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In the Shadow of Freedom

The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital

Donald R. Kennon

Publication Year: 2010

Few images of early America were more striking, and jarring, than that of slaves in the capital city of the world’s most important free republic. Black slaves served and sustained the legislators, bureaucrats, jurists, cabinet officials, military leaders, and even the presidents who lived and worked there. While slaves quietly kept the nation’s capital running smoothly, lawmakers debated the place of slavery in the nation, the status of slavery in the territories newly acquired from Mexico, and even the legality of the slave trade in itself. In the Shadow of Freedom, with essays by some of the most distinguished historians in the nation, explores the twin issues of how slavery made life possible in the District and how lawmakers in the District regulated slavery in the nation.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This volume stems from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society Meeting in 2006, the third conference I had the privilege of organizing with my coeditor, Don Kennon. Every spring the United States Capitol Historical Society (USCHS) holds a scholarly conference on an aspect of American history that focuses on Congress, the nation’s capital, and the federal government. ...

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Slavery in the Shadow of Liberty

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pp. 3-15

Few images of early America were more striking, and jarring, than that of slaves in the nation’s capital. Every day thousands of slaves moved around Washington, laboring on behalf of the city’s white community and the nation’s government. In the capital city of the world’s most important free republic, slaves were everywhere. Hotels, restaurants, carriages ...

Part 1: Congress and Slavery in Context

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The Impact of British Abolitionism on American Sectionalism

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pp. 19-35

It is difficult for us historians to free ourselves from at least the unconscious assumption that American slavery was doomed from the start, that it was destined to collapse when confronted with the liberal forces of inevitable progress that supposedly lie at the heart of Western civilization. It is therefore hard for us to take seriously the detailed argument of the major ...

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Christian Statesmanship, Codes of Honor, and Congressional Violence

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pp. 36-57

Think about “proslavery violence in Congress” and the name that springs to mind is Charles Sumner. As we all know, this Massachusetts legislator was driven to the Senate floor in 1857, blood-soaked and unconscious while enduring a vicious beating by South Carolina’s Preston Brooks. Two days before, the abolitionist-minded Sumner had concluded a lurid ...

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Gamaliel Bailey, Antislavery Journalist and Lobbyist

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pp. 58-82

In May 1846 the American war against the Republic of Mexico began. As American armies captured the Mexican provinces of New Mexico and California and advanced deep into Mexico itself, increasing numbers of northerners opposed the war. They were either abolitionists or antislavery members of the Whig party who feared southerners intended to extend ...

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Saturday Nights at the Baileys’

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pp. 83-96

The cold winter of 1850 caused residents of the nation’s capital to focus on indoor activities for amusement. In the numerous saloons, boardinghouse messes, and theaters that lined the streets near the Capitol, the favorite topic of conversation was the massive omnibus compromise bill wending its way through Congress. For the architect of the omnibus bill, ...

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“A nest of rattlesnakes let loose among them”

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pp. 97-124

“Just the mos t exciting incident that occurs in the Houses of Congress is the presentation of petitions for the abolition of Slavery in this District,” reported a Capitol observer during the first days of 1837. It was during this, the second session of the Twenty-fourth Congress, that abolitionists loaded the desks of their representatives with memorials signed by thousands ...

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Debating Slavery by Proxy

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pp. 125-137

For almost twenty-five years, from the Missouri controversy until the mid-1840s, slavery was kept off the agenda for mainstream public debate. The two major political parties had both northern and southern wings, with no wish to antagonize either. In Congress, the Missouri debates made people aware of the volatile nature of the issue. Only two new states, ...

Part 2: The Politics of Slavery in the District of Columbia

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The 1846 Retrocession of Alexandria

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pp. 141-168

In September 1846 Alexandrian citizens gathered “around the public square, en masse,” to celebrate the results of a referendum taken to decide whether the town and surrounding county, a part of the District of Columbia since 1791, should return, or “retrocede,” to Virginia. According to the recent act passed by Congress, a vote of the region’s white male citizens was required ...

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“Whether they be ours or no, they may be heirs of the kingdom”

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pp. 169-194

In his 1844 Narrative, Frederick Douglass commented on the distinctiveness of urban slavery: “I had resided in Baltimore but a short time before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on a plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys ...

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The 1848 Pearl Escape from Washington, D.C.

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pp. 195-219

An audacious escape attempt on the Underground Railroad, involving nearly eighty fugitives on a fifty-four-ton schooner named the Pearl, occurred in the unlikeliest of places—the nation’s capital, with its almost nonexistent agricultural base. But it was the only city in slave territory where such an ambitious event could have been organized, and it had greater ...

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Celebrating Emancipation and Contesting Freedom in Washington, D.C.

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pp. 220-237

Washington, D.C. , can claim a venerable and illustrious association with African American history. The site of the future capital contained a population of enslaved and free blacks even before the city existed. Free African American mathematician, astronomer, and almanac author Benjamin Banneker assisted in laying out Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s distinctive grid for the city ...


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pp. 239-240


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pp. 241-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443491
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821419342

Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 715301069
MUSE Marc Record: Download for In the Shadow of Freedom

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Subject Headings

  • United States. Congress -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
  • Slavery -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
  • Slavery -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
  • Washington (D.C.) -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
  • Washington (D.C.) -- Politics and government -- To 1878 -- Congresses.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
  • Antislavery movements -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century -- Congresses.
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