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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Borders: The 2005 Syracuse Symposium


The Jerry Rescue and Its Aftermath

On the first of October 1851, William “Jerry” Henry, an escaped slave and cooper residing in Syracuse, was arrested ostensibly for theft. Only after he had been placed in manacles, however, was it revealed that he had been arrested by federal marshals under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law passed in September of 1850. Jerry at that point struggled furiously but was brought before the U.S. commissioner Joseph Sabine. A first attempt to free him by abolitionists occurred in that office, and he was able to escape from the building and flee to one of the bridges over the Erie Canal, where he was recaptured and then delivered to the Police Justice offices. It was in this location that the famous Jerry Rescue was effected when a crowd of approximately twenty-five hundred people surrounded and ultimately stormed the facility. A few shots from a pistol were fired, but the sheer force of the crowd was sufficient to daunt the federal officers. Jerry was successfully hidden in the city until he was transported to freedom in Kingston, Ontario, where he remained until his death just a few years later. The Jerry Rescue was celebrated as one of the great triumphs of the antislavery movement and became an integral part of the lore and the strategizing of abolitionists in the region.

Letter of J. M. Clappe to Gerrit Smith, 3 January 1852. According to court testimony subsequent to the Jerry Rescue, it appears that Clappe was the first person to enter the Police Justice offices on the night of the Jerry Rescue. Clappe was a “furnaceman” or ironworker and may have been chosen as one of the first to breach the premises because of his brawn. There could be no question as to his commitment to the antislavery movement, however, because he was obliged, after conferring with the Boston abolitionists Wendell Phillips, Amasa Soule (Sewel), and Francis Jackson, to go into exile in St. Catharines, Ontario, to which he fled after the rescue. Even though he inquires about returning to Syracuse at the close of this letter, the city directories do not provide evidence of his return until 1857:

I shal feele myself highly honord to recieve your kind and benevilent counsil under my trying circumstances driven as I was from hoalm [home] unexpectedley without an hours preperation....the caus of my leaving so sudenly was the advise of my esteemed friend Mr C. A. Wheaton on the night of the 3d of Oct following the memoriable first of Oct 1851 which as in all probibility you well know the part that I am charged with[.] I hav for a long time ben sorry that I ever left Syracuse after obtaining so glorious a victory as was don on that night[.] When I left I started for pensylvania thinking of making my parents a visit but thinking it not advisable I turned my course to NY Citty...and deeming it not exactley the place for me under the advise of...friends I left for Mass wheire I took counsil from Mr W Phillips[,] Sewel[,] Jackson and others in Boston in regard to the propriety of going to canida...So I went up into newhampshier and worked a few weeks then left for canida by the way of the vermont central road to Ogdensburgh...I hav traveled a long journey and now what I want to know is whether under presant circumstances I had better remain here or return to Syracuse and run the risk of conciquences[.] I do not wish to return without consulting those that feele themselvs pledged to sustain each other in the caus of rescuing the fujativ[.]

I hope you will excuse my roundabout way of puting the question and my imperfections in the english language[.]

Speech of Rev. Samuel J. May, to the Convention of Citizens, of Onondaga County (Syracuse: Agan and Summers, 1851). In this speech delivered just two weeks after the Jerry Rescue, the Reverend Samuel May captured the sentiment of the crowd in stirring terms:

But when the people saw a man dragged through the streets, chained and held down in a cart by four or six others who were upon him; treated as if he were the worst of felons; and learnt that it was only because he had assumed to be what God made him to be, a man, and not a slave—when this came to be known throughout the streets, there was a mighty throbbing of the public heart; an all but unanimous up rising against the outrage. There was no concert of action except that to which a common humanity impelled the people. Indignation flashed from every eye. Abhorrence of the Fugitive Slave Bill poured in burning words from every tongue. The very stones cried out.

In a postscript to this account, May added these comments:

It was pretty generally known throughout the country, that there is prevalent in this city and county, a strong anti-slavery sentiment, and, more especially, a deep abhorrance [sic] of the Fugitive Slave Law. As if on purpose to set this public feeling at defiance, and challenge us to make it manifest, Mr. Webster declared to an assembly of our citizens last June, that that execrable law should be enforced here; ay, in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, that should be held in this city. Such a threat was not adapted to allay the rising of an opposite determination. We are not all here quite so craven, and slavish as to bow at once submissively to such a brow-beating as he attempted to give us. His words rankled in the bosoms of a great many. This too was well known.

Letter from Frederick Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 6 November 1852. Smith won election to Congress in November of 1852, and this occasioned an effusive letter from Douglass that made reference to the “Jerry Level” (almost suggesting that this was equivalent to the scales of justice), as well as to “rescue cases” and “Jerry Celebrations”:

My Dear Sir. The Cup of my joy is full. If my humble labors have in any measure contributed (as you kindly say they have) to your election, I am most amply rewarded. You are now, thank heaven, within Sight and hearing of this guilty nation—for the rest I fear nothing. You will do the work of an apostle of Liberty. May God give you Strength. Your election forms an era in the history of the great Anti Slavery Struggle. For the first time, a man will appear in the American Congress completely imbued with the Spirit of freedom. Here to fore, vertue has had to ask pardon of vice. Our friends who have nobly spoken great truths in Congress, on the Subject of Slavery, have all of them found themselves in Straits where they have been compelled, to disavow or qualify their abolitionism so as to seriously damage the beauty and force of their testimony. Not so will it be with you. Should your life and health be spared (which blessings are devoutly prayed for) you will go into Congress with the “Jerry Level” in your hand—regarding Slavery as “Naked Piracy”—You go to Congress, not by the grace of a party caucus, bestowed as a reward for party services; not by concealment, bargain, or Compromise, but by the unbought suffrages of your fellow citizens, acting independently of, and in defiance of party!...You go to Congress, not from quiet nor seclusion—Shut out from the eye of the world—where your thoughts and feelings had to be imagined—but you go from the very whirlwind of agitation, from “rescue trials,” from Womans’ rights Conventions, and from “Jerry Celebrations,” where your lightest words were caught up and perverted to your hurt. You go to Congress a Free Man.

The reference to slavery as “Naked Piracy” occurs in a published letter to the Liberty Party of 15 September 1852 of which Gerrit Smith was one of the signatories. In this same communication, the Jerry rescue is referred to as “one of the most important and honorable events in the history of American liberty.”

Trial of Henry W. Allen, U.S. Deputy Marshal, for Kidnapping (Syracuse: Daily Journal Office, 1852). From the proceedings of this trial, we learn of Gerrit Smith’s plan to turn the tables on the U.S. marshal who arrested Jerry and charge him, instead, with kidnapping according to a New York state law from 1840. Of course, the “counsels for the people” (Rowland H. Gardner, district attorney of Onondaga County; Charles B. Sedgwick; and Gerrit Smith) had no hope of winning this case, but it at least became a vehicle for challenging the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It is also noteworthy that a grand jury in Onondaga County found that there was enough evidence to bring the federal marshal Henry W. Allen to trial.

This case is the first one of the kind that has been brought since the Constitution of the United States was adopted. It, therefore, possesses, on that account, an importance which could not otherwise attach to it.

Henry W. Allen, the defendant, is Deputy U. S. Marshal. As such, a warrant, issued by Jos. F. Sabin [sic], U. S. Commissioner, for the arrest of one Jerry, otherwise called William Henry, on the 29th of September, 1851, was placed in his hands. It was alleged in said warrant that said Jerry owed “service and labor” to a party in Missouri. On the next day—1st of October—Allen executed the warrant, by the arrest of the man Jerry, who was brought by him before Commissioner Sabine for examination, with a view to deciding whether he should be returned to Missouri, on the claim set up on the warrant.

Before this examination was concluded, it is well known that Jerry left for parts unknown, so far as the records of the U. S. Commissioner show.

Marshal Allen was presented before the Grand Jury of Onondaga County, at the October session of the County Court, 1851, for indictment under a law of the State of New York, 1840, to protect the rights of its citizens—or against kidnapping.

The Grand Jury found a true bill against Marshal Henry W. Allen, under said Act for kidnapping, in arresting Jerry under the said warrant.

And hence, the case set down for this day, 21st June, 1852, at the Onondaga Circuit, before Justice Marvin.

Letter of Samuel J. May to Gerrit Smith, 31 August 1854. May refers to the abbreviated term that Smith spent as a congressman, but the letter also clearly illustrates how the Jerry Rescue had become woven into the programming and strategies of the antislavery movement. May is clearly hoping to have the Jerry Rescue celebration be juxtaposed with a major antislavery meeting that will involve William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone, all nationally known figures in the movement:

While, in common with all your constituents and friends, I lament that you felt constrained to resign your seat in Congress, I most heartily rejoice that you have come back to live amongst us—and infuse into this Community more of your spirit of reform. And, though I have not heard so much from you, I venture to conjecture that you have found Congress a hateful place, and can hardly blame you for wishing to get out of it....

It is quite time that some arrangements should be made for the celebration of the Rescue of Jerry....I have spoken on the subject to Ira H. Cobb. He seemed ready to go for the celebration—but intimated, that, as the 1st of October this year comes on Sunday—the Celebration had better be postponed or anticipated a day. I replied to him “if an ox or an ass fall into a pit on the Sabbath day”—who would not pull him out. It cannot be more unlawful to rejoice in memory of a good deed, than to do it on the Sabbath day....

The American Anti Slavery Society is to hold its Semi annual meeting on the 29th & 30th of September. [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Wendell] Phillips, Lucy Stone will probably be here—and I have also especially invited Theodore Parker—If they are here, Parker will preach in my Church Sunday morning—and we shall have an Anti Slavery gathering somewhere to hear from the other friends in the evening—whether we have the [Jerry Rescue] celebration proper or not.

Engraved portrait of Gerrit Smith from Speeches of Gerrit Smith in Congress (New York: Mason Brothers, 1855).

Published letter from Gerrit Smith to John Thomas, Esq., 27 August 1859. Gerrit Smith announced in this publication his intention not to attend the annual Jerry Rescue celebration for that year because the former “Jerry Rescuers” had failed to adhere to the “Jerry level,” or to have sustained the moral outrage that made them defy the Fugitive Slave Act. Approximately two months after this declaration was made, John Brown, with financial assistance from Gerrit Smith, would raid the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

I have this day received your letter inviting me to preside at the approaching Anniversary of the Rescue of Jerry, and to prepare the papers for it. Thankful for this honor as I truly am, nevertheless I am constrained to decline it. I have presided at all the Anniversaries of this important event, and written the Address adopted at each of them. But my interest in them has declined greatly for the last two or three years: and I am now decidedly of the opinion that it is unwise to continue to repeat the farce any longer.

The Rescue of Jerry was a great and glorious event. Would God it had been duly improved! But those who achieved it, and I include in this number all who cheered it on and rejoiced in every step of its progress, have, with few exceptions, proved themselves unworthy of the work of their own hands. We delivered Jerry in the face of the authority of Congress and Courts; and, as most of us believed, in contempt also of a provision of the Constitution itself. We delivered him, believing that there was no law and could be no law for slavery. On that occasion our humanity was up; and in vain would all the authorities on earth, even the bible itself included, have bid it down. Our humanity owned Jerry for its brother: and so did it cling to him, that all the wealth of the world would not have sufficed to buy it off, or tempt it to ignore and betray him....

When the day of her calamity shall have come to the South, and fire and rape and slaughter shall be filling up the measure of her affliction, then will the North have two reasons for remorse—

First, That she was not willing (whatever the attitude of the South at this point) to share with her in the expense and loss of an immediate and universal emancipation.

Second, That she was not willing to vote slavery out of existence.

Then too when, alas, it will be too late, will be seen in the vivid light of the sufferings of our Southern brethren both black and white, how shameful and of what evil influence was the apostasy of those “Jerry Rescuers,” who were guilty of falling from the “Jerry level,” and casting proslavery votes.

Read the full text of this letter in Syracuse University Library's Gerrit Smith Papers.

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Last modified: June 09, 2012 12:35 PM
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