- The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850s Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery by R. J. M. Blackett
R. J. M. Blackett argues that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was "doomed to failure from its very inception" because of an "international alliance of African Americans and British and American abolitionists" opposed to the law's implementation, and that the South used the law's failure to stem the tide of fugitive slaves to justify secession and civil war (pp. xi, 447). At the heart of the resistance to the law were African Americans, both slaves who continued to flee despite the law's enactment and free black communities in the North who assisted fugitive slaves on their journey, protected their own from kidnapping, and organized protests at court proceedings.
The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850s Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery is divided into two parts. Part 1 examines the law itself—its components, how it was implemented, and efforts at compromise that included equally unsuccessful colonization proposals. In the significantly larger Part 2, Blackett uses voluminous fugitive slave case studies to explore the legal, and in some cases literal, battleground between border slave states and neighboring free states.
Blackett's story of American resistance to an unjust law and African Americans' desperate yet courageous determination to be free is a lesson for America's immigrant crisis today. What slaveholders decried as a "'stampede'" of slaves fleeing bondage in the South is today called a caravan of immigrants fleeing violence and oppression in Central America (p. 184). Just as many American immigrant families today are composed of both legal and undocumented immigrants, African American families living in northern black communities in the mid-nineteenth century were often mixed status and included escaped slaves. Is there any difference in the daily fear faced by immigrant families today and the daily fear of a fugitive slave "who for years had been living as a free person, had started a family, had been gainfully employed and was a productive member of his community, [and who] could be snatched from his family and community and returned to slavery at any time" (p. 9)?
As Blackett argues in Part 1, the Fugitive Slave Law was designed to build a wall between the southern slave states and northern free states. It "expanded [the] judicial authority" of commissioners, whose decisions were not subject to appeal, and granted authority to use police force against community opposition (p. 7). The accused, who often included free black people born in the North, [End Page 165] were denied basic due process, including the right to legal representation and jury trial.
Under the law, state and local authorities in the North were required to assist in the rendition of fugitive slaves. In Part 2, Blackett examines this aspect of the law's draconian measures. Despite the desire of the federal government to force compliance with the law by local and state officials, the citizens of many northern communities refused to comply, providing instead "sanctuary" for fugitives (p. 372). Defiance of the law was not always successful. Some fugitive slaves were caught and returned, but only after delays, forced by community resistance, further eroded the law's moral authority.
Although Blackett's magisterial work is perhaps too long for undergraduate study, it is important to remember that its many individual case studies—Frederick Clements, Edgar Canton, James Armstrong, Rachel Parker, Thomas Sims, William and Ellen Craft, and countless others—were living, breathing human beings. Many fugitives made it to freedom. Others did not. Thomas Sims, for instance, was returned to Georgia, flogged, and reenslaved.
On May 12, 2018, thirty-nine-year-old Honduran refugee Marco Antonio Muñoz was taken into custody by border patrol agents in Granjeno, Texas. Muñoz was separated from his...