- The Jerry Rescue: The Fugitive Slave Law, Northern Rights, and the American Sectional Crisis by Angela F. Murphy
On the evening of October 1, 1851, a small group of men emerged from an interracial crowd of over four thousand people to rescue a fugitive slave from the police office in Syracuse, New York. They smashed windows and battered doors and walls to seize Jerry, a woodworker who had fled Missouri eight years earlier and had been arrested that morning under the [End Page 447] 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Rescuers hid him in the homes of local residents before sending him to safety in Kingston, Canada.
The Jerry Rescue highlights the lengths to which some northerners were willing to go to undermine federal laws that facilitated the re-enslavement of individuals who freed themselves from bondage. This first book-length account of the dramatic events in Syracuse stands alongside scholarly and popular monographs about later abolitionist rescue missions, including the Anthony Burns and Shadrach Minkins cases in Boston, the Oberlin-Wellington rescue of John Price, and the liberation of Joshua Glover in Milwaukee. Angela Murphy adds another dimension to the story of how national conflicts over slavery influenced developments in northern communities.
Murphy does not present local incidents as mere stepping-stones to a familiar story of the sectional crisis. Instead, the book weaves central facets of sectional debates and political compromises over slavery into a narrative of how and why events unfolded in Syracuse. Using a broad array of sources—letters, memoirs, political speeches, court proceedings, personal testimony, congressional records, editorials, and news accounts—it offers a lucid introduction to complex debates over slavery and antislavery activism.
The book traces critical developments that shaped debates over slavery, beginning with the passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law and extending to the aftermath of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The statute set the stage for tensions between the federal government and the northern states that were continuing the process of gradual emancipation that began on the heels of the American Revolution. Personal liberty laws that states designed to protect free people of color from kidnapping and to ensure due process for fugitives heightened the rift, especially after the 1842 Supreme Court decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Officials in New York, which passed the earliest such protections in 1808, interpreted the ruling that federal requirements prevailed over state laws to mean that state and local officials had no obligation to participate in the return of fugitives. Against this backdrop, abolitionist sentiment flourished, and by midcentury Syracuse had become a popular site for antislavery conventions and a haven for fugitives like Jerry. Accordingly, the Compromise of 1850 with its new Fugitive Slave Act empowering federal authorities to compel citizens to assist in returning accused fugitives to slavery inspired outrage and protest.
Murphy’s account makes decisive interventions as she situates the Jerry Rescue in broader political forces that shaped slavery and antislavery. By grounding conflicts over slavery in the expansion of U.S. boundaries, she highlights the importance of questions about the spaces the institution [End Page 448] should occupy in both political and geographic landscapes. This framework offers an increasingly critical message to students who are inclined to relegate bondage to the margins of the nation’s history.
Equally significant are the biographical narratives Murphy presents to frame the actions and ideas of black and white actors in various political crises surrounding slavery. The stories enliven accounts of well-known issues. For example, they map the divergent perspectives of Liberty Party activists and Garrisonians who participated in the Jerry Rescue and commemorations in ways that reveal the personal character of interracial alliances and the influences that shaped ideological differences among abolitionists and policy makers. They illuminate motives, moral principles, and risks linked to the pursuit of freedom and sectional unity among white Americans. They enable Murphy to add texture and nuance to scholarship on antislavery and the sectional crisis. Thus, even readers knowledgeable about...