Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North: Toward a Geography of Antislavery Violence
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2014
- pp. 51-75
- Additional Information
SUMMER 2014 51 Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North Toward a Geography of Antislavery Violence Robert H. Churchill O n the morning of April 11, 1851, a force of three hundred armed troops escorted Thomas Sims from Boston’s courthouse square to the ship waiting to take him back to Georgia and slavery. A small group of abolitionists, including members of Boston’s vigilance committee walked alongside , bearing witness to Sims’s rendition. A few days later the Washington, D.C., National Intelligencer celebrated the rendition of Sims as a triumph for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: “The law has been vindicated; its supremacy has been established ; and the hands that would have opposed its execution were paralyzed by the spontaneous rally of the whole city of Boston.” In 1968, Stanley Campbell’s history of the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, The Slave Catchers, advanced a similar conclusion. Based on a survey of fugitive slave cases adjudicated under the law, Campbell concluded that broadly speaking northern public opinion supported enforcement of the act and accepted the return of fugitives to the South. According to Campbell, “only a few citizens in isolated communities engaged in active opposition to enforcement of the law.” Of 176 rendition cases brought before federal tribunals, Campbell found that only in eighteen were fugitives rescued from custody.1 In his discussion of the enforcement of the law, Campbell told the story of judges and officials charged with upholding a controversial law who stood firm in the face of opposition from a minority of extremists and largely succeeded in vindicating the law. He noted the consistently strong opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in several distinct geographic regions of the country, most notably Massachusetts, the Burned-Over District of New York, the Ohio Western Reserve, Chicago, and Wisconsin. Outside of these areas, however, he maintained that “the great majority of the northern population” either supported the law or acquiesced in its enforcement. The Sims case, Campbell observed, demonstrated that even in Boston, “the abolitionists did not dominate public opinion .” Campbell noted that after the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act in 1854, the law became a dead letter in New England, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but he maintained that in the Lower North states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the law retained broad support.2 FUGITIVE SLAVE RESCUES IN THE NORTH 52 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Over the course of a generation, historians have complicated this narrative. David Grimsted has pointed out that resistance to the reclamation of fugitive slaves on northern soil had a long history dating back to the 1820s. Book-length treatments of rescues that had a significant impact on national politics in the 1850s have contextualized these cases within the history of African American communities in the North, the legal history of slavery, and the history of the Underground Railroad. Stanley Harrold has flipped Campbell’s geography on its head, noting that the states of the Lower North served as the primary theater of a border war over slavery that raged throughout the antebellum period.3 Despite this body of work, the salient features of Campbell’s narrative have retained their hold on the scholarly literature of the political crisis over slavery. Grimsted’s work emphasized urban riots, most of which occurred in the Upper North and involved largely African American crowds. Legal histories of rescue cases have focused on the same cases discussed in Campbell’s chapter on rescues , most of them located in cities of the Upper North or isolated regions of the Lower North renowned for their abolitionist leanings. Even Harrold, whose work has done so much to broaden our understanding of the full dimensions of the struggle over fugitive slaves, frames the theater of combat over the issue in a manner that accepts the Upper North/Lower North dichotomy offered by Campbell. Campbell’s narrative has significantly influenced historical syntheses of the 1850s, and has thus become the standard narrative of the reception of the Fugitive Slave Act.4 But that narrative remains problematic. It understates the breadth of the moral determination to resist the rendition of fugitive slaves. It slights the determination of rural residents and of communities...