left African Americans with no alternative but to “be prepared in the emergency for self-defense.” At a massive meeting held to repudiate the law in Faneuil Hall, Douglass spoke on behalf of, in his words, a suffering, terrified, horror-stricken people. Joshua B. Smith remarked that if liberty was not worth fighting for, it was not worth possessing. William J. Watkins asserted that a slave hunter who assumed “the duties of a bloodhound” should be treated as such. Augustus Washington thought that if the Union could not exist without enslaving free black people, then its dissolution was certain. Remond advocated resisting the law “unto death,” and Ward avowed, “Such crises as these leave us to the right Revolution, and if need be, that right we will, at whatever cost, most sacredly maintain.” Meetings of colored citizens from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to a “monster” meeting in New Bedford condemned the law and declared their intent of noncompliance.

Criticism of the unjust law was not confined to the North but emerged also from the abolitionist international in Canada and the West Indies, where fugitive slaves from southern ports, using their wits and at times the assistance of black sailors, had made their way to freedom. The Barbados ASS delivered the “indignant and unqualified reprobation” of the world against the “iniquitous” law, even though its purview was confined to the United States. In Toronto it led to the formation of the Canadian ASS to aid the extinction of slavery everywhere in the world. In Britain, abolitionists condemned the “New Slave Law,” arguing that the American Republic “stands degraded” before the world. On their antislavery lecture tours in England, Pennington declared the law a nullity, and Garnet, two-thirds of whose congregation were fugitives, warned that if agents of slaveholders tried to abduct his family, he would not tamely submit.

Resistance and appeals to the law went hand in hand for abolitionists. The MASS reasoned that while the new law implemented the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, it had disregarded the fundamental constitutional safeguards of trial by jury and habeas corpus and left self-emancipated slaves as well as free blacks vulnerable. The BFASS, with Helen Garrison as vice president, and the PASS also protested the illegalities of the law. The AFASS passed resolutions calling the bill inhumane and an “outrage on civil liberties.” William Jay, in a public letter to George T. Downing and William Powell, opined that it illustrated slaveholders’ contempt for all law. Sumner pronounced it unconstitutional and referred to it as a bill, refusing to call it a law. Josiah Quincy recalled that the original fugitive law of 1793 was hardly deficient and inspired “universal disgust.” He urged northern states to not allow a single rendition without a trial by jury. Garrison complimented Spooner on his “very able” new book on the right of trial by jury.

The law united old adversaries and popularized states’ rights theory in the North. By the end of the year Vermont had passed a new personal liberty law guaranteeing the writ of habeas corpus to suspected fugitives. To Bailey, the federal law was an invasion of free states’ rights. Whittier proclaimed that he was now a nullifier. When Webster’s hometown of Marshfield repudiated the law, Garrison rejoiced that they had disowned him. The National Era carried reports of protest meetings from all over the northern states. Jonathan Walker recommended the formation of vigilance committees in every town and village against the “kidnapping bill.” Douglass reviled northern submission, especially by conservatives who upheld the “Bloodhound law” over human rights. He contended that it should be made a dead letter by making “two or three dead slaveholders.” Abolitionists should make it unsafe for slave catchers and government officials to apprehend runaways.5

One of the first cases prosecuted under the new law, the very month it was passed in September 1850, occurred in New York City. Mary Brown of Baltimore obtained the rendition of James Hamlet, a “highly esteemed young man” and member of the AME Zion church. Her agents, including her son and son-in-law, brought the charge, and the federal commissioner Alexander Gardiner ordered Hamlet’s arrest. Hamlet was quickly transported to Baltimore to prevent a rescue and jailed, his wife and children unaware of his fate. Douglass reported that the business of “slave catching” had commenced with “this female kidnapper.” A mass black meeting in the Zion Chapel presided over by Powell, Downing, Patrick Reason, and Robert Hamilton, among others, protested the law and formed a Committee of Thirteen. In his speech Powell, alluding to Hamlet, fired off a series of questions asking if the black community would submit to the operations of the law and received a thunderous no, no in response. The law was read aloud amid cries of shame. Resolutions submitted by Downing asked fugitives to “arm themselves with the surest and most deadly weapons” and demanded the repeal of the law. After spirited speeches by Rev. Charles Gardner, Junius Morel, and John S. Jacobs, Ray appeared with eight hundred dollars to redeem Hamlet, one black man, Isaac Hollenbeck, contributing a hundred dollars.

On his return four to five thousand citizens greeted Hamlet, who, with tears running down his cheeks, listened as Ray, Hamilton, and Powell spoke. Albro Lyons and Louis Napoleon, active in the abolitionist underground in the city, were elected vice presidents. Albro and his wife, Mary Lyons, took over the Colored Sailors Home, which became known for housing runaways after Powell left for England. Black abolitionists also formed a Committee of Nine in Brooklyn and a Committee of Five in Williamsburg to assist fugitives. In a letter to the meeting, Thaddeus Stevens recommended that fugitives put themselves out of reach of the law. The AFASS published a pamphlet on the Hamlet case that made a wider argument on the unconstitutionality of the fugitive law, delineating the history of its passage, the names and post office addresses of the members of Congress who voted on the bill, and Chase’s speech on its unconstitutionality. But Lewis Tappan, its likely author, concluded that “the law leaves the freeman of the North no alternative. HE MUST DISOBEY THE LAW.” He recommended against fleeing to Canada, asking fugitives to avoid large cities and public places but to stand unmoved and unawed. Northerners must provide asylum for runaways and act on conscience against the unconstitutional and iniquitous law. Two editions of the pamphlet, thirteen thousand copies, were “disposed of in about three weeks.” The AFASS circulated a pledge to disobey the law, which garnered over a thousand signatures.

If the Hamlet case had a happy ending, that of Henry Long, apprehended as a fugitive a year later, did not. Abolitionists like Tappan mobilized quickly to assist him. John Jay II, the son of William Jay, and others represented him. His master’s agents received substantial assistance from the city’s conservative unionist merchants, who were determined to uphold the law. Long was “dragged out of the city” by Rynders, who swore “vengeance against abolitionists.” He was sent back to Richmond, Virginia, and sold to Georgia, where he was arrested for making “abolition speeches” to slaves. Long’s lawyers were unable to get a writ of habeas corpus for him. That no attempt was made to rescue him “chilled” Douglass to the bone. “I felt myself degraded,” he said. Nothing short of physical resistance by black people, he predicted, could stay the enormities of the law. John Bolding, an escaped slave from South Carolina, was arrested by Marshal Henry Tallmadge and remanded back to slavery, notwithstanding a grieving wife, eloquent appeals from his lawyer, Erastus D. Culver, and testimony by McCune Smith, who in his capacity as a doctor studied his “physiology” and determined that he was of Indian descent. In 1852 the fugitive Horace Preston of Williamsburg was dragged off after a summary hearing in which John Jay II and Culver represented him. Abolitionists raised sufficient money to redeem Bolding and Preston. Another runaway, however, James Trasker, the father of three children, was rendered back to slavery. The New York State Vigilance Committee was successful in two other cases, that of James Snowden and the daughter of a free black man and his enslaved wife. But two years later Pennington’s brother Stephen Pembroke and his two sons were captured after being sent to New York by Still. Pennington’s church and the “friends of humanity” raised sufficient money to redeem Pembroke, but his sons were sold down south. In all, twelve fugitive slaves were remanded back to slavery from New York, but abolitionists assisted well over a thousand.6

While there was talk of initiating a new petition campaign demanding the repeal of the fugitive law, much of the abolitionist opposition to it was on-the-ground resistance. The fiercest contestation occurred in Boston. The law reactivated the BVC, and a new Committee of Vigilance and Safety with over two hundred members was formed in 1850. The abolitionists Hilton, the Bowditches, May, Alcott, the Channings, Elizur Wright, Colver, Hildreth, Garrison, Spooner, Quincy, and antislavery politicians such as Anson Burlingame and John A. Andrew, the Civil War governor of the state, were members. The executive committee, composed of Parker, Phillips, Hayden, Howe, and Joshua B. Smith, the financial committee, consisting of Francis Jackson, its long-standing treasurer, Sewall, Loring, Henry I. Bowditch, Morris, and general agent Nell managed operations. The BVC was a grand coalition of black abolitionists, Garrisonians, political abolitionists, transcendentalists, and working-class men such as Austin Bearse, the Barnstable seaman known to rescue fugitives at sea in his boat Moby-Dick. (Melville’s novel was published in 1851.)

The BVC’s black members and Bearse, its “doorkeeper,” did most of the nitty-gritty work. Bearse’s successful fund-raising and Jackson’s account book reveal that abolitionists and antislavery societies from all over the state financed its activities. In nearly ten years it assisted over 430 slaves and transported more than 100 to Canada. Besides the Crafts, the BVC spirited unknown fugitives like William Jones, who was also sent to Canada. According to Jackson’s account book, it secured clothes, money, work, and a place to reside for runaways. It employed 30 lawyers, and it financed lectures by abolitionists like Douglass at protest meetings. The BVC made frequent disbursements to Hayden, Nell, Smith, Leonard Grimes, Samuel May, Colver, Parker, Bowditch, Bearse; John S. Rock was its doctor on call. Hayden, whose basement at any given time housed dozens of runaways, was always armed. He once kept kegs of gunpowder to blow away slave catchers who trespassed. The BVC paid him for boarding and transporting fugitives and posting handbill warnings about slave catchers. Garrison’s printers, J. B. Yerrington and Robert F. Wallcut, received frequent disbursements for postage and printing, and the BVC met often in the Liberator office.

As in New York, the city’s conservative political and economic elites rallied in opposition to abolitionist defiance. Law-and-order rowdies disrupted an abolition meeting held to honor Thompson as Marshal Francis Tukey, who was notorious for his strict enforcement of the hated law, stood by. At a Union meeting in Faneuil Hall, Benjamin R. Curtis, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Fillmore at Webster’s prompting in 1851 and the brother of Commissioner George T. Curtis, likened fugitives to strangers and foreign convicts not entitled to the protection of the law, a claim that William Bowditch hotly contested. The fugitive slave clause, in fact, resembled an extradition treaty. Curtis had published an influential constitutional defense of the law. The Curtis brothers became the nemeses of fugitives and their abolitionist allies in Boston.7

The most spectacular rescue was that of Shadrach Minkins, their “doomed brother,” by a “crowd of sympathetic colored persons” in 1851. Shadrach, a Virginian runaway, was arrested and hauled to the courthouse after George Curtis issued a warrant on behalf of the slave catcher John Caphart. Caphart was known for his brutality and was acting on behalf of Shadrach’s owner, John DeBree. Deputy Marshal Patrick Riley quickly executed the warrant. The BVC lawyers Sewall, Loring, and Charles Davis pleaded Shadrach’s case. Morris and Richard Henry Dana prepared a writ of habeas corpus for Chief Justice Shaw, who summarily dismissed it. A conservative unionist and narrow legalist, Shaw distinguished between fugitives such as Latimer and Shadrach, whose pleas he denied, and slaves like Med, who was brought voluntarily by her owner to the free states. The most famous former fugitive in the state, Latimer was paid nine dollars by the BVC for watching Caphart. Seth Thomas, representing Caphart, argued for a certificate of removal, but Shadrach’s lawyers managed to win a delay in the proceedings. Successful fund-raising met the expenses of Loring, Sewall, and John King of the legal committee, the last hundred dollars coming from the coffers of the BVC, which also brought countersuits against Curtis, District Attorney George Lunt, and Caphart. Hundreds of black Bostonians gathered outside the courtroom where Shadrach was held, and a group led by Hayden broke in and rescued him. He was rushed to the house of Hayden’s neighbor, Elizabeth Riley, and then to Joseph Lovejoy’s home in Cambridge. Garrison commended the “peaceful rescue,” while Parker and Phillips hearkened back to Boston’s revolutionary past. The path of Shadrach’s escape illumined the abolitionist network in the New England heartland. Hayden or John J. Smith drove Shadrach to Concord, where he stayed at the home of a blacksmith named Frances Edwin and his wife, Anne Bigelow, of the Concord FASS, whose members were known to shelter fugitives. Shadrach went on to Leominster, where he stayed with a Garrisonian couple, a shoemaker Jonathan and his wife, Frances Drake, and then on to Burlington, Vermont, whose activist black community had pledged resistance to the law. By the end of the month he was in Montreal.

The conservative reaction to Shadrach’s rescue was not slow in coming and included racist allusions to the overthrow of “white power” in Boston and its transfer as a dominion of the “sooty” Haitian emperor. While Clay railed in the Senate that a government of black men had replaced that of whites, President Fillmore issued a warning proclamation to the citizens of Boston and called on all civil and military authorities to enforce the fugitive law. A number of abolitionists, including Davis, Elizur Wright, the editor of the Commonwealth, who was present at the fracas and had printed an extra edition on the rescue, Hayden, Morris, and eight other black men, were arrested. Besides Davis, who was not charged, District Attorney Benjamin F. Hallet indicted all the men. Wright’s court costs were paid by the BVC. Sewall, Hildreth, Dana, and Hale successfully defended the rescuers, not one of whom was convicted. The cases against Hayden and James Scott, who led the rescue, resulted in hung juries. Dana later met the Concord blacksmith whose “obstinacy” had contributed to the deadlock. He confessed that he had taken part in the rescue himself. Morris also evaded conviction even though Judge Benjamin Curtis’s charge to the jury construed resistance to the law as treason. Rebellions were in fact characterized as petty treason in slave codes, justifying capital punishment for rebels.

In April the authorities had their revenge when Secretary of State Webster, who also called the actions of Bostonians treasonous, personally supervised the rendition of a Georgia runaway, Thomas Sims. His ally Seth Thomas, representing John B. Bacon, the agent of Sims’s master, James Potter, secured a warrant for his arrest from George Curtis. Deputy Marshal Asa O. Butman executed the warrant but not before Sims stabbed him in the thigh. Charles G. Loring, Robert Rantoul Jr., Sumner, Dana, and Sewall tried to procure his release. Rantoul, a talented Democratic lawyer who had been elected to Congress, was known for his defense of organized labor, his free soil sympathies, and his involvement in reform causes. He became the lead lawyer in Sims’s case. Chief Justice Shaw, who was persuaded to convene a hearing on a writ of habeas corpus, rejected Rantoul’s arguments and upheld the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. Rantoul then made his case before Curtis. He argued that a federal commissioner did not have the right to exercise judicial powers normally reserved for judges, that in a matter involving personal liberty a trial by jury was essential, that the evidence procured in Georgia for Sims’s enslavement was “incompetent” and inadmissible in Massachusetts, as no opportunity for cross-examination was granted, and finally that the fugitive law that entailed such legal irregularities was itself unconstitutional. In his closing Loring conceded that the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution gave slaveholders a right to recapture runaways but questioned its implementation by the federal government. Curtis predictably rendered a verdict for Potter. Despite the loss, Rantoul’s and Loring’s arguments formed the bedrock of antislavery jurisprudence in subsequent cases.

The BVC tried various stratagems to release Sims, serving a writ of personal replevin on Marshal Charles Devens, making Hildreth, as justice of the peace, issue a warrant for Sims’s arrest for attacking Butman and having Bacon briefly arrested on a conspiracy to kidnap. Hallet superseded Hildreth’s warrant by charging Sims with a federal crime. Sewall, Dana, and Sumner tried again to have writs of habeas corpus issued by Judge Peleg Sprague, an anti-abolitionist who, predictably, refused, and by Judge Woodbury, who convened a hearing, with Benjamin Curtis arguing against it. Woodbury remanded Sims back to federal custody. To avoid a rescue like Shadrach’s, the courthouse was heavily guarded and wrapped with heavy iron chains on orders from Tukey, its symbolism apparent to all. Hayden reported that most of Shadrach’s black rescuers had been scattered by their recent prosecutions. Higginson’s plan to have Sims jump out of a window onto a mattress below, conveyed to the prisoner by Grimes, was foiled by newly installed iron bars. Despite protest meetings at Tremont Temple and at the Commons, at which Phillips, Parker, Remond, and Colver counseled resistance, Sims was remanded back to slavery. He was marched to the brig Acorn surrounded by two hundred policemen and a hundred volunteers. The wealthy and most respectable, the merchants and bankers, raising three cheers for Webster and the Constitution as they watched Sims walk, had volunteered their services. Bacon thanked Boston’s merchants for their assistance in a public letter.

In a MASS resolution, Phillips said that a man was sold into bondage so that State Street and Milk Street could make money. There was no disturbance when Sims was marched except for an occasional hissing and cries of “Shame” by a crowd of one hundred. Plans to have Bearse intercept at sea also came to naught. In Georgia, Sims was whipped and sold, “lost in the great multitude of the enslaved population” until, like scores of slaves, he fled to the Union army in 1863. The BVC stepped up its warnings and efforts to transport runaways to Canada after Sims’s rendition. In the General Court, Joseph T. Buckingham reported a new personal liberty law crafted by Sumner and Dana, and a legislative committee convened hearings into the conduct of officials in the Sims affair, issuing a report highly critical of them. The legislature failed to pass a new law, but it did pass a resolution condemning the Fugitive Slave Act as abhorrent to the people of Massachusetts.8 Initial confrontations over the implementation of the law soon gave way to full-fledged rebellions.


The famous fugitive slave rebellions of the 1850s occurred in places that had a long-standing abolitionist underground. The first violent confrontation took place in Christiana, Pennsylvania, exactly a year after the passage of the law. The area was rife with UGRR activity, facilitated by free blacks and Quaker families, whose antislavery roots stretched back to the eighteenth century. African Americans frequently defended themselves from slave hunters and kidnappers, especially the notorious Gap gang, known to kidnap its victims into slavery. In 1840 five black men in Gettysburg formed the Slave’s Refuge Society to aid runaways. Still reported that after the passage of the new law, Hannah Dellum and her child were rendered back to slavery from Philadelphia, and Thomas Hall and his wife beaten and dragged off to slavery in Chester County. At least four black men were seized in 1850 in Lancaster County without any legal process.

A state of war over fugitives existed in southern Pennsylvania before the Christiana uprising. In September 1851 Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slaveholder whose father’s will stipulated that his slaves be freed when they turned twenty-eight, ended up there in hot pursuit of his four young male slaves who refused to wait for freedom. The four had found shelter and work at the home of William Parker, a former Maryland slave himself, who had escaped in 1839 with his brother. Parker rented a farm from a Quaker, Levi Pownell. A high point for Parker was hearing Garrison and Douglass at an abolitionist meeting. Parker believed that “sleepless vigilance” was the price of “stolen liberty” and ran a self-defense organization of black men. He was involved in the rescue of William Dorsey and Elizabeth, who worked for a Quaker, Moses Whitson. In the latter case Parker, Benjamin Whipper, and a few other black men gave a sound thrashing to the slave catchers. A year before Christiana, Parker and his men beat up a black man suspected of betraying a fugitive. In January Parker was not able to rescue John Williams, who was badly beaten and kidnapped back into slavery. That same month an armed standoff over the rendition of Stephen Bennett in Columbia led to the shattering of the sheriff’s arm. Commissioner Edward Ingraham, who had wrongfully condemned a free black man, Abraham Gibson of Philadelphia, to slavery in one of the first renditions under the new law, remanded Bennett to slavery. The PASS and “several colored men” monitored the case, and seven hundred dollars was quickly raised to purchase his freedom.

Gorsuch was determined to recover his slaves, whom he accused of stealing grain and, along with a free black man named Abraham Johnston, trying to sell it. He got the governor of Maryland to send extradition requests for his slaves and Johnston, which the governor of Pennsylvania, an antislavery Whig, ignored. Gorsuch received a letter from William Padgett, a member of the Gap gang, informing him of his slaves’ whereabouts. Padgett disappeared when the NASS published his letter. Accompanied by members of his family, neighbors, and Deputy Marshal Henry Kline and armed with warrants from the obliging Ingraham, Gorsuch led the slave-catching party to Parker’s home. Still sent Samuel Williams, the keeper of the appropriately named revolutionary tavern Bolivar House, to warn Parker. Gorsuch’s party confronted the Parkers, two of Gorsuch’s runaway slaves, Johnston, and Parker’s sister-in-law and her husband, Alexander and Hannah Pinckney. Parker’s wife, Eliza, blew a horn, summoning an additional twenty armed black men, including the other two runaways. Other black men and a Quaker, Joseph Scarlett, also sounded the alarm. Two neighbors, the Quaker Elijah Lewis and Castner Hanway, a white miller, arrived at Parker’s farm. They refused to be deputized by Kline. The shoot-out began with a confrontation between Gorsuch and his slaves. Although both Gorsuch and his son were riddled with bullets, only Gorsuch died. The slave catchers, some of whom belonged to the Gap gang, beat a hasty retreat. Parker reported that the women finished Gorsuch off, with unsubstantiated rumors circulating that they mutilated his body. Women certainly participated: Eliza, an escaped slave herself whose experience of slavery, Parker said, was worse than his, was a key player. She had been shot at when she sounded the alarm and had armed herself with a corn cutlass. With the help of the Pownell family, Parker, along with Johnson and Pinckney, escaped to Rochester, where he gave Douglass a valued memento, Gorsuch’s revolver. Douglass hurried them on to Canada. In June 1852 Hiram Wilson wrote to Bibb that the “hero of Christiana” was in Elgin. Parker went on to assist fugitives in Detroit, and John Brown’s son tried to recruit him for the Harper’s Ferry raid.

In Pennsylvania the authorities, marines ordered by Fillmore to assist local law enforcement, and vigilante groups, including Marylanders and deputized Irish railroad workers, unleashed a manhunt, reenslaving suspected fugitives, arresting free blacks indiscriminately, and roughing up Cyrus Burleigh at an abolition meeting. A man named Miller was killed in Maryland when he went to retrieve a free black woman working for him who was kidnapped in retaliation for Gorsuch’s murder; a large “indignation meeting” was held at Baltimore. Thirty-six black men, including Williams, the missing Parker, and Gorsuch’s self-emancipated slaves, were indicted on charges of treason following the instruction of Judge John Kane. Of the thirty-six charged, twenty-seven were arrested. Five whites, Hanway, Lewis, Scarlett, James Jackson, an abolitionist who was not involved in Christiana, and Joseph Townsend, who had given a black man his loaded gun, were also indicted. Eliza Parker and Hannah Pinckney were arrested but not charged. They eventually joined their husbands in Canada, but their badly frightened mother was remanded back to slavery.

The Christiana trial in Philadelphia before Judges Kane and Grier became a legal contest between proslavery and antislavery politicians. The attorney general of Maryland, a sitting U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, District Attorney John Ashmead, and a few others argued for the prosecution. The prosecution’s preoccupation with a nonexistent abolitionist conspiracy—they also subpoenaed a local abolitionist, Augustus Cain, a physician who had treated the Christiana rebels—considerably weakened its case. The defense, represented by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens from Lancaster, the abolitionist David Paul Brown, and others effectively discredited the character and testimony of Kline, who perjured himself, as did the prosecution’s leading witness. As a state legislator, Stevens had blocked all attempts to restrict black migration to Pennsylvania. He employed a spy to report to him on the activities of slave catchers and kidnappers. Stevens represented the defendants at the initial hearings as well as at the trial, concentrating on the specifics of the case rather than on the validity of slavery and the fugitive law. Lucretia Mott sat next to the black defendants, all dressed alike with red, white, and blue kerchiefs around their necks, making identification by Kline difficult. The defense also presented testimony on the kidnapping and enslavement of free blacks in the area. To add insult to injury, Marshal Roberts, a Stevens man, was accused of stacking the jury and treating the defendants to a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner courtesy of Judge Kane’s abolitionist son. In his closing for the defense John Read decried kidnappers and man stealers who invaded the homes of the citizens of Pennsylvania, putting the onus for the violence on Gorsuch and his slave-hunting party.

Grier made it clear in his charge to the jury that, despite his disapproval of resistance to the law, the indictment for treason had not been proven. The jury declared Hanway, who was tried first, not guilty within fifteen minutes, and Lewis and Williams were released on bail. The rest of the men were sent back to Lancaster County, where they were released in short order. In an interesting coda, Kline arrested one of the black men released as a fugitive before he too escaped. In the last of the trials, Williams was arrested again and defended ably by Kane’s other son, Robert P. Kane, and Kline was indicted for perjury. In the end no one was convicted. Radicalized by his experience, Hanway joined an abolitionist Quaker society; money for his defense had been raised by the Salisbury Friends Society. The court battle helped turn public opinion in favor of the defendants.

Abolitionists defended the actions of Parker and his men, Whittier writing an ode to the Quakers who refused to collaborate. At an antislavery meeting Giddings commended the black men’s resistance. Mott demurred at the violence, but her actions at the trial spoke louder. The Pennsylvania Freeman pointed out that while the federal government had indicted the Christiana rebels for treason, it had interceded on behalf of American filbusterers plotting to overthrow the Spanish government in Cuba. In Edmund Quincy’s view, the new law of treason called for a new “bloody revolution.” It was the first genuine battle for freedom since the American Revolution had failed to rid the country of slavery. Garrison was unequivocal in his support, averring that the “resistance made by the gallant blacks” of Christiana, who were entitled to all the “rights of belligerants,” was fully justified. Black meetings hailed the “Christiana heroes” throughout the North, in Columbus, in Chicago led by John Jones, and in Rochester. In New York, McCune Smith, Pennington, Ray, and Thomas Downing raised money for their defense. Detroit’s Committee of Vigilance, led by Monroe, Baptiste, and Lambert, and Philadelphia’s all-black Special Vigilance Committee, led by John Burr, William Forten, and Nathaniel W. Depee, also took up collections for them. Douglass commended the Christiana rebels for acting as men instead of what the law decreed, prey to be hunted. To Charles Langston they “were worthy the imitation of every colored man in the country.” As Still put it, “Slave-holders [were] taught the wholesome lesson, that the Fugitive Slave Law was no guarantee against ‘red hot shot.’”

Abolitionists had no illusions about slavery being an ongoing war in which they had to match wits, daring, and resources with slaveholders, who had the machinery of the state and the law at their disposal. That very year a fugitive was remanded back to slavery from Wilkes-Barre. Chastened by recent events, including the kidnapping of free blacks from Philadelphia, McKim convened a meeting on December 2, 1852, to revamp the PVC, as the old committee had become “disorganized and scattered.” Black abolitionists took the lead: Purvis was named chairman of the new General Vigilance Committee, and Still was named secretary of the acting committee, which consisted of Jacob C. White, the agent of the first Vigilant Committee, Depee, and the Quaker abolitionist Passmore Williamson. As secretary, Still was a one-man action committee and left the most comprehensive account of the UGRR in his magnum opus, The Underground Rail Road, published after the Civil War. He personally assisted in over four hundred slaves’ escape to freedom.9

Barely had the uproar over Christiana settled when Marshal Henry Allen arrested William Henry, known as Jerry, in Syracuse in October on behalf of James Lear, the agent of his Missouri owner, John McReynolds. Just two months earlier Commissioner Henry Smith had remanded a fugitive, John Davis, alias Daniel, in Buffalo back to slavery. When Davis was arrested he was assaulted in a “brutal and wanton” manner, his head clubbed and left lacerated and bloodied. His master’s agent, Benjamin Rust, was prosecuted for assault and battery and fined fifty dollars. Davis’s lawyers got a writ of habeas corpus, and he was spirited to Canada. In 1839 Syracuse’s black community, with the assistance of Smith, secreted Harriet Pownell, visiting with her Mississippi owners, to Canada. The Syracuse VC (SVC), formed by May, Smith, Ward, and Loguen, to ensure that “no person is deprived of his liberty without ‘due process of law,’” vowed to resist the “license for kidnapping.” In January Syracuse hosted the New York State Anti–Fugitive Slave Law Convention. A few months later Webster, visiting Syracuse, threw down the gauntlet, demanding the rendition of fugitives in the middle of an “Anti-Slavery convention.”

The SVC member Charles Wheaton witnessed Jerry’s capture, and the news spread via the tolling of church bells to the Onondaga Agricultural Society’s annual fair and a Liberty Party convention. Jerry, pleading for his liberty, nearly escaped through the huge crowd that quickly gathered. Bloodied and bruised, he was recaptured, shackled, and kept heavily guarded. At a meeting of the SVC at the office of the physician Hiram Hoyt, Smith recommended a “bold and forcible rescue.” Just a year earlier Hoyt had treated a runaway, William Harris, for self-inflicted wounds, the result of his being tormented by abusive seamen. Though William’s daughter died, his tormenters were jailed, and he escaped with his wife, Catherine, to Canada. May met with Jerry to calm him down and had a carriage ready to spirit him away, admonishing the rescuers not to harm any of the officials. Loguen had no such qualms. In 1844 he had written, “If our rights are withheld any longer, then come war—let blood flow without measure.” An interracial group of armed men overwhelmed the guards and managed to enter the jail by using a battering ram. Jerry was taken triumphantly to the home of two black sisters, where an abolitionist blacksmith broke apart his shackles, which were sent to Fillmore in a show of defiance. After being hidden at the home of a butcher, a proslavery Democrat who converted on seeing his plight, Jerry escaped to Kingston in Canada West through the abolitionist underground. He died two years later from tuberculosis but was immortalized by the annual Jerry rescue anniversary. Abolitionists from all factions used the occasion to proclaim their unified opposition to the law.

Most of the crowd that took part in the Jerry rescue were working-class men, many of whom lived alongside the city’s black community. Twenty-five were indicted, of whom twelve were black. Among the first to post bail for the men was Seward. Of the five brought to trial, four white men, whose cases dragged on, were acquitted, while the trial of a mason named Ira Cobb, who managed to reach Jerry first, ended in a hung jury. Enoch Reed, a black laborer, the first rescuer tried and convicted, died before his appeal was decided. A law-and-order petition that upheld the Constitution and was critical of the rescue was signed by seven hundred people, the occupations of over four hundred of whom were identified as lawyers, merchants, landlords, barkeepers, and a few others. They were “gentlemen of property and standing.” Abolitionists held protest meetings and formed a Jerry Rescue Committee led by Wheaton to raise funds for the defendants. Wheaton brought suit against Lear for kidnapping, but he too died before his case could be decided. Allen was charged with violating the state’s personal liberty law. Smith pronounced the law unconstitutional, contending that the government was not meant to be a “gigantic slave catcher.” Ward and Loguen left for Canada, and neither May nor Smith were tried. Governor Hunt ignored Loguen’s plea for safe passage, but he returned, recommencing his work on the UGRR with his wife, Caroline.

Loguen, a runaway from Tennessee, had long settled in upstate New York as a minister and teacher. He lectured for the Liberty Party and was nominated for the state senate. Loguen advertised his name and address in newspapers so runaways could seek him out and refused to purchase his own freedom. Loguen’s attempt to buy his mother failed because his master refused to sell her unless he paid for himself also. When his mistress, after selling off his siblings, asked him for a thousand dollars to relinquish her claims on him and pay for a mare he had used to escape, Loguen responded, “Wretched woman! Be it known to you that I value my freedom, to say nothing, of my mother, brother, and sisters, more than your whole body.” The fugitive community became his family: his sister-in-law married Lewis Clarke, and his daughter Amelia married Douglass’s son, Lewis. About the fugitive law he declared, “I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it.” Loguen wrote to Garrison in 1854 that he had personally dissolved the Union and that “my brethren should do as I have done; they should strike a blow for themselves and not wait for the hair-splitting of politicians and speakers.” In 1856 Loguen helped found the Fugitive Aid Society, with May at its head, and was appointed its general agent a year later. Loguen published his narrative with the help of his amanuensis, John Thomas, the erstwhile editor of the Liberty Party Paper, in 1859. The narrative detailed Loguen’s sale by his own father to Manasseth Logue, his uncle, who treated him brutally. Loguen whipped his master, threw him down to the ground, nearly breaking his neck, and ran away. After escaping to Canada, he attended Oneida Institute and settled in Syracuse in 1841. The last half of his narrative is devoted to the Jerry rescue. Thomas wrote that Loguen had “set slave laws at defiance, and trample[d] them under his feet.” Douglass admired Loguen’s refusal to buy himself, calling him “the man who does not lie down at night, nor rise in the morning, without being under the liability of being kidnapped!” Loguen, he estimated, had assisted over a thousand fugitives.10

Widely publicized instances of abolitionist defiance of the law made northern conservatives and the federal government determined to enforce it. In May 1854 they got their Pyrrhic victory with the arrest of Anthony Burns in Boston on a warrant issued by Commissioner Edward G. Loring and executed by the notorious Butman, who “made the hunting of fugitive slaves his special avocation.” Burns’s Virginian owner, Charles F. Suttle’s agent William Brent, initiated the arrest. Both Jerry and Burns were arrested on the pretext of stealing, a nineteenth-century version of stop-and-frisk. Grimes, whose “fugitive slave church” Burns attended, soon got wind of his arrest, and Dana delayed the proceedings. The BVC lawyer Seth Webb served a writ of personal replevin, which Marshal Watson Freeman ignored, and got Suttle and Brent charged for kidnapping. The men were released on bond posted by Hallet’s son and Freeman, but Hayden kept a conspicuous watch on them. The BVC was divided on the forcible rescue recommended by Hayden, Grimes, and Higginson or the employment of legal means, a result of the differing orientations of its members. Lawyers such as Charles Mayo Ellis, who had advised against forcible rescue during the Sims case, and Dana were appalled at how easily abolitionists spoke of direct action. “Advocates for an assault on the Court House” were outvoted at the committee’s emergency meeting. A thirty-man rescue committee consisting of Higginson, Parker, Phillips, Howe, and Bearse nevertheless planned Burns’s rescue. Phillips and Parker made fiery speeches at a five-thousand-strong protest meeting at Faneuil Hall led by Sewall, Bowditch, Howe, and Morris. Phillips urged that the people of Massachusetts must fall back on their own sovereignty. Parker addressed them as “subjects of Virginia” whose ancient writs, liberties, and constitutional protections had to bow down before the law of slavery.

Informed that a “mob of negroes” was going to assault the courthouse, many in the protest meeting adjourned there, according to a plan hatched by Higginson and Martin Stowell, who had taken part in the Jerry rescue. Higginson, who had left his conservative Unitarian congregation in Newburyport for a friendlier, radical one in Worcester in 1852, on Stowell’s suggestion purchased axes to break down the doors. In Worcester, Higginson regularly escorted fugitives to the Fosters’ farmhouse, but that, according to him, was minor antislavery work compared to the Burns rescue. Soon, the crowd, “the white and the colored race, the freeborn sons of Massachusetts and fugitive slaves from the South, here cooperated together” and attacked the courthouse, throwing bricks and stones, shattering its windows. Led by Hayden and Higginson, one group managed to open the heavy doors with a battering ram. Stowell tried to hack it down with his ax and was arrested. The men who participated in the attempted rescue of Burns were working-class radicals and black Bostonians. Two other men besides Stowell were arrested, a mechanic named John Roberts, for snuffing out the streetlights, and a black man, Walter Phoenix, for hurling a brick. The courthouse crowd included John Cluer, a mill worker from Scotland, a Chartist, and a leader of the ten-hour-a-day movement. He was a member of the BVC and, like Bearse, a fund raiser for it. Cluer and Stowell had witnessed Sims’s rendition. The crowd also included the future labor leader Ira Steward. In the melee a deputized Irish truckman, James Batchelder, who was blocking the entry was stabbed to death. The Boston Irish, some of whom, like Riley, were known for slave hunting, and the Catholic Church came down on the side of enforcing the law. There were exceptions, like the BVC member Henry Kemp, an Irishman. Joseph K. Hayes, a BVC infiltrator, resigned from the city police rather than participate in Burns’s rendition.

After the failed assault the mayor called out the militia, and Freeman requested the presence of two companies of U.S. Marines, making the courthouse impregnable. In the Jerry rescue Wheaton had dissuaded both from participating. The law President Pierce wrote must be executed, no matter what the cost. Two hundred radicals from the Worcester Freedom Club marched outside the courthouse. The BVC had no choice but to fall back on legal means. Shaw shut down the Supreme Judicial Court as armed men took over the courthouse. Boston was under virtual martial law. Meanwhile, Grimes raised a subscription of twelve hundred dollars, Suttle’s price for Burns, but Suttle changed his mind. His northern as well as southern backers were determined to foil the abolitionists. Despite an effective defense by Dana and testimony from black and white workers at the Mattapan Iron Works that Burns was working there before his owner claimed he had escaped, Loring, whose mother had married into the Curtis family after the death of his father and who was a staunch defender of the fugitive law, ruled in favor of Suttle. Ironically, his cousin Charles G. Loring was a BVC lawyer. Two southern Harvard men participated: Moncure Conway, a student at the Divinity School, attended BVC meetings and became an abolitionist; Charles C. Jones Jr., the son of the proslavery Georgia minister, who volunteered as a guard, was appalled at the use of “negro testimony.”

Exactly a week after his arrest Burns was escorted by the armed might of the government back to Virginia. Unlike the Sims rendition witnessed mainly by BVC members, thousands lined the streets; buildings were draped in black, American flags were outlined in black, and a coffin with the word Liberty on it was displayed. The tide of public sentiment had clearly turned. James Freeman Clarke evoked the scene: “Hung be the Heavens in black.” The law could be enforced only “at the point of a bayonet.” Coming on the heels of the Kansas–Nebraska Act, Burns’s rendition converted some of Boston’s cotton Whigs, including Amos Lawrence. They signed a petition for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, and some contributed funds to purchase Burns. John Pearson, who had helped with the Sims rendition, refused permission to a U.S. cutter to dock at his wharf. Whittier’s “The Rendition” and Whitman’s “A Boston Ballad” captured antislavery angst.

Riding a wave of popular revulsion and hostility against immigrants, including Irish involvement in the Burns rendition, the Know-Nothing Party swept into power in Massachusetts. The nativist legislature passed the Personal Liberty Law of 1855, which nullified the federal fugitive law. It required a suspected fugitive to be brought for trial before state courts on a writ of habeas corpus and prohibited not only state lawyers like Seth Thomas, who had represented the claimants of the Crafts, Sims, Shadrach, and Burns, from representing slaveholders, but also the use of state facilities to hold fugitives and state officials from participating in rendition. It made claimants subject to fines and imprisonment for kidnapping, and being a commissioner enforcing the fugitive law became an impeachable offense. Despite a legislative hearing in which Phillips, Parker, Grimes, and Ellis gave testimony, the abolitionist campaign to impeach Loring failed, mainly owing to the opposition of Dana and the nativist governor Henry Gardner. In 1858, with Garrison invited to witness the proceedings, Republicans in the legislature voted for the removal of Loring, and the new governor, Nathaniel Banks, signed off on it. Benjamin Curtis, Shaw, and a bunch of die-hards signed a petition for the repeal of the new personal liberty law. Shaw resigned from the Supreme Judicial Court in 1860, his judicial legacy intertwined with the defense of slavery and racial segregation. His son-in-law Melville captured his tortured commitment to judicial formalism in the character of Captain Vere in Billy Budd.

In May 1855 Curtis and Judge Sprague presided over the trial of eight men, including Higginson, Stowell, Cluer, a black man named Wesley (alias Walter) Bishop as well as Parker and Phillips, indicted for inciting riot and for the murder of Batchelder. Hale, Ellis, and Andrew defended them. Hayden was not arrested or tried. Hallet, at the prompting of Pierce and his doughface attorney general from Massachusetts Caleb Cushing, and Elias Merwin, Curtis’s law partner, prosecuted the case. They changed their minds, Curtis releasing Stowell on a technicality and the government entering a nolle prosequi, or refusal to proceed, for the others, not wanting to give abolitionists another forum to make their case. Parker foiled these plans when he published The Trial of Theodore Parker, in which he vindicated the “great Human Right to Freedom of Speech.” It was not the abolitionists but government itself that was lawless. Parker argued that slavery was at war with democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary corrupted by denying fugitives common law protections of trial by jury and habeas corpus. His long disquisition on the history of “judicial tyranny” in England, the use of torture by corrupt judges, and cruel laws preceded his indictment of the fugitive law, which read, “Its sins outrun my powers of speech.” The sorry history of its enforcement resulted in “one huge Despotism, a House of Bondage for African Americans, a House of Bondage also for Saxon Americans.” For good measure, he reproduced his speeches against slavery and the fugitive law, advocating revolutionary resistance.

Higginson marveled that the fugitive law had turned “honest American men into conscientious law-breakers.” To him, antislavery was no longer a reform but a revolution. The Worcester radicals had their revenge. In October, Butman, on a fact-finding trip, ran afoul of the Worcester VC and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. He barely made it out of the city alive, being surrounded by a crowd of thousands and protected, ironically, by Higginson and Stowell. He first hid in a toilet at the train station and then rode posthaste back to Boston, swearing never to come back. Stephen Foster, who had urged the crowd to rough up Butman but not kill him, was arrested along with three others, but a black man was indicted for assault. In Boston some drunk toughs assaulted Dana, and threats were made against Phillips and Parker. Burns bore the brutality of slave law, locked in an airless cell in the slave trader Robert Lumpkin’s pen for four months in shackles, with no privies and barely enough rotten food to keep him alive. He was sold to David McDaniel of North Carolina. When news of him trickled back to Massachusetts, Grimes and Charles C. Barry, the secretary of the Pine Street ASS, collected enough money to purchase him. Burns was excommunicated from his Virginia church for disobeying the law by running away, to which he replied, “I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. . . . The manstealer who stole me . . . committed an outrage on the law of God. . . . I disobeyed no law of God revealed in the Bible. . . . You charge me with disobeying the laws of men. . . . To be real laws, they must be founded in equity. You have thrust me out of your church fellowship. . . . You cannot exclude me from heaven.” On his return, Burns attended Oberlin and became a minister in Indianapolis before Indiana’s black laws compelled him to leave for Canada. In 1862 Rev. Anthony Burns died of tuberculosis in St. Catherines, Ontario. He was the last fugitive to be recaptured in New England.11

The Burns rendition inspired Garrison, who called it a “deed of infamy,” to make one of his most celebrated protests against slavery. On the Fourth of July the MASS converted its annual celebration in Framingham into a day of mourning, with black bunting surrounding an upside-down American flag. Phillips, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, and Sojourner Truth, who said that if whites repaid blacks all that they owed they would not have enough left to seed, made speeches. Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” was one of the best statements on the abolitionists’ understanding of the law caricatured by conservatives as higher law doctrine. “The law,” Thoreau wrote, “will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order, who observe the law when the government breaks it.” Emerson made a similar argument in his speech on the fugitive slave law in 1851 justifying Shadrach’s rescue: “An immoral law makes it a man’s duty to break it, at every hazard.” In the twentieth century these ideas would find new resonance in the conviction of Nazis for following immoral and unjust orders. Furness’s three discourses on the rendition of Burns and Pennington’s family urged the “Christian duty” of northerners to withhold “all aid and countenance from the work of oppression.” Garrison read the Declaration and then proceeded to burn the Fugitive Slave Act, Loring’s decision, the grand jury’s charge against the courthouse protesters, and the Constitution with its fugitive slave clause, “the source and parent of the other atrocities.” He concluded, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.” Even antislavery allies who disagreed respected the sheer boldness of his gesture. Garrison’s disunionism seemed less unreasonable in the age of the fugitive law, when an antislavery conscience was deemed seditious. Remond, who had pushed for the deliverance of Burns in a dramatic speech at the NEAS convention, defended Garrison’s protest in the name of the three million slaves with whom he was identified by complexion. He gave it his “hearty approbation,” as the Constitution and the law had outlawed black people.12

The same year as Burns’s rendition, a successful fugitive slave rebellion occurred in Racine, Wisconsin. The arrest and rescue of Joshua Glover, a runaway slave of Benammi Garland of Missouri, precipitated another long contest in the courts. Garland came armed with a certificate of removal from a St. Louis court and a federal warrant for Glover’s arrest from Judge Andrew Miller of the Eastern District of Wisconsin. It took two marshals—Deputy Marshal John Kearney landed a blow on Glover’s head—and their four assistants to subdue the resistant Glover, who had escaped from slavery two years earlier. A black man named William Alby, who was with Glover at the time of his seizure, soon spread the word of his arrest, and the sheriff arrested Kearney and his assistant on charges of kidnapping, assault, and battery. The next day Racine abolitionists tolled church bells and held a protest meeting condemning the kidnapping of Glover, “a faithful laborer and honest man,” demanding that a trial by jury be held for him and that the “Slave catching law of 1850” be repealed. Deputy Marshal Charles Cotton whisked Glover off to Milwaukee, where the abolitionist editor of the Daily Free Democrat, Sherman Booth, received the resolutions of the Racine meeting. As a student at Yale, Booth had taught the Amistad rebels English. A Liberty Party man, he had moved to Wisconsin from Connecticut, following his mentor, Ichabod Codding, and, like Chase, had made the transition to the Free Soil Party. Booth published a handbill on Glover’s arrest and rode around Milwaukee, including the German Second Ward, a nineteenth-century Paul Revere summoning people to the courthouse. Another Liberty man, James Paine, who had moved to Milwaukee from Ohio, served a writ of habeas corpus on Cotton.

Led by the physician Edward B. Wolcott, Booth, Paine, his son Byron, and Abram Henry Bielfeld, who was born in Bremen and made a speech in German, a courthouse meeting passed resolutions demanding a trial by jury for Glover. The meeting also formed a twenty-five man Vigilance Committee. A nervous Cotton, backed by the federal judge Miller and District Attorney John Sharpstein, whose request for military reinforcements was ignored, did not obey the writs of habeas corpus served on him by the local sheriff. Meanwhile, a contingent of one hundred from Racine joined the meeting, and the abolitionist Charles Watkins recommended taking the law into their own hands. A blacksmith, James Angove, led the predominantly working-class crowd, using a battering ram to break open the jail, and they carried Glover away. Glover doffed his cap to the crowd, crying, “Glory, Hallelujah,” and disappeared in the abolitionist underground to Canada.

Glover’s escape led to a flurry of lawsuits: Watkins and Paine appeared on behalf of Racine County seeking the arrest of Garland for disturbing the peace, and Garland sued Booth for the value of Glover and costs incurred to recapture him. A grand jury handed down indictments against Wolcott, the Paines, Watkins, and Herbert Reed, the chairman of the Milwaukee Vigilance Committee. The Pierce administration was determined that some heads should roll for the Glover rescue, so Booth, who had advised against violence, and John Ryecraft, who had helped break down the jail door, were arrested by Marshal Stephen Abelman for violating the fugitive slave law. In his hearing before Commissioner Winfield Smith, Booth raised issues of trial by jury and habeas corpus, and his attorney Paine, of the freedom of assembly and speech. Sharpstein made his distaste for radicalism clear, saying, “The whole matter of abolitionism, women’s rights, Fourierism, Etc., is intended only to enable men to violate and trample on the laws. I despise the whole of it. I despise any man who preaches it, and I despise any man who defends him.” Edward Ryan, an Irish immigrant and self-described proslavery Democrat, joined him in prosecuting the case against Booth and Ryecraft in federal court. Despite a plea from Byron Paine, both were found guilty.

Abolitionists, not conservative judges in the federal judiciary, built legal precedents for modern law stemming from the fugitive slave cases, including the reading of Miranda rights. In addition, it was not clear which side perpetrated more violence. By the eve of the war, slave-catching posses and officials took to operating by stealth, at night and by surprise, and to violently implement the fugitive law in the North. Booth and his lawyers constantly alluded to the violence of Glover’s arrest and the abusive nature of the law. They secured a writ of habeas corpus from the state supreme court justice Abram Smith, known for his abolitionist leanings, who declared the law unconstitutional. In his famous brief before Smith, Byron Paine had challenged the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act by disputing the power of Congress to enact it and its subversion of trial by jury; further, he questioned the constitutionality of giving federal commissioners judicial powers. He referred to the authority of Spooner, used Rantoul’s argument from the Sims case, and impressed Sumner, who asked for a copy of his brief. The state supreme court upheld Smith’s decision by two to one. In Wisconsin, state judges set themselves up as defenders of citizens’ liberties and distinguished their version of states’ rights from nullification, South Carolina’s attempt to overthrow federal law during the tariff controversy.

State and federal officials worked at cross-purposes. Booth and Ryecraft were found guilty of violating the fugitive law in federal court. The court sentenced Booth to one month in prison and a thousand-dollar fine, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously discharged Booth and Ryecraft in February 1855. Evoking Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts, as had Paine, but, significantly, not South Carolina’s nullification of federal tariff laws, the court interposed itself between the state’s citizens and the federal law and courts. It was not simply a matter of states’ rights vis-à-vis federal power, but the protection of the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens. Two years later Republicans in the state legislature passed a personal liberty law establishing the writ of habeas corpus, right to trial by jury, and legal counsel in fugitive slave cases. It punished the kidnapping of free blacks and prevented a lien on the personal property or real estate of persons who refused to obey the law. This section of the state law helped Booth get a writ of replevin against unlawful seizure of property when the zealous Abelman started impounding his press and printing materials to execute the judgment against him in Garland v. Booth. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court in US v. Booth and Abelman v. Booth in 1859 unanimously upheld the supremacy of federal law, overturning the decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Coming after Dred Scott, the decision of the Taney court came as no surprise, and the state legislature passed a joint resolution promising “positive defiance” of it. For good measure, the people of Wisconsin elected the young Byron Paine to the state supreme court.

The persistent Abelman arrested Booth again in 1860, but his supporters managed to spirit him out of the U.S. Custom House where he was being held. Booth surrendered himself later that year after campaigning for Lincoln. He languished in jail until President James Buchanan pardoned him just before leaving office in March 1861. Booth had lost much of his credibility after his arrest and trial in 1859 for seducing his fourteen-year-old babysitter, which ended in a hung jury but led to the breakdown of his marriage. He remarried after his wife’s death and died at the ripe age of ninety-one in 1904. Glover died in Canada in 1888.

Abolitionists and black Wisconsinites led by Lewis Johnson saw resistance to the fugitive law and the fight for African American rights as two sides of the same coin. According to the 1850 Census, the state had slightly over six hundred free black people in a total population of more than three hundred thousand. The state hosted speaking tours by Lewis Washington, a fugitive slave, in 1847 and by Douglass in the 1850s. Like J. B. Smith, whose restaurant refused to serve soldiers in Boston, the black barber William Noland of Madison, who managed to hold state office without attracting much attention, refused to shave kidnappers. Abolitionists such as Booth and Rufus King, named for his antislavery Federalist father, the editor of the antislavery Milwaukee Sentinel, and Rev. Byrd Parker, a “Bird of African plumage,” as racist Democrats called him, launched a campaign for black suffrage in the 1850s, but in 1857 the referendum was defeated by a vote of 45,157 to 31,964. Although the Republican Party never officially endorsed the measure, 95 percent of the vote for black suffrage came from Republicans. In 1865 Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader of Milwaukee’s black community, accompanied by Booth, attempted to vote but was turned back by election officials. Byron Paine brought suit on Gillespie’s behalf, holding that Wisconsin had established black suffrage in 1849, when a small majority had voted in its favor. The results had been disallowed because of the low number of votes cast. In March 1866 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Gillespie’s favor, making the state one of a handful in the North to grant black suffrage before the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.13

The last well-known fugitive slave rebellion, in 1858, occurred in the abolitionist stronghold of Oberlin. In August a Kentuckian named Anderson Jennings who was looking for a fugitive slave recognized John Price, a fugitive belonging to his neighbor John Bacon. Price had run away with his cousin, Dinah, and Frank, who belonged to a Richard Lloyd, in the winter of 1856 when the Ohio River had frozen over. Price lived among Oberlin’s activist black community, which, together with the college, was an important stop in the abolitionist underground. Deputy Marshal Anson Dayton was always on the lookout for fugitives and was known to write about their whereabouts to their Kentucky owners. Dayton, Deputy Marshal Jacob K. Lowe of Columbus, and two Kentucky slave catchers had tried to seize a black family, the Wagoners, in a midnight raid before being scared away by Wagoner, who was armed. It was Dayton who had brought Price to Jennings’s attention. Bacon and Lloyd sent a slave catcher, Richard Mitchell, to recover their slaves. Though watched closely by a black community always on the alert for slave hunters, Jennings and Mitchell managed to abduct Price with some help from locals. Malachi Warren, an Alabama planter who had moved to the area with his “slave wife,” and the Boynton family, who tricked Price with an offer of employment, assisted them. Lowe also got a warrant to arrest Price.

As the slave hunters made their way to Wellington, Ohio, they ran into an abolitionist student from Oberlin, Anson Lyman, who had ridden with John Brown in Kansas. Price cried out for help. Lyman raised an alarm, and soon a large, armed interracial crowd surrounded the Wellington hotel, where Price was being held. John Watson, a black grocer and leading member of the state black conventions, got a warrant for the arrest of Price’s kidnappers, and Langston tried to negotiate his release. News that troops might arrive by train to reinforce the men guarding Price compelled action. An abolitionist named Charles Griffin advised the crowd, “Pay no attention to the laws.” Two rescue parties, a group of Oberlin students led by Lyman, John Cowles, and the British-born William Lincoln, who had worked for the AMA, and a group of black men led by the former North Carolina slave John Scott, Jeremiah Fox, a fugitive himself, and a free black man, John A. Copeland, converged on the attic of the hotel. Richard Winsor, who was Price’s Sunday school teacher, managed to spirit him out into a waiting buggy procured by Scott. Another student, Simeon Bushnell, rode the buggy with Price and Winsor to the home of the Oberlin bookseller James Fitch. Fitch’s home was a known stop on the UGRR, so they took Price instead to the home of James Fairchild, a professor at Oberlin, where he hid for several days before being sent to Canada. A triumphant antislavery meeting at Oberlin celebrated what came to be known as the Oberlin–Wellington rescue, with three cheers for liberty and three groans for the informer Dayton and the federal government. Dayton was run out of town, as was Warren, who, disowned by his children and accused of whipping his wife, returned to Alabama. President Buchanan, like his predecessors, was determined to enforce the law and harshly punish all who defied it. A stacked, all-Democratic federal grand jury, including a member of the Boynton family, indicted thirty-seven men for the rescue, of whom twenty-five were from Oberlin, eleven from Wellington, and one from Pittsfield. Most of the Wellington defendants, farmers and one bricklayer, were listed as “Known member of the Underground Railroad.” Of the Oberlin men, four were students, one a professor, and three were born in England and Scotland. Twelve were African American, including fugitive slaves like Fox and John Hartwell.

The rescuers’ protracted trials in Cleveland became a political spectacle. Governor Chase’s political allies Rufus Spalding and Albert Riddle acted as counsel for the defense before an unsympathetic Democratic district judge, Hiram Willson, and all-Democratic juries. The prosecution, led by District Attorney George Belden, got rid of the Wellington rescuers, striking deals or releasing them on bond or, in the case of the seventy-four-year-old “Father” Matthew Gillet, forcing him out of jail. One of them, Loring Wadsworth, was elected mayor. The government wanted to concentrate its fire on the “Ober-litionists.” The college was a breeding ground for sedition and treason in the opinion of the prosecuting attorney George Bliss. Bushnell and Langston were tried first. In the Bushnell case, Riddle and Spalding justified the defendant’s actions and called for the overthrow of the fugitive law. Langston’s lawyers, the Oberlin graduate Seneca Griswold and Franklin Backus, commended his actions and character.

On his conviction, Langston gave a moving speech (see above), which was reproduced as an abolitionist pamphlet. He justified resistance to the law. It was his revolutionary duty as a colored man, an “outlaw of the United States,” to rescue the fugitive. The courts and the law of the country, Langston noted, were made to “oppress and outrage colored men.” He had not been tried, he observed pointedly, by a “jury of my peers”—state conventions had long protested the exclusion of blacks from juries. He had no rights that a white man was bound to respect, repeating Taney’s obiter dicta from the Dred Scott decision, but he had the right of self-preservation. Willson, who was moved enough by the speech to recommend a light sentence, threatened the audience at the courtroom with removal because of their prolonged applause. In Boston, Wells Brown, Nell, Hayden, Grimes, and J. Sella Martin, the newly installed pastor of the Joy Street Baptist church, led a meeting of colored citizens, commending Langston’s “thrilling eloquent speech.” Self-taught, Martin had escaped from slavery in 1856. He moved to Massachusetts in 1859 as a pastor for a white church in Lawrence, filling in at the famous Tremont Temple too.

Charles and John Mercer Langston were the sons of a Virginia planter and his common-law enslaved wife, Lucy Langston. They moved to Ohio in 1834 after the death of their parents, and both attended Oberlin. Charles was a teacher in black schools in Chillicothe and Columbus and sent some of his pupils on to Oberlin. His more famous younger brother John became the state’s first black lawyer, after training with the Republican lawyer Philemon Bliss, and officeholder. He replaced Dayton as town clerk. After the war he became a Republican congressman from Virginia and the American minister to Haiti. Both were active in the state black conventions and the Ohio Colored American League, founded in 1850. Referring to the rescue at the state black convention in 1858, Mercer Langston argued that black people would trample the fugitive slave law under their foot. As secretary of the Ohio State ASS, Charles Langston continued to assist fugitives. He helped found Wilberforce University and became a superintendent in the Freedman’s Bureau.

The black rescuers continued their war against slavery well after the Price rebellion. Copeland, who was not indicted, joined John Brown and died at Harper’s Ferry. James Monroe, an abolitionist professor who had been present at Fairchild’s home when Price arrived, vainly tried to recover Copeland’s body from southern medical students, who desecrated the graves of the raiders and used their bodies for dissection. The brothers Henry Evans and Wilson Bruce Evans were cabinetmakers, and both were married to the sisters of another Harper’s Ferry raider, Lewis Sheridan Leary. Langston married Leary’s widow, who was pregnant when he was killed at Harper’s Ferry. Her daughter Louise attended Oberlin and was the mother of the poet Langston Hughes. She named her son after her stepfather. James L. Patton served as a chaplain in one of Ohio’s first black regiments during the war, and Orindatus S. B. Wall, whose sister married John Mercer Langston, was the first black man commissioned as a captain in 1865. Wilson Evans and Fox also served in the Union army.

The Oberlin–Wellington trials attracted national attention. The reporter covering them for the New York Tribune was John Brown’s coconspirator, John Kagi. A widely reproduced photograph of the rescuers appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine. James A. Thome, a professor at Oberlin and one of the original Lane rebels, visited them in prison. John Brown, who was under federal indictment for running slaves from Missouri at that time, attended a meeting held in their support. At the “felon’s feast” when the rescuers met their lawyers, Mercer Langston predicted they would “go to prison, or if necessary, go out on the battlefield to meet the Slave Oligarchy.” To Pillsbury, it was a “PROVIDENTIAL CALL” to “buckle on his armor for the conflict.” Frances Ellen Watkins raised twenty dollars for the rescuers. The rescuer Jacob Shipherd, a nephew of one of the founders of Oberlin, compiled a history of the affair dedicated to the thirty-seven indicted. An introduction by the rescuers Henry Peck, a professor, and Ralph Plumb portrayed the government, “a gigantic tyranny” that knows no law but its “own despotic will,” as the real lawless entity in the country. The prisoners started printing their own paper, the Rescuer, in jail and protested their incarceration in a written statement to the court. A massive antislavery meeting held outside the jail breathed defiance and was addressed by Giddings, who recommended forming a new Sons of Liberty to thwart the fugitive law, and by Governor Chase, the former congressman Joseph Root, and Edward Wade, among others. Chase vowed to use the state militia to free the prisoners if called to enforce a writ of habeas corpus. The old antislavery congressman Judge Sherlock Andrews joined the counsel for the defense.

Despite all the publicity, the Oberlin rescuers did not emerge unscathed. The trials of Bushnell and Langston resulted in guilty verdicts, fines, and imprisonment. The two men, neither of whom had much personal wealth, were dunned for the fines and court costs long after the trial. The Ohio Supreme Court, with Republican appointees, stunned everyone by refusing to issue a writ of habeas corpus for the prisoners despite an eloquent appeal by the state’s attorney general, Christopher P. Wolcott. He called the fugitive law a “FLA-GRANT USURPATION OF DELEGATED POWERS,” opining that the very “CAUSE OF CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT” was at stake. The Western ASS saw the refusal as proof that the state government was powerless to protect its citizens. One of the architects of the Wilmot Proviso, Justice Jacob Brinkerhoff, and Justice Sutliff dissented. Radicals in the Ohio Republican convention repudiated the majority opinion of Judge Joseph Swan, refused to renominate him, and passed a resolution calling for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In upholding the letter of the law, Swan, like Shaw and Loring, retreated to “mechanistic formalism.” Meanwhile, a Loraine County jury indicted Price’s captors for kidnapping. In a final settlement, the remaining rescuers, with the exception of Bushnell, who served an additional five days, were released on July 6, 1859, in exchange for the release of the four indicted kidnappers, Jennings, Mitchell, Lowe and Davis. Their prosecutor was W. W. Boynton, who, unlike other members of his family, was antislavery. He also joined the battle to expunge the word white from the state constitution. Abolitionist meetings welcomed back the rescuers in Oberlin. Henry Evans was satisfied that he had done his duty. A choir sang the “Marseillaise.”14


During the fugitive slave controversy, the abolitionist underground kicked into high gear. The vigilance committees of the 1850s, Still writes, were organized not only to rescue self-emancipated slaves from being reenslaved but also to free slaves brought by their masters to the North. In July 1855 Col. John H. Wheeler, the U.S. minister plenipotentiary designate to Nicaragua, traveled to Philadelphia with his slave Jane Johnson and her two sons. Wheeler warned Johnson to steer clear of free blacks, especially the “colored waiters” in the hotel, and kept her in a hotel room while he went out for dinner, checking on her periodically. Johnson managed to get word out of her desire for freedom. Still received an anonymous note, probably from one of the black hotel staff, describing her plight. Enlisting Passmore Williamson, the two men hurried to the ferry, where they found Johnson and Wheeler. Williamson, who arrived first, informed Johnson that she was entitled to her freedom and released her from Wheeler’s grasp. Wheeler pleaded with her not to leave her son behind and even promised her freedom. Her son had been sold away from her, and Johnson had little hope of ever seeing him again. She left with Still and Williamson and boarded a hack ready to carry her and her two other sons to freedom. A heated exchange and scuffle occurred between Still, Williamson, and Wheeler, who was held down by two of five black dockworkers present, William Curtis, James P. Braddock, John Ballard, James Martin, and Isaiah Moore, of whom, Still wrote, “too much cannot be said in commendation.”

After Johnson’s disappearance, Williamson was served a writ of habeas corpus. First released on a bond of five thousand dollars, he was imprisoned on contempt of court by none other than Judge Kane. Abolitionists were appalled that habeas corpus was being used to enslave rather than free a person and suspected that Kane held Williamson in contempt rather than perjury because he wanted to avoid a trial by jury, a “troublesome element” of “American jurisprudence” for slaveholders. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus to release Williamson, with the “honorable exception” of Judge Knox, who wrote the sole dissent. Williamson, who had worked for years anonymously in the PVC, became an overnight abolitionist celebrity, visited by Douglass and Tubman and feted in the antislavery press. The national black convention, which met at Philadelphia that year, sent a delegation to wait on him. He languished in jail for three months. In his massive compendium on “Atrocious Judges” in Anglo-American history, “Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression,” Hildreth, with probably Shaw and Kane in mind, reproduced Williamson’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus as a “native citizen of Pennsylvania” and the decision of the court along with Knox’s dissent. In England, Hildreth wrote, tyrannical judges were part of the “Norman yoke” that subverted democratic “Anglo Saxon” traditions of trial by jury, and despotism was personified in the divine right of monarchs to rule their subjects. In the American Republic, “some two hundred thousand petty tyrants . . . in the shape of slaveholders” exercised the divine right to rule through congressional prerogative and corrupt judges.

At an antislavery meeting in Norristown led by Abby Kimber and Sarah Pugh of the PFASS and Purvis, McKim, and James Mott of the PASS, called to express sympathy with Williamson, Johnson appeared on stage. McKim criticized Kane, and Purvis contended that he should be treated as an outlaw, a murderer, vagabond, and outcast. Douglass too lit into Kane’s “tyrannical position.” Pennsylvania abolitionists launched a petition drive to impeach Kane, and the newly formed Republican Party nominated Williamson for the office of canal commissioner while he was still in prison. In Boston, Garrison called for Kane’s impeachment, seeing him as akin to Loring. The primary moving force in the Johnson case, it became clear as the trial proceeded, was Johnson herself. It was she who had initiated her rescue; abolitionists had not foisted a choice on her. Jacob Bigelow, the successor to Torrey and Chaplin in the Washington underground, affirmed that Johnson had indicated her desire for freedom while there, and he had planned to send a man to Philadelphia to give notice of her case. Johnson sent in an affidavit from New York stating, “Nobody forced me away; nobody pulled me, and nobody led me; I went away of my own free will; I always wished to be free and meant to be free when I came North.” In a dramatic courtroom appearance, where she appeared veiled and surrounded by women of the PFASS, Mott, Pugh, and Sarah McKim, she repeated her testimony in person. Williamson was released on a nolle prosequi. Johnson left with Mott and McKim, accompanied by state police officers, as District Attorney Van Dyke threatened to arrest her under the fugitive law. The PASS commended Judge Kelley and District Attorney Mann for their protection and determination to uphold Pennsylvania laws. Johnson made her home in Boston, where she lived happily, as Nell reported. One of her sons served in the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts during the war.

Still and the five dockworkers were arrested for riot, assault, battery, and “highway robbery” for stealing slave property in transit. The men were summarily locked up, denied food, and given an “exorbitant bail” of seven thousand dollars each. The highway robbery charge was eventually dropped and the bail reduced by Judge Kelley. Still was defended by Charles Gibbons and the others by William Pierce, “one of the oldest, ablest and most faithful lawyers to the slave” and known to take even hopeless cases, and William Birney, the son of James Birney. Of the five, Ballard and Curtis were convicted, fined ten dollars each, and imprisoned for a week. The five men sued Alderman James Freeman for “corrupt and malicious conduct” and for the inhumane conditions they endured during their imprisonment. Williamson sued Kane for false imprisonment. Wheeler was recalled from Nicaragua in disgrace for extending recognition to the government of the filibusterer William Walker without sanction from Washington.15

Like Johnson, other enslaved women who struggled for freedom became causes célèbres in the abolition movement. In January 1856 a family of eight Kentucky slaves—Simon, Mary, and their twenty-one-year-old son, Robert Garner, who all belonged to one James Marshall, along with Robert’s pregnant twenty-two-year-old wife Margaret Garner and her four children, Thomas, Sam, Mary, and Cilla, belonging to Archibald Gaines—crossed over the “Fugitive Slaves’ bridge,” the frozen Ohio River. They went straight to the cabin of the Kites, a free black family headed by Margaret’s uncle, who had bought his children from slavery. Her cousin Elijah Kites alerted Levi Coffin in Cincinnati of their arrival, and Coffin advised that the Garners be moved immediately. Soon after Elijah returned, however, Deputy Marshal George Bennet, armed with a warrant from the federal commissioner John L. Pendery and accompanied by Marshal Calvin Butts and deputies from Kentucky, Gaines, and Thomas Marshall, the son of James, surrounded the cabin. The Garners refused to surrender and as the authorities forced their way into the cabin, Robert Garner fired and injured one of the deputies. At the prospect of being captured, Margaret decapitated her two-year-old-daughter, Mary, with a carving knife and attempted to kill her other children. They “fought with the ferocity of tigers.”

The couple had borne their share of the cruelties of border state slavery and had no intention of returning. Robert, called Samuel by his owners and in court records, had been incessantly hired out, and Margaret, called Peggy by her owners, after having their first child, had given birth to three mixed-race children. A white neighbor of the Kites testified that he saw Gaines sobbing and carrying Mary’s body. He had most likely abused Margaret over a long period. During her trial, when asked about a scar on her face, Garner responded, “White man struck me.” She calmly reiterated her determination to kill her children rather than have them grow up in slavery. In proslavery telling, Garner was an unfeeling monster, but to abolitionists like Garrison, Henry C. Wright, and Parker she was a proud slave mother saving her daughters from a life of degradation. In a widely reproduced speech in the abolitionist press, Rev. Henry Bushnell anointed her a “heroic wife” and noble mother. The black women of Cincinnati waved their handkerchiefs in support when she appeared after her arrest.

As Margaret’s example shows, enslaved women were just as capable of violent resistance to slavery as men. A year earlier a young, pregnant slave in Missouri, Celia, whose middle-aged widower master had bought her when she was just fourteen, had killed him after suffering years of abuse. Having borne two of his children and wanting to marry a fellow slave, Celia had dispatched him and burned his body when he tried to rape her while she was pregnant. Garrison reported the case in his “Catalogue of Southern Crimes and Horrors,” but modern historians have only recently discovered it. Celia was tried for murder and convicted; her case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which stood by the decision of the lower court. Unable to make a self-defense plea stick and having attempted escape, Celia was hanged. The rape of a black woman was not recognized in slave law, and Missouri had been whipped into a proslavery frenzy over the battle for Kansas by its fire-eating senator David Atchinson and the Irish-born president of the University of Missouri, James Shannon. Like Celia, Margaret had been abused since she was a teenager.

The man who defended Margaret and became the lead counsel for the entire Garner family was the abolitionist attorney John Jolliffe. A lapsed Quaker from Virginia, Jolliffe was known to defend runaways and those accused of slave running, like John Mahan. Jolliffe’s antislavery activism stretched back to the late 1830s, and he was a member and fund raiser for the AASS and a trustee of the Colored Orphan Asylum; his wife, Synthelia, was a member of the Ladies Antislavery Sewing Circle, which provided the Garners with fresh clothes during their imprisonment. Joliffe denounced the fugitive law and in 1852 ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Free Democratic ticket. In the 1850s he worked pro bono in seventeen fugitive cases. He secured the freedom of an enslaved mistress of a slaveholder at personal expense. In one instance, a runaway named Louis being defended by Jolliffe and the future Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes surreptitiously made his way to freedom through a “crowd of colored people” in the court into a passage “crowded with Germans.” Black Cincinnatians like Peter Clark and Frances Scroggins Brown, who had long been active in the abolitionist underground, brought such cases to white antislavery lawyers like Jolliffe.

Jolliffe had a personal connection to the Garner family: he had successfully defended Margaret’s uncle Joe Kite against his master in a case arising from a dispute over the purchase of Elijah. In 1854 he defended a group of runaways belonging to three Kentucky slaveholders, one of whom was John Gaines, Margaret’s original owner and Archibald’s cousin. During the Garner trials, Margaret’s mother was among a group of four Gaines slaves who escaped to Canada through the abolitionist underground. In 1853 an Irish proslavery Democratic judge, Jacob Flinn, before whom Joliffe had unsuccessfully argued a fugitive slave case, assaulted him and was fined seventy dollars plus court costs. Unrepentant, Flinn positioned himself as amicus curiae, or friend of the court, making unsolicited interjections during the Garner cases. After the Garners were transported back to Kentucky, he accompanied the victorious slave-catching party in celebration. Rowdies nearly beat a Cincinnati Gazette reporter to death on suspicion of his being an abolitionist.

Cincinnati’s Irish population was largely incorporated into its Democratic machine. The city’s elite had political and business ties across the river, and half the city’s population was southern born. The state’s Democratic governor had distributed Sharps rifles to two Irish militias during the so-called Irish Filibuster Case. They were hired as deputy marshals by Marshal Hiram Robinson, the owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer, in a moneymaking scheme as well as a plan to intimidate would-be black rescuers during the Garner affair. None of this appeased proslavery nativists like the Garners’ owners. The Kentucky lawyer representing Marshall and Gaines, John W. Finnell, alluding to the Irish abolitionist James Elliot, who had immigrated twenty-five years earlier, argued, “That man fresh from the bog, had better stayed there and removed the shackles from his own enslaved brethren than come here to meddle with our institutions.” Gaines joined the Know-Nothing Party and in 1857 was booked on charges of assaulting Jolliffe and let off with a minor fine.

The Garner cases, along with the Marshall and Gaines claims being tried separately before Commissioner Pendery, put slavery itself on trial. The affair was widely followed in the national press. Jolliffe pursued two main legal strategies, one the old antislavery tactic of getting Judge John Burgoyne, known for his antislavery views, to issue a writ of habeas corpus to remand the Garners into state custody, and the other was to prove that all the adult Garners had visited Ohio earlier with their masters, making them and Margaret’s later offspring free. To prove the latter, he marshaled testimony from Cincinnati’s black community as well as from the German butcher Jacob Rice (Riis) and his daughter, with whom Robert Garner and his family had stayed. In contrast to the witnesses for the defense, the lawyers for the claimants called on the slaveholding chivalry of Kentucky to vouch for their clients. Jolliffe protested the authorities’ attempt to keep black people out of the hearing, and when Coffin attended, a belligerent deputy knocked his hat off. Jolliffe’s main argument was the unconstitutionality of the fugitive law, which gave precedence to one clause of the Constitution over all other constitutional protections, as well as its inhumanity: “It had driven a frantic mother to murder her own child, rather than see it carried back to the seething Hell of American Slavery.”

In response, Finnell recalled the “old negro woman” who had reared him, whom he loved “as dearly as any white person on earth.” This sentimental picture of Finnell’s mammy sought to shift the focus from the reality of Garner’s actions. It became clear that Pendery would rule in favor of the claimants, using the decision of the Supreme Court in Strader v. Graham (1850), in which Taney argued that if a slave voluntarily returned to a slave state, then residence in a free state did not entitle him or her to freedom. Jolliffe then tried to have Garner remain in Ohio to stand trial on criminal charges of murdering her daughter, contending that the Garners would go singing to the gallows rather than be returned to slavery. But Robinson steadfastly refused to obey any writ issued by the state courts, for which he was held in contempt. He succeeded in getting a countermanding writ issued by the federal court judge Humphrey Leavitt to free himself. Short of an armed standoff, Ohio officials yielded to federal law and Pendery’s rulings against the Garners. The following year Governor Chase, in another case, brokered a compromise between federal marshals, represented by the future copperhead Democrat Clement Vallandigham, and state officials. A local sheriff had been pistol whipped by federal marshals during the rendition of a runaway named Addison White of Mechanicsburg. Townspeople raised sufficient funds to purchase him, and White went on to serve in the Union army.

Abolitionists, who raised a subscription of eight hundred dollars when the Garners were remanded back to slavery, were bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the case. May wrote, “Alas for her” after “so terrible a struggle, so bloody a sacrifice, so near to deliverance . . . to be, by the villainy and lying of her ‘respectable’ white owner, again engulphed in the abyss of Slavery!” During the trial, Lucy Stone, who had tried to persuade Gaines to sell the Garners, made a courthouse speech in which she argued that Margaret had “a right to deliver herself” and her children from slavery. Rev. William H. Brisbane and an antislavery Baptist minister named P. S. Bassett visited Garner in prison, the latter reporting her determination to kill her children rather than subject them to “a life more bitter than death.” Phillips called her “the noblest American woman that this generation has produced.” With the Garner case, Giddings proclaimed, the war against slavery had been brought to “our shores.” The WASS called it “an outrage.” In her speech in Dublin, Sarah Parker Remond referred to Garner as “without protection from the licentiousness of a brutal master.” Garner inspired contemporary abolitionist poems and novels, most notably, in our own times, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Governor Chase, criticized by Kelley Foster, Parker, Phillips, and Pillsbury for not doing enough, in a long, carefully argued requisition request, asked for the rendition of Margaret Garner and her family as accessories in a crime committed on Ohio soil. In his annual message to the legislature, he argued that the Garner case had subverted the sovereignty of the state. By the time the Kentucky governor received and agreed to the request, Gaines had shipped Margaret and her family to his brother’s plantation in Arkansas. En route, Garner’s ferry collided with another, and she either jumped or was pitched into the Mississippi with the infant Cilla in her arms. She was rescued, but Cilla drowned. Playing cat and mouse with the authorities, Gaines rendered Margaret back to Louisville in formal compliance with the governor’s orders, but before Ohio deputies could claim her he shipped her off again with her family to New Orleans, where another brother sold them to a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Margaret succumbed to typhoid in 1858 but not before she told Robert never to marry again in slavery. Robert joined the Union army. He settled in Cincinnati and married in freedom.16

The last fugitive slave rescue was led by the most famous female slave runaway, Harriet Tubman, in April 1860, in Troy. Troy was part of the abolitionist underground in upstate New York and had a local vigilance committee, the TVC. It was an important hub of black activism, the national black convention was held here in 1847, and it hosted the state conventions in 1841 and 1855 and a suffrage convention in 1858. Garnet pastored the Liberty Street Presbyterian church from 1839 to 1848 and was a member of the executive committee of the Eastern NYASS, known for its fugitive slave activism. Troy’s most prominent abolitionist was Garnet’s mentor, Rev. Nathan S. S. Beman, whose estranged wife’s son was the rabid secessionist from Alabama William Lowndes Yancey. Black Trojans like William Rich, the barbers Peter Baltimore and James Harden, Tubman’s cousin John H. Hooper, William J. Bowley, and John Bowley, who was married to Tubman’s niece Kessiah, ran the TVC. In 1857 alone the TVC assisted fifty-five fugitives at a cost of $125. The runaway slave Charles Nalle came to Troy and boarded with the black grocer and TVC member William Henry. Nalle had escaped from his owner, Blucher Hansbrough, of Culpeper County, Virginia, with a fellow slave, Jim, in 1858. His manumitted wife, Kitty, and six children lived in Washington, and despite repeated requests Hansbrough had not allowed Nalle to hire himself out to earn enough money to buy his freedom, while demanding an exorbitant sum of over two thousand dollars.

Nalle escaped with help from the abolitionist underground. In the District he was assisted by the black schoolteacher Anthony Bowen and by Bigelow, whose activities were financed by Tappan and whose code name was William Penn. These men had taken over the Smallwood–Torrey–Chaplin network and regularly shipped runaways to Still’s PVC, as they did Nalle. Kitty was jailed in Washington and would have been sold into slavery had not a white man bailed her out. She moved to Columbia, Pennsylvania, and was reunited with her husband. Hansbrough sold two of Nalle’s brothers after his escape. From Philadelphia, Nalle journeyed to Troy, where he worked as a coachman for a prominent local Republican, Uri Gilbert. Two years later a local Democratic lawyer, Horatio Averill, intercepted one of Nalle’s letters and informed his master, who sent the slave catcher Henry J. Wale to recover his property. Local Democrats besides Averill assisted Wale: William Beach acted as a lawyer for the claimant, his son Miles Beach was the federal commissioner who issued the warrant for Nalle’s arrest, and Deputy Marshal John L. Holmes arrested him. The black-dominated TVC sprung into action. Harden spread the word about Nalle’s arrest, and Henry contacted Martin I. Townsend, a Republican lawyer. A Barnburner Democrat, Townsend had joined the Free Soil and then the Republican Parties. He had successfully defended the fugitive slave Antonio Lewis as early as 1842. While Townsend rushed to get a writ of habeas corpus for Nalle, a large interracial crowd gathered outside the commissioner’s office in the Mutual Bank building where he was being held.

Tubman, who was passing through town from her home in Auburn to meetings in Boston, pushed herself into the bank, refusing to budge. Townsend appeared with Sheriff Nathaniel Upham and a writ of habeas corpus from the New York Supreme Court judge George Gould. As Nalle was being moved to Gould’s office down the road, Tubman grabbed him and did not let go, even as club blows rained down on her head. She and other members of the crowd engaged in hand-to-hand combat with law enforcement officials and got the best of them. Tubman acted in form, “like a heroine,” noted the Weekly Anglo-African. She instructed the crowd to drag Nalle to the docks, where he was put in a skiff and rowed across the Hudson to West Troy. Authorities in Troy telegraphed the mayor of West Troy, who promptly had Nalle rearrested and guarded by policemen in Justice Daniel Stewart’s office. But the crowd in Troy did not give up. Led by Tubman, they commandeered the local ferry and many boats present and headed to West Troy, “a sizeable armada carrying several hundred warriors.” After an exchange of stones, projectiles, and bullets—Harden had bullet holes in his hat and coat—the crowd managed to get ahold of the bleeding Nalle, who was taken to Schenectady and disappeared into the countryside.

A local newspaper reported that a number of the most respectable citizens of both towns were in the crowd, but “the rank and file . . . were black, and African fury is entitled to claim the greatest share in the rescue.” After the people of Troy and West Troy raised $650 to purchase Nalle, he returned to the city a free man and resumed his employment with Gilbert. Democratic officials had indictments issued against a number of local “Black Republicans” such as Townsend, and Tubman was the only black rescuer indicted. None of them were tried owing to the onset of the war. By the end of the year, Still records Tubman in Maryland conducting her last group of slaves, an enslaved family joined by a young man and pregnant woman, to freedom. During the war Troy, like New York City, witnessed a massive draft riot led by Irish workers that quickly degenerated into an all-out attack on the black community. Perhaps the event had something to do with Nalle’s decision to move to Washington.17

Highly publicized conflicts laid bare the abolitionist underground, which for the most part operated in stealth. In 1852 Jonathan and Juliet Lemmon of Virginia and their eight slaves traveled to New York on their way to Texas. The intrepid Louis Napoleon procured a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the Lemmon slaves. Jay and Culver argued the case for the slaves, and Judge Elijah Paine decreed their freedom, as Lemmon had voluntarily brought his slaves to a free state. To be safe, Tappan, Ray, Pennington, and Napoleon decided to send them to Canada. The brother of one of the Lemmon slaves, Richard Johnson, who had escaped slavery earlier and contributed to their defense fund, joined them. Governor Howell Cobb of Georgia said the decision represented a breakdown of comity unheard of among civilized nations. New York’s merchants took out a subscription for the Lemmon slaves and compensated their owners in the amount of $5,280. The case, Lemmon v. Napoleon, was appealed to the New York Supreme Court by the state of Virginia, with Culver, Joseph Blunt, and William M. Evarts representing Napoleon and the state of New York. In 1857 the court upheld Paine’s decision, and the legislature passed resolutions stipulating that the state would not recognize slavery in any form within its borders. Culver was greeted like a celebrity at the annual AASS meeting. In 1860 the New York Court of Appeals by a 5–3 decision affirmed the Lemmon slaves’ freedom, the proslavery Democrat Charles O’Conor representing the appellant, and the future president Chester A. Arthur, replacing Culver, Blunt, and Evarts, the people of New York. O’Conor’s arguments were a mash of blatant appeals to racism, to New York’s laws, which elevated the “African-negro” to “political equality” with whites if they owned a “speck of property,” and to pro-slavery constitutionalism. He quoted the proslavery jurist and brother of Cobb, T. R. R. Cobb, that the constitutional recognition of slave property overrode the laws of New York. The Lemmon case gave substance to northern fears of a concerted southern plot to expand slavery or at least the purview of slave laws in the free states. After Dred Scott, an adverse Supreme Court ruling, as Virginia threatened to appeal, no longer seemed out of the realm of possibility.18

These famous cases reveal how the abolitionist underground precipitated the sectional conflict over fugitive slaves. The best description of it, as noted, is The Underground Rail Road, in which Still meticulously documented the many runaways that came through the PVC, most of them from 1857 to 1860. Still’s massive book tells many stories, but perhaps the one of a fifteen-year-old enslaved girl, Anna Maria Weems, best illustrates the inventiveness of runaways, the desperate struggles of enslaved families, and the network of abolitionists stretching from Delaware, Maryland, and Washington to southern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and on to New York City, upstate New York, and Canada. Weems escaped from her slave-trading owner “attired in male habiliments” as “Joe Wright,” a coachman for the physician Ellwood Harvey. Her case was well known to abolitionists: her mother, Earro Weems, had purchased her own freedom and that of a daughter, but her three sons had been sold down south. The Weems Ransom Fund set up by Tappan and Ray not only created friction between the two men but also failed to redeem Anna Maria, as her owner refused to sell her. After much planning she escaped through the interracial abolitionist underground: Bigelow, in the District, accompanied Harvey, who drove her to Still in Philadelphia and then to New York, where Ray took her to Tappan’s home. Rev. A. N. Freeman, the pastor of the Siloam Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, took her by train to an uncle and aunt in Buxton, Canada. Abolitionists managed to purchase her brothers. In another story, Still relates the escape of John Henry Hill to Canada. Hill fought off his enslavers after being told by his owner that he was being sold and disappeared into Richmond’s black underground. He made his way to Still and the PVC. Hill arranged to have his free wife and children brought over. Eventually his uncle and brother also escaped to Canada, with Still’s help. Hill’s letters to Still reveal that he “never forgot those with whom he had been a fellow-sufferer in Slavery.” Hill started assisting other freedom seekers. Like many fugitive slave abolitionists, he was done with prayers and believed that “the fire and sword would affect more good.”

Unlike Still’s published volume, many records of the abolitionist underground never saw the light of day at the time. One such is the two-volume “Record of Fugitives” found in the papers of the Garrisonian Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of the Standard in New York City. Gay recorded the fugitives sent to him by Still and Thomas Garrett, whom he mostly forwarded to Loguen in Syracuse, Myers in Albany, a handful to New Bedford and Boston and at times all the way to Canada. He even worked with Tubman. His most complete records were for the years 1855 and 1856. Gay collaborated with Ray and Tappan across factional lines and recorded the escape of over two hundred fugitive slaves. Antislavery fairs conducted by women abolitionists from as far away as Scotland financed their work. The central figure in the city’s abolitionist underground was Napoleon. Napoleon was illiterate—his petition in the Lemmon case bore his mark “X”—and he left no record of his activities. He was known to be on the lookout constantly for fugitives in the city’s streets and docks. Gay wrote to Still, “When it is possible I wish you would advise me two days before a shipment of your intention, as Napoleon is not always on hand to look out for them on short notice.” He suggested using a telegraph and the code “One M. (or F.),” which would give notice of one male or female runaway arriving in New York. The success of the New York underground depended on Napoleon’s savvy. In one case he was sent after a slave, Sarah Moore, who had escaped from New Bern, North Carolina, hidden for seven days by a steward aboard a ship. She was living in New Haven and believed to be betrayed by her husband. Napoleon was taking her by train to Albany when he spotted the New York marshal who had caught Pennington’s family. Thinking on his feet, he and Moore got off at Springfield, and he sent her on to Syracuse instead. Napoleon also recovered her children and saw them reunited with her. Napoleon and the black printer William Leonard continued to operate the abolitionist underground from the NASS office after Gay left to edit the Tribune. Napoleon was reputed to have assisted three thousand fugitives.19

Besides Gay’s record, the recently discovered narrative of John Parker, a former slave and an active participant in what he called the Borderland war over slavery in Ohio offers a glimpse into the mindset of the black foot soldiers of the abolitionist underground. Parker not only describes his own struggle for freedom but also gives one of the best eyewitness accounts of conflict along the Ohio River between “the friends and enemies of the fugitive.” A frequent accomplice of Father Rankin, whom he called “a man of deeds as well as words,” and of Coffin, Parker recounted “my own little personal war against slavery.” Perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of Parker’s narrative is the words he chooses to describe this war, his hatred of slavery even though he had relatively kind owners who allowed him to purchase his freedom, his reference to the land south of the river as enemy territory, and his martial references to the “fortunes of war” and “council of war” when talking about his work, which resembled the tactics of guerilla warfare and insurgency. Claiming to have assisted 315 slaves before and 440 after the passage of the fugitive law, some coming from as far south as Tennessee, Parker described many dangerous escapades as he rowed back and forth across the Ohio River with a bounty of a thousand dollars on his head. He did not just assist fugitives but, like Tubman, went into slave territory repeatedly to run off slaves. Parker came close to being captured and killed at many points. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, he burned his “memorandum book,” in which, like Still, he had recorded the names and stories of slaves he had assisted. The abolitionists in Ripley, Ohio, came within an “ace” of anticipating John Brown, he claimed. A revolutionary abolitionist, Parker was not blind to the potential of antislavery politics: he named one of his sons Hale Giddings.20

Abolitionists did not manufacture the fugitive slave controversy but were enlisted and radicalized by self-emancipated slaves. After the Burns case, Boston abolitionists formed the Anti–Man Hunting League (AMHL), whose purpose was to fight slaveholders and slave hunters with their own methods, that is, to restrain and kidnap them. The leading organizers of the AMHL were veterans of the BVC, like its record keeper Bowditch, Loring, Sewall, Bearse, Howe, Parker, Higginson, Clarke, William F. Channing, Alcott, Garrisonians like the MASS agent Samuel May Jr., David Lee Child, Phillips, and the political abolitionists Elizur Wright, Charles Slack, Andrew, F. W. Bird of Walpole, and black abolitionists like Hayden and Joshua B. Smith, “the famous black caterer—as brave as a lion and ‘upto anything for one of his race.’” Its membership was restricted to those over the age of eighteen, and, although women were not excluded, it did not have a single female member. Applicants for membership had to go through a “process of initiation,” answering a series of questions on the fugitive slave law and the idea of direct action in self-defense. Its constitution called for bimonthly meetings and set up local leagues and even a sort of shadow government with a militia, committees, a senate, and a council. Procedures for secret meetings stipulated two doorkeepers, one inner and one outer.

The AMHL of Massachusetts had 469 members, Boston 80, Abington 29, Concord 24, Leominster 30, and Worcester 16, and there were local leagues in Marblehead and Newburyport. Bowditch noted, “Unanimously the leagues first proclaimed organized action of a physical character against the Slaveholder himself.” It conducted drills diagrammed by Bowditch on how to restrain a slave hunter: four members holding a limb each and surrounded in a circle by twelve other members armed with the “billies” stored in Bowditch’s basement. The purpose was not to injure but to disable and transport the perpetrator out of the state through various “secure lodges.” Its purpose, outlined in the “Constitution of the Defensive League of Freedom,” was to “make it difficult for a slave hunter to come and remain among us.” The league also took over most of the BVC’s functions, issuing broadsides warning black Bostonians about slave catchers and collaborators, petitioning the state government, and assisting fugitives. But the main aim of the AMHL, or the Defensive League of Freedom, was to make Massachusetts unsafe for slave hunters or, as its printed circular put it, “Our purpose is to see that no man is beaten down by the slave power and the immense resources of the US government, that no man is ruined for simple acts of humanity.”

The league also included fugitive slave abolitionists such as Abraham Galloway from New Bern, North Carolina. Galloway had managed to stow away in a ship, enduring its fumigation meant to get rid of runaways as well as disease, and, with the help of Still and the PVC, escaped to Canada. He was at home in Boston’s radical abolitionist milieu, developing connections to Garrison and James Redpath’s revolutionary plans to undermine slavery from Haiti. He may have also been a member of a black abolitionist society League of Freedom, known as the Liberators, operating out of Canada West to guide fugitive slaves. Galloway became a spy for the Union army and a leader in North Carolina during Reconstruction until his death in 1870.21

Some members of the abolitionist underground entered the historical record when they were prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1852 Rush Sloane, a lawyer in Sandusky, Ohio, whose strategic location on Lake Erie made it a common stopover for freedom seekers headed to Canada, was fined three thousand dollars and over a thousand dollars in court costs for assisting seven Kentucky runaways. The black community of Sandusky presented the bankrupt Sloane with a silver-headed cane in appreciation of his efforts. He went on to serve as a probate judge in Erie County and eventually as mayor of Sandusky after the war. In 1854 a sixty-year-old Irish peddler, Thomas Brown, who had moved from Cincinnati to Kentucky, was arrested for assisting fugitive slaves from Union, Henderson, Davies, and Hopkins Counties, the citizens of these counties paying five hundred dollars to ensure his conviction. In 1857 he published an account of his imprisonment in Kentucky in which he described the brutal treatment he was subjected to as well as his fellow prisoners, some of whom were part of the abolitionist underground in the border states. These included a mechanic who had given a runaway some food and a black man from Evansville, Indiana, who died after a jailer gave him a blow to the head. A number of “antislavery prisoners” in Kentucky had working-class origins. Some were foreign born, like the German laborer William Green, who was imprisoned in 1859 for helping a slave woman, Hagar, and her children escape slavery.

Nineteen “free persons of color” were arrested for antislavery activities, five of whom were common laborers, one a cooper, and another a blacksmith. Elijah Anderson, a skilled blacksmith born in Virginia who was known to make forays into slave territory to assist runaways, died in a Kentucky prison in 1861. Anderson’s last trip to rescue a free man’s enslaved wife and four daughters had resulted in his capture. He was part of a black underground that operated out of Evansville, where Thomas Brown hawked his goods, and Madison, Indiana. William Anderson was a fugitive slave abolitionist who left a narrative not just of his life in slavery but also of the Indiana underground. As he put it, “My two wagons, and carriage, and five horses were always at the command of the liberty-seeking fugitive. Many times have my teams conveyed loads of fugitive slaves away while the hunters were close upon their track.” He was arrested in 1856. The trial, Anderson wrote, “cost me all the money I could raise, and jeopardized my only piece of property, and has left me penniless and destitute.”22 It is not clear whether both of the Andersons belonged to the shadowy Anti-Slavery League known to assist fugitives in southern Indiana. The emergence of abolitionist leagues committed to self-defense marked a militant phase in the abolitionist resistance to slave law.

The implementation of the fugitive law also claimed countless victims and caused the kidnapping of free blacks to surge. Rev. Samuel May Jr. compiled a list of such victims that was published in 1856 and reissued in a revised, enlarged edition by the AASS in 1861. May painstakingly combed through northern newspapers to include each and every known instance of fugitive slave rendition and kidnapping of free blacks in the 1850s. He remarked that he was not able to include those cases in which fugitives had been overtaken before they reached the free states, concluding that it was a mockery to refer to them as free. Besides the notorious Gap gang in southern Pennsylvania, a criminal kidnapping gang called the Black Birders operated out of the Five Points district in New York. May included not just the famous instances of rebellion but also hundreds of cases of rendition, like that of a Virginian family who claimed they were not fugitives but visiting Pennsylvania with their master’s consent. Unimpressed, a federal commissioner remanded them back to slavery. There were other stories that illustrated abolitionist success. In Philadelphia the PASS had long fought George Alberti, a known kidnapper, who was finally caught, fined a thousand dollars, and imprisoned in 1851 for the illegal kidnapping of Gibson. Interviewed by a NASS reporter in 1859, Alberti turned out to be a true believer, claiming that the Bible sanctioned slavery and that he had enslaved a hundred blacks. That year the PVC won a landmark victory in the case of the fortuitously named Daniel Webster, who was arrested, tried, and released by a federal commissioner in Harrisburg. The commissioner, a scion of a Quaker family, was scrupulously fair, giving equal weight to the testimony of black Pennsylvanians and to the Virginians who testified on behalf of the prosecution. In 1860 the black Baptist and member of Ohio’s Vigilance Committee Rev. William M. Mitchell published the first history of the UGRR, in which he highlighted the heroism of slave runaways and their free black allies.23

Abolitionist legal theory justified resistance to unjust laws. In 1853 William Goodell published his legal indictment of slavery, The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice. Ranging widely over statute law, judicial cases, instances of extralegal violence, and even the Choctaw and Cherokee laws of slavery, Goodell examined the treatment, lack of formal legal rights, and punishment of slaves. A pertinent chapter on the fugitive laws, state and national, detailed the elaborate police and legal system set up to prevent slave escapes and facilitate renditions. Published by the AFASS, his book inspired the Georgian Thomas R. R. Cobb’s massive legal defense of slavery published five years later. In Despotism in America, which was reprinted in the wake of the Burns rendition, Hildreth added a one-hundred-page chapter on the fugitive slave question. The fugitive slave law, he argued, personified the legal and political despotism of slavery. In her tract The Duty of Disobedience (1860), Lydia Maria Child reasoned, “You have learned that the law offers colored men nothing but its penalties; that the white man engrosses all its protections.” The work was part of the abolitionist offensive as northern states deliberated repealing their personal liberty laws to appease southern secessionists.24

In its defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, abolition took on a revolutionary character, personified by the fugitive slave rebellions and the abolitionist underground. The abolitionists’ critique of the law of slavery and of the criminalization of blackness by the fugitive law first addressed the issue of racial inequality in law enforcement that continues to bedevil American society.

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