The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Impact
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in September of 1850 served to coalesce the various antislavery movements in opposition to a legal compromise with the South that they regarded as unconstitutional. The law precipitated the simmering conflicts of previous decades into becoming dramatic clashes. In this publication, Samuel May Jr. (the cousin of the Reverend Samuel J. May) provided a synopsis of the law Congress enacted in September of 1850:
This legal summary of the Fugitive Slave Law is preceded in Mays tract by these verses from Deuteronomy (23:1516): Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: THOUGH SHALT NOT OPPRESS HIM.
The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1861) by Samuel May Jr., the cousin of the Reverend Samuel J. May. The key elements of the law are included in the label on the wall above this case.
Letter from William M. Clarke to Edwin Clarke, 31 May 1841. It appears courtesy of the Onondaga Historical Association Museum and Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y. William M. Clarke was one of the planners of the daring rescue of Harriet Powell in 1839, and both he and his cousin Edwin were active in assisting fugitives to make their way to Canada. Living in a Lake Ontario port that was connected with Syracuse by the Oswego Canal, Edwin was ideally located to receive freedom seekers from William. Because Edwin was a trusted family member, William seems to have been willing to write openly to him about Underground Railroad passengers traveling north on the canal. Dennis Connors of the Onondaga Historical Association has suggested that Frisbie is an alias and not the real name of the fugitive.
May 31, 1841
Letter from James C. Fuller to J. Worthington, 22 September 1841. The incident referred to in this letter involves the liberation of the family of Samuel and Harriet Russell from slavery. This was accomplished through the efforts of James Fuller on behalf of Gerrit Smith and his wife. Mrs. Smith and her brother had acquired slaves through an inheritance and were keen on emancipating them. This involved negotiating with a slaveholder in Kentucky and transporting the family out of the South. James Fuller, an English Quaker who had taken up residence in Skaneateles, volunteered to undertake this because of his devotion to the antislavery cause and his friendship with the Smiths. An anecdotal family story recounts that Fuller was challenged in the South upon the propriety of his traveling in the same conveyance with the Russell family. His ingenious solution was to purchase the public coach and its horses outright and to continue on his way. In this communication to Worthington, the slaveholder, Fuller makes it clear that this journey will be recounted in the antislavery press and that he is personally interested in the salvation of Worthington:
Letter from Isaac T. Hopper to James Wilbur, 9 October 1850. Hopper, a Quaker reformer writing from New York, explains in the letter some of the circumstances surrounding the release of James Hamlet, the first fugitive slave to be returned from a free state to the South under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, the law having been passed less than a month before the date of this communication. In this case, the opposition to the law in New York City was not able to prevent Hamlets forced relocation to Baltimore, but they raised enough money to purchase Hamlets freedom. This letter also alludes to a meeting in Syracuse protesting the law and acknowledges that Syracuse is well ahead of New York City and suggests that the planning done in Syracuse should be emulated in this matter:
A portion of the account in the New-York Daily Tribune of 9 October 1850 that Isaac Hopper sent to Wilbur describes this early meeting in Syracuse in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act:
One of the resolutions they made concluded that the Fugitive Slave Law recently enacted by the Congress of these United States, is a most flagrant outrage upon the inalterable rights of man; and a daring assault upon the Palladium of American liberties our Constitution.
The speech of Reverend Loguen at this meeting in Syracuse was recorded in The Reverend J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life (Syracuse: J. G. K. Truair and Co., 1859), and a portion of it reads as follows:
Read the full text of this work in the "Documenting the American South" digital collection at the University of North Carolina.
Letter of Charles B. Sedgwick to Dora Sedgwick, 11 April 1851. Sedgwick was the lawyer for the abolitionists in the Syracuse area, and in this letter to his wife, he expressed his frustrations with the antislavery movement in Boston that was unable to prevent the capture of Thomas Sims on 4 April 1851 and his return to slavery under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. The authorities in Boston were so intent on enforcing this law that they utilized three hundred armed soldiers and marshals to guard Sims and another two hundred and fifty soldiers to ensure the transfer of Sims to a vessel that would return him to slavery in Georgia. Sedgwick, the calm legal councilor, was prepared for the loss of a significant number of lives in order to prevent this from happening:
Letter of Frederick Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 6 October 1852. Frederick Douglass cannot help comparing the Sims case in Boston with the success that was attained with the Jerry Rescue in Syracuse, and the Miss Griffiths to whom he refers is the editor of Autographs for Freedom, the Rochester antislavery imprint that appears in this exhibit:
Order of Services at the First Anniversary of the Kidnapping of Thomas Sims, April 12, 1852 (Boston: Prentiss and Sawyer, 1852). This broadside was sent to Gerrit Smith by the Reverend John Pierpont, the author of the hymn labeled as the fourth item on the program, the first two stanzas of which affirm that the Revolutionary War dead of the Battle of Bunker Hill would have been horrified by the seizure of Thomas Sims in Boston, who was apprehended under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:
Souls of the Patriot dead, On Bunkers height who bled! The pile, that stands On your long-buried bones Those monumental stones Should not suppress the groans, This day demands.For Freedom there ye stood; There gave the earth your blood; There found your graves; That men of every clime, Faith, color, tongue, and time, Might, through your death sublime, Never be slaves
Syracuse University Library
Syracuse, NY 13244
Last modified: June 09, 2012 12:35 PM
URL: http://libwww.syr.edu /digital/exhibits/u/undergroundrr/case2.htm