Portraits of Local Abolitionists and Reformers

The Rescue of Harriet Powell

The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Impact

The Jerry Rescue and Its Aftermath

How the Antislavery Movement Used the Print Media

Maps and Charts

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CNY Reads Miriam Grace Monfredo's North Star Conspiracy

Borders: The 2005 Syracuse Symposium


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:

Sect. 6. The claimant of any fugitive slave, or his attorney, “may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person,” either by procuring a warrant from some Judge or Commissioner, “or by seizing and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process;” to take such fugitive before such Judge or Commissioner, “whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner,” and, if satisfied of the identity of the prisoner, to grant a certificate to said claimant to “remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory from whence he or she may have escaped,”— using “such reasonable force or restraint as may be necessary under the circumstances of the case.” “In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence.” All molestation of the claimant, in the removal of his slave, “by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever,” [is] prohibited.

Sect. 7. Any person obstructing the arrest of a fugitive, or attempting his or her rescue, or aiding him or her to escape, or harboring and concealing a fugitive, knowing him to be such, shall be subject to a fine of not exceeding one thousand dollars, and to be imprisoned not exceeding six months, and shall also “forfeit and pay the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost.”

This legal summary of the Fugitive Slave Law is preceded in May’s tract by these verses from Deuteronomy (23:15–16): “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

Dear Coz,

There were three fugitives shiped on board the old line of packets, this morning, for Oswego, and, amid the hurry and bustle, they were not furnished with a “pass.” They are, Mr. Frisbie and wife from Baltimore, and another woman from near Baltimore. We commend them to your care[.]

Yours &c

W. M. Clarke

P. S. Another is on his way and you may expect him in a day or two[.]


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:

It may afford thee some satisfaction to learn that with my charge I got home safely, and two days after surrendered my trust to Gerrit Smith who was delighted to receive that portion of the family which I had brought....I have written for publication an account of my tour to Kentucky and the incidents I met with, and have sent it to New York for publication in two Anti Slavery papers and desired the Editors to forward a copy to thy address, which I hope may come to thy hand, and if I have through inadvertancy or other wise made any mistatement be kind enough to point it out. Thy Brother Elisha will also have the account sent him. I have ordered that the Emancipator should be sent thee for twelve months and paid for it, hoping thou will give it a perusal, and such consideration as its contents are entitled to. The situation of the Slaveholder for many years past has deeply engaged my attention, and since transacting the business I did with thee permit me to say I have felt interested in thy individual welfare[.] it is far from me to limit the healing power, the efficatious virtue of that blood which was spilt for all Men on Calvary Cross, yet I have my fears that it will wash out the stain from the hands of him, or her, whose hands are red with the blood of the Slave.

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 Hamlet’s forced relocation to Baltimore, but they raised enough money to purchase Hamlet’s 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:

Eight hundred dollars was made up by some benevolent individuals in this City which was applied to the purchase of James Hamlet’s liberty and he has been restored to his wife and family, to the rejoycing of many....I shall send thee the [New York] Tribune of to day that contains an account of the proceedings of a late meeting at Syracuse[.] the resolutions adopted at that meeting may, perhaps, be some guide in preparing a petition to Congress—Nothing of the kind has been prepared here as yet, but doubtless there will be before Congress meet again. The case of James Hamlet has excited universal indignation at the vile law under which he was arrested[.] Any mans life would be in danger that should render himself conspicuous in such matters.

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:

A large and enthusiastic meeting of the citizens of Syracuse was held in the City Hall last evening. The room was crowded. Not less than five hundred persons were present. Hon. Alfred Hovey, Mayor of the City, presided....

While the Committee was preparing resolutions the meeting was addressed by Samuel R. Ward, the black gentleman whom Capt. Rynders has so much reason to remember, and by Rev. J. W. Loguan [sic], a highly respectable minister of the colored Methodist Church here. They exhibited to their fellow-citizens the fearful predicament into which they were thrown by this infernal law, and made appeals for sympathy and aid which called forth the heartiest responses.

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:

What is life to me if I am to be a slave in Tennessee? My neighbors! I have lived with you many years, and you know me. My home is here, and my children were born here. I am bound to Syracuse by pecuniary interests, and social and family bonds. And do you think I can be taken away from you and from my wife and children, and be a slave in Tennessee? Has the President and his Secretary sent this enactment up here, to you, Mr. Chairman, to enforce on me in Syracuse?—and will you obey him? Did I think so meanly of you—did I suppose the people of Syracuse, strong as they are in numbers and love of liberty—or did I believe their love of liberty was so selfish, unmanly and unchristian—did I believe them so sunken and servile and degraded as to remain at their homes and labors, or, with none of that spirit which smites a tyrant down, to surround a United States Marshal to see me torn from my home and family, and hurled back to bondage—I say did I think so meanly of you, I could never come to live with you.

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:

Mr. May is yet about—He is with Geo. Thompson in Canada. Have had no preaching for two Sundays & some of his people who are anxious to hear preaching every Sunday scold a little—They are expected to return tomorrow—Boston will sink in my regard if they let Sims be taken back to Slavery. I am afraid he will be, but I must say I had rather hear that one hundred valuable lives were lost than to hear it—No sacrifice of blood is too great to establish the principle that Slaves cannot be hunted & chained & driven off from Massachusetts—If these kidnappers were to be killed it would teach a useful lesson & I hope they wont go away alive. The shuffling of the Commissioner is contemptible. I will send Mr May the paper you sent me but I am afraid Sims will be past praying for.

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:

That was a magnificent and glorious [Jerry Rescue] Celebration at Syracuse. Boston Abolition, that allowed Sims to be dragged into Slavery, did seem to me less efficient than Syracuse abolition, that rescued Jerry—though it might be considered egotistical to Say So!

I doubt not that my friend Miss Griffiths had a good visit at Peterboro’—And left you with her Strength renewed.

Yours Always for freedom and humanity
Frederick Douglass

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 Bunker’s 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

Special Collections Research Center
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