Among the more interesting events in Syracuse history is the story of the Jerry Rescue. The event was originally commemorated with the renaming of a building (The Jerry Rescue Building) and now is now memorialized with a monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. The event occurred on October 1, 1851, while the anti-slavery Liberty Party was holding its New York State Convention.
Leaders of the local Abolition movement, including Underground Railroad Stationmaster Jermain Loguen and others, had organized a local committee to thwart enforcement of the recently adopted Fugitive Slave Law. The previous May, then Secretary of State Daniel Webster repeated his previous criticism of the Abolitionists and their promise to thwart the law. Webster proclaimed from a balcony facing Syracuse City Hall that the law "will be executed in all the great cities - here in Syracuse - in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise." And so it did.
Around noon on October 1, federal marshals from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, accompanied by the local police, arrested a man who called himself Jerry. also known as William Henry. Jerry was working as a barrel maker, and was arrested at his workplace. He was originally told the charge was theft until after he was in manacles. On being informed that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law, he put up substantial resistance, but was subdued.
Word of the arrest quickly reached the Convention, then in session at a nearby church. There are reports that the wife of Commissioner Sabine, who would hear the case, had already leaked plans of the arrest. By pre-arranged signal, church bells began ringing, and a crowd gathered at Sabine's office, where Jerry had been taken for arraignment. An immediate effort to free the prisoner was unsuccessful, and though he escaped to the street in irons, he was rapidly recaptured. The arraignment was put off until evening and relocated to a larger room. A large crowd gathered in the street, this time equipped for a more serious rescue attempt.
With a battering ram the door was broken in and despite pistol shots out the window by one of the deputy marshals, it became clear that the crowd was too large and determined to be resisted. The prisoner was surrendered, and one deputy marshal broke his arm jumping from a window to escape the crowd. The injured prisoner was hidden in the city for several days in the home of a local butcher know for his anti-abolitionist sentiments, and later taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada.
The following day, Gerrit Smith introduced the following resolution, adopted at the Liberty Party convention:
WHEREAS, Daniel Webster, That base and infamous enemy of the human race, did in a speech of which he delivered himself, in Syracuse last Spring, exultingly and insultingly predict that fugitive slaves would yet be taken away from Syracuse and even from anti-slavery conventions in Syracuse, and whereas the attempt to fulfill this prediction was delayed until the first day of October, 1851, when the Liberty party of the State of New York were holding their annual convention in Syracuse; and whereas the attempt was defeated by the mighty uprising of 2,500 brave men, before whom the half-dozen kidnappers were 'as tow', therefore,
Resolved, That we rejoice that the City of Syracuse- the anti-slavery city of Syracuse- the city of anti-slavery conventions, our beloved and glorious city of Syracuse- still remains undisgraced by the fulfillment of the satanic prediction of the satanic Daniel Webster.
Nineteen indictments were returned against the rescuers, not including Smith or May, who later both publicly admitted their involvement. Rev. (later Bishop) Loguen, himself a fugitive from slavery, was among those indicted. Taken to Auburn for arraignment, the suspects were bailed out by, among others, William H. Seward, the current US Senator and former Governor of New York. The proceedings dragged on for two years with one conviction. The convict died before his case could be heard on appeal. The Prosecution objected to Gerrit Smith's appearance on behalf of the defense, inasmuch as Smith was not a lawyer. It has been reported that an order was immediately issued by the Court of Appeals, admitting Smith to the bar for this purpose.
The unsuccessful prosecution of the Rescuers did not end the story, however. Smith and others obtained an indictment against Marshal Allen for kidnapping, and used the occasion to argue against the Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. The text of Smith's argument (pictured at right) is included in the Syracuse University Collection. Marshal Allen was, of course, acquitted.
Gerrit Smith helped to support annual commemorations of the Jerry Rescue, at which he delivered addresses between 1852 and 1858. Some of the addresses are preserved in the Syracuse University Collection. The Onondaga County Public Library makes available the program of the 1858 commemoration, which included speeches by Smith and Frederick Douglass, as well as a speech by Thomas Wentworth Higgison. Also in the Syracuse University collection is Smith's printed letter of August 27, 1859 to John Thomas, Chairman of the Jerry Rescue Committee, declining to participate in that year's event. In it Smith expressed his frustration with the movement and predicted that as the Abolitionists had failed to move their countrymen, "For insurrections then we may look any year, any month, any day."
Six weeks later, John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Both Smith and Higgison would later be implicated among Brown's supporters. The close involvement with Brown of Jermain Loguen, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and other Abolitionist leaders is still being studied and written about.