restricted access 7. Beneath the Iron Heel: Fugitive Slaves and Bleeding Kansas

From: Disunion!

The University of North Carolina Press colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

235 7 Beneath the Iron Heel FUGITIVE SLAVES AND BLEEDING KANSAS The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legitimized and lent immediacy to an argument that abolitionists had long been making—that Northerners were complicit in the slave system. Northern outrage at the law, in turn, legitimized a long-standing argument of the South’s proslavery vanguard—that Northerners could not be trusted to keep their promises. Such a dialectic reflected the design of the bill’s Southern sponsors. They knew well that its measures were ‘‘gratuitously provocative.’’ The new fugitive slave policy created a class of federal commissioners who would act as judge and jury when claims for rendition of slaves were brought before them by slaveholders, their agents, or federal marshals, who were required by law to assist slaveholders. In such a case, a commissioner would hold a summary hearing (a slave in custody was not permitted to testify on his or her own behalf ) and receive a fee of ten dollars if he found on behalf of the slaveowner and issued a certificate of removal to remand the fugitive into slavery; the commissioner would collect only five dollars if he found on behalf of the slave. A certificate of removal was literally the legal last word—under this law, the courts of the free states had no authority to overturn a finding by a federal commissioner. Moreover, the law increased penalties against anyone who dared to undertake extralegal action on behalf of a fugitive slave, threatening imprisonment as a penalty for such 236 Δ 1851–1859 defiance. Perhaps the most galling feature of the Fugitive Slave Act for Northerners was that it made ‘‘private citizens liable to impressments as slave catchers’’: a federal commissioner and anyone he appointed to execute his warrants could create a posse comitatus of bystanders; if a Northerner refused such a summons, he could be imprisoned.∞ The Southern militants who framed the legislation, such as James Mason of Virginia and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, fully expected that Northerners would resist compliance and that such resistance would ‘‘arouse southern indignation and hasten the achievement of Southern unity.’’ But the proslavery vanguard could not have anticipated the myriad shapes that resistance would take. The Fugitive Slave Act, paradoxically, galvanized Northerners across the political spectrum even as it opened rifts in the antislavery ranks. The most dramatic acts of Northern defiance were a series of highly publicized slave rescues. The first of these took place in 1851, when African Americans in Boston rescued from custody a fugitive slave named Shadrach, who had been arrested on a warrant by the city’s commissioner. Shadrach’s successful flight to a safe haven in Canada infuriated Southern slaveholders and prompted President Fillmore to call for the prosecution of Shadrach’s rescuers. Hard on the heels of this episode came the Christiana a√air, in which a Maryland slaveowner named Edward Gorsuch led a posse to the home of William T. Parker, a free black farmer who lived in the Christiana area of rural Pennsylvania. Parker was suspected of harboring Gorsuch’s runaway slaves. According to William Still, the leading nineteenth-century chronicler of the Underground Railroad, Parker had been warned by his antislavery network of the arrival of the posse and was ready to take it on. He refused to turn the fugitives over, sparking a melee in which Gorsuch was killed and his son wounded. Mainstream partisan newspapers in Pennsylvania outdid each other in condemning the resistance of Parker and his defenders as an ‘‘unwarrantable outrage’’—an ‘‘act of servile insurrection’’ and of ‘‘treason.’’ Many local whites agreed and vented their hostility in a wave of terror directed against blacks. As the editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman related, the ‘‘colored people, though the great body of them had no connection with this a√air, are hunted like partridges upon the mountains, by the relentless horde which has poured forth upon them, under the pretense of arresting the parties concerned in the fight.’’ Eventually, a Philadelphia grand jury charged thirtyeight of the resisters with treason.≤ Fugitive Slaves and Bleeding Kansas Δ 237 It mattered little to slaveowners that such instances of resistance were rarely successful (from 1850 to 1853, ‘‘about seventy fugitives were returned to their owners by federal tribunals, whereas only about one-fifth of that number were released or rescued from custody’’). Nor did they take comfort from the antiblack rhetoric of Northern newspapers or the vigilantism of antiblack mobs. Slaveowners fastened on the...


pdf

Subject Headings

  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865 -- Sources.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- Sources.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Causes.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access