We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

On the Edge of Freedom:The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

David G. Smith

Publication Year: 2012

In On the Edge of Freedom, David G. Smith breaks new ground by illuminating the unique development of antislavery sentiment in south central Pennsylvania a border region of a border state with a complicated history of slavery, antislavery activism, and unequal freedom. During the antebellum decades every single fugitive slave escaping by land east of the Appalachian Mountains had to pass through the region, where they faced both significant opportunities and substantial risks. While the hundreds of fugitives traveling through south central Pennsylvania (defined as Adams, Franklin, and Cumberland counties) during this period were aided by an effective Underground Railroad, they also faced slave catchers and informers. "Underground" work such as helping fugitive slaves appealed to border antislavery activists who shied away from agitating for immediate abolition in a region with social, economic, and kinship ties to the South. And, as early antislavery protests met fierce resistance, area activists adopted a less confrontational approach, employing the more traditional political tools of the petition and legal action. Smith traces the victories of antislavery activists in south central Pennsylvania, including the achievement of a strong personal liberty law and the aggressive prosecution of kidnappers who seized innocent African Americans as fugitives. He also documents how their success provoked Southern retaliation and the passage of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The Civil War then intensified the debate over fugitive slaves, as hundreds of escaping slaves, called "contrabands" sought safety in the area, and scores were recaptured by the Confederate army during the Gettysburg campaign. On the Edge of Freedom explores in captivating detail the fugitive slave issue through fifty years of sectional conflict, war, and reconstruction in south central Pennsylvania and provocatively questions what was gained by the activists' pragmatic approach of emphasizing fugitive slaves over immediate abolition and full equality. Smith argues that after the war, social and demographic changes in southern Pennsylvania worked against African Americans achieving equal opportunity, and although local literature portrayed this area as a vanguard of the Underground Railroad, African Americans still lived "on the edge of freedom." By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was rallying near the Gettysburg battlefield, and south central Pennsylvania became, in some ways, as segregated as the Jim Crow South. The fugitive slave issue, by reinforcing images of dependency, may have actually worked against the achievement of lasting social change.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Series: The North's Civil War

On the Edgeof Freedom

pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. ix-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. xiii-xiv

I have incurred numerous debts completing this project, which I can only imperfectly acknowledge. Thanks to the community of scholars who encouraged this work or commented on parts of it, including Richard J. M. Blackett, Stephen Browne, Peter Carmichael, Margaret Creighton, William “Jack” Davis, Susan De- Wees, Robert Engs, Barb...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-11

In between the Black Belt South and the Yankee Upper North lies a lush middle ground, less explored by historians, particularly on the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. There, residents had views that often diverged from the views of inhabitants of both of those better-studied regions. A great historian once aptly captured...

read more

1 South CentralPennsylvania, Fugitive Slaves, and the Underground Railroad

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 12-38

At dusk, a shadow crept parallel to a road from central Maryland to Pennsylvania, following the road while still avoiding exposure. A fugitive slave! Unaware of the precise moment when he crossed the Mason- Dixon Line, he silently entered south central Pennsylvania, a region with its own history of slavery, antislavery...

read more

2 Thaddeus Stevens’ Dilemma, Colonization,and the Turbulent Years of Early Antislavery in Adams County, 1835–39

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 39-69

South central Pennsylvania was liminal ground, lying on the dividing line between the border North and the Upper South. This physical circumstance, combined with a legacy of slavery lasting into the 1830s, gave the area a distinctive, almost Southern character. At the same time, many Quakers, Mennonites, and other...

read more

3 Antislavery Petitioning in South Central Pennsylvania

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 70-86

The failure of the antislavery lecturers to ignite a mass movement in south central Pennsylvania roughly coincided with disturbing events elsewhere, such as the martyrdom of Elijah Lovejoy and the burning of Pennsylvania Hall. Likely as a result, the Adams County Antislavery Society returned to two tools that...

read more

4 The Fugitive Slave Issue on Trial

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 87-114

Stymied by entrenched opposition to their grassroots efforts, and perhaps cowed by the violent murder of Elijah Lovejoy in Ohio and the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, south central Pennsylvania’s antislavery activists turned to another traditional refuge of minority groups seeking change: the court system.1 The courts offered opportunities...

read more

5 Controversy and Christiana

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 115-139

The opening of the 1850s marked the beginning of a new era in Pennsylvania’s protracted engagement with the fugitive slave issue. The state’s new personal liberty law, passed in 1847, had largely superseded previous legislation passed in 1820 and 1826. More significant, however, was the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave new powers to the federal government and made new claims on ordinary...

read more

6 Interlude: Kidnapping, Kansas, and the Rise of Race-Based Partisanship

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 140-146

The explosive Christiana riot and trial brought the fugitive slave issue to the forefront of national attention, and highlighted deep divisions within Pennsylvania. So did the defeat of Governor Johnston. The fugitive slave issue seemed poised to usher in significant political change, possibly even to split the Union. Facing...

read more

7 Revival of the Fugitive Slave Issue, 1858–61

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 147-173

As a result of the pressures of the border political environment and the salience of Kansas, the fugitive slave issue appeared quiescent in 1858. Neither the 1855 case involving the Wiermans nor the 1856 Carlisle case seemed to engage the populace. Despite statewide defeats in the 1856 presidential election and the 1857 Pennsylvania...

read more

8 Contrabands, “WhiteVictories,” and theUltimate Slave Hunt

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 174-198

All hopes for peaceful reunion exploded at Fort Sumter. Then Lincoln’s call for volunteers pushed most of the Upper South to secede. Where the Potomac River bent closest, south central Pennsylvania lay less than five miles from Virginia, and the possibility of Maryland joining Virginia in the new Confederacy gravely...

read more

9 After the Shooting

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 199-212

In April 1865, the long war ended. Vacant chairs and empty sleeves across the North testified to loss; south central Pennsylvania had suffered especially. Three times the region had been invaded, including in 1863, when two large armies camped, looted, and...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 213-217

In runaway slave advertisements and illustrations in abolitionist literature, the fugitive slave was often depicted as traveling, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, with a bundle on his back or tied to a staff . To some, he was a self-made man, boldly striking out for a better life, heeding a call to freedom, aspiring to equality. To others, he was a supplicant...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 218-246


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 247-310

Archives Consulted

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 311-314


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 315-324

The North’s Civil War

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 325-327

E-ISBN-13: 9780823249466
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823240326
Print-ISBN-10: 0823240320

Page Count: 260
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The North's Civil War
See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 814705855
MUSE Marc Record: Download for On the Edge of Freedom:The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Fugitive slaves -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • African Americans -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Abolitionists -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Underground Railroad -- Pennsylvania.
  • Borderlands -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Pennsylvania -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access