S1: Hello and welcome to the History of American Slavery SLA Academy. I’m Rebecca Onion, Slate’s history writer.
S2: And I’m Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent. On this episode of the podcast, Episode 8, our penultimate episode release of the Main Line episodes, we’re going to survey the landscape for that small minority of enslaved people who managed to escape slavery in 1840s and 1850s. And we’re going to take a closer look at the people who helped them along the way. We will begin, as we do on each episode with the biography of a single person. Today, that person is John Parker.
S3: Born in 1827 in Virginia, John Parker was eight years old when he was sold away from his family and forced to march more than 800 miles to Alabama. As a young man, Parker was apprenticed to an iron foundry and managed to buy his freedom at age 18. It was not the physical part of slavery that made it cruel and degrading. Parker later recalled It was the taking away from a human being, the initiative of thinking of doing his own ways. Slavery’s curse was not pain of body, but the pain of the soul. By day, as a free man, Parker became a successful, industrious entrepreneur and a father to six. He established his own foundry in Ripley, Ohio, and was one of the only black Americans to hold a patent before the 20th century. By night, he fought what he called his own little personal war on slavery as a daring conductor of the Underground Railroad. He was known for making dangerous excursions into Kentucky, helping to ferry enslaved people across the Ohio River during the war. Parker also manufactured war supplies and recruited black soldiers for the Union Army. John Parker risked his success, freedom and life to help hundreds of people escape their enslavement. Has an Ohio newspaper wrote upon Parker’s death in nineteen hundred. A more fearless creature never lived.
S4: He gloried in danger. He would go boldly into the enemy’s camp and filch the fugitives to freedom.
S1: I don’t know about you, Jamal, but the Underground Railroad is, I think the first thing I learned about when I ever learned about slavery. I think that’s the first thing I ever heard about as a school kid.
S2: I have a distinct memory of trying to tell a kid in fourth grade that the underground world was not, in fact, over. Were those underground.
S5: So I was going to. I should find that kids see what he thinks now.
S2: Yeah, but I have to say that given that that’s probably the first thing I learned about to just for do I think it’s a kind of standard issue narrative that kids learn because they think, you know, this is gonna sound a little cynical, but I think it’s because it makes Americans look really good.
S1: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s much easier, I think, to teach that story or the story of maybe particularly Harriet Tubman than it might be to teach the story of people’s lives who never managed to escape. You know, and to some degree, there’s the same problem that we’ve been talking about. There are Oliver recordings, which is that, you know, the people who got away and people who left some record in some way are easier to talk about. History graphically, because there’s documentation, there’s, you know, there’s word of what happened to them. But it’s also just an easier conversation to have in some way.
S6: Right. It is hard to wrap our heads around the idea that much of the history of American slavery can essentially never be told because we don’t know the names of the people in their stories.
S1: So earlier this year, a professor from Columbia University, historian Eric Foner, published a book that sort of tries to take a different look at the Underground Railroad. And he writes particularly about the railroad in New York City. But the book is called Gateway to Freedom. And Super Excitingly, we got to interview Professor Foner about his research. So we began by asking him to try to talk a little bit about the way the historians have understood the underground river and over the decades that people have been writing about it. And that’s actually changed quite a bit. And the story has a bunch of twists and turns.
S7: So understand the what we call the historiography. You have to go back really to the late 19th century, early 20th century. A professor at Ohio State University, Wilbur Siebert, wrote several books about the Underground Railroad. Based in large part on questionnaires he sent out to aging abolitionists. And basically, Siebert gave this picture of a highly organized, very extensive system with regular routes and stations and agents and taking thousands and thousands of slaves to freedom from the south. I think he took the railroad metaphor a little too literally. He had maps of these routes which looked like railroad train routes. And basically the heroes were the white abolitionists who were assisting helpless blacks, basically. And that remained the basic view of the underground rail for a long, long time. Not until the 1960s. A different scholar, Larry Gara, published a book called The Liberty Line, which basically said, look, this seamless work is just propagating legends and myths, which abolitionists have been putting out there. And actually there there was very little of an underground railroad. Most of the credit ought to go to the people who escaped themselves. And then they were mostly aided by free black people in the north, up by white abolitionists. And the whole idea of a highly organized system was really mythological. And a lot of historians accepted that. So for a long time, there wasn’t really very much study of the Underground Railroad. But in the last, let’s say, 10, 15 years, there’s been a renewal of interest, particularly people doing these local level studies. You know, the underground railroad in this town or that town, this rural area. And the picture we have now and I try to put forward in my book is not a highly organized system, but a series of local groups, local networks that communicated with each other, that rose and fell over time. It wasn’t a fixed entity by any means that didn’t involve that many people sort of working full time on it, but did manage in the, let’s say, 30 years for the civil war to help a significant number of slaves to reach freedom, especially after they got into the north. We should not think that there were all sorts of agents and stations in the South in previous episodes.
S8: He’s talked quite a bit about how there are all these myths around slavery, about sort of the the benevolence or lack thereof of slaveholders, about whether or not the institution was, you know, as bad as people say it is and so on, so forth. One sort of myth on the other side, I think, is exactly what Professor Foner is talking about here, that the Underground Railroad was this big and incomprehensive institution, when, in fact, as he as he points out and we’ll discuss later in the episode, it was it was loose. It was more network of underground cells and not even a particularly comprehensive one at all. Then it was some kind of. Institution that people sort of could readily identify.
S1: Yeah. Again, I think that’s much more sort of comforting to think is that the underground river would have been this sort of solid institution. But the picture that Dr. Ferner paints for us is one of a much more sort of contingent. And I don’t say unreliable, but it sounds like, you know, it sort of whether or not the Underground Railroad could help you sort of depended on where you were and where you were going and what time you were trying to go there, what historical time. I mean, so, you know, something else we talked about is the fact that most of the people that were helped by the Underground Railroad were coming from the upper south. So I think we touched upon this a little. We are talking about the movement of slavery sort of south and west, but it was much easier for people who were in Maryland, Virginia to try to figure out a way to hook up with people from the Underground Railroad and get away. And so we talked a little bit about the fact that there were, you know, a few other ways, sort of geographical directions that people could go to get away besides north to Canada. You know, there are some people who tried to go and succeeded at escaping slavery in Texas into Mexico, which had abolished slavery by a belief 1820, or people who tried to get from further down in the south to islands that were held by the British. But that that number of people is just much smaller than the number of people who managed to get from the upper south to Canada. And so, you know, whether or not you could be helped really was contingent on where you were.
S8: That’s right. If you were stuck in Alabama, for example, odds are pretty good that you’re not getting out. Right.
S9: So one of the things that I loved about Dr. Turner’s new book is that it’s really about people working on a really local level. So he’s talking about the small community of people in New York who are working to help fugitives get. NORRIS One of those people was a journalist. His name was Sydney Howard Gay. And he actually left behind a really unusual document that actually an undergraduate at Columbia University discovered in the archives and sort of tipped Dr. Foner off to this document is sort of almost singular among records of the Underground Railroad, because as you can imagine, a lot of the people who are helping fugitives did not keep records. There’s a few exceptions, but it was pretty uncommon for this kind of book to survive.
S7: My book originated with this document called The Record of Fugitives that this white abolitionist editor in New York kept for two years in the 1850s. And he recorded the experience of over 200 fugitive slaves who passed through New York. And he helped. And he recorded what he spent his money on it. It was little amounts of money on a train ticket to Albany or something like that, or literally even the postage for a letter it just sent to someone saying, OK, I’m sending two guys tomorrow on the train to you or something like that or clothing for them. You know, people who ran away from slavery would dress like slaves. You know, they have new clothing, so they didn’t look like slaves anymore. And then food, you know, to help them or accommodation. Sometimes he would pay someone to put them up for a few nights. And a lot of the money went to his assistance. His office is a perfect example of interracial cooperation because you have the white abolitionist editor and then you have a black guy with the kind of resonant name, Lewis Napoleon, who was basically on his payroll, supposedly working as a kind of janitor, but really working with fugitive slaves. And he recorded all these payments, just wages almost to Lewis Napoleon, $2 here, $2 there, $5 there for work, finding fugitive slaves in the city, helping them, getting them to the office, getting off the train station, that kind of thing.
S9: So that’s really a really valuable document to have. Is this almost a ledger or a diary that can tell us, you know, exactly how the people who are working on this project were running sort of like almost like a little nonprofit, trying to trying to figure out how to help people get through New York and get north?
S8: That’s right. And I think like a lot of modern day nonprofits, or at least Modern-Day small nonprofits, there just wasn’t that much money to go around. You had a few well-to-do white abolitionist people who had money beforehand or were successful in business or whatnot, but they they were few and far between. And that’s not surprisingly, because there just weren’t that many abolitionists, period, really that many white abolitionists. So a lot of the effort in the money such that it was came from African-Americans, whether they were former slaves who had escaped to freedom and decided to at least devote some of their resources to helping others, whether they were, you know, free born people who use their positions in society, you know, locally or otherwise to channel resources, money. Places to stay, food to other individuals or small groups helping slaves escape north. But it was a very you know, you could legitimately called a shoestring operation. Again, it wasn’t a vast network of agents and stations. It was small groups of people scattered across the country doing what they could.
S7: Most of the money was raised in very small amounts from free blacks. The Vigilance Committee in New York had a whole system where people would mostly black women would collect just a few pennies from friends every week and they would go into this kind of pot of money for assisting fugitive slaves. And then there were these fair as these anti-slavery fairs run by women, almost like a bake sale. You know, they would baked goods or they would make things like, you know, quilts or other stuff. And there were various ways of raising money. But you’re not talking about a lot of money. I mean, you’re talking about they’re always in danger of running out of money is the problem.
S9: So that’s another interesting thing about abolitionism to me is that, you know, that there’s a lot of women involved in it who around this time, like the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s. So it’s sort of, you know, one of the first flowering of public involvement for American women is to be involved in these reform movements by 1850s is suffrage. But also, you know, in the 1840s, 1850s, it’s abolitionism. So this became something that woman could be involved in and be in the public sphere in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily have been before.
S2: Yes. And this is probably a subject for a different podcasts, but I think that it’s connected to the temperance movement as well, which was primarily women.
S6: And there’s a lot of ways which the temperance movement, what’s his gateway movement towards involvement in other. I guess you’d call them progressive reform movements in 19th century America, for sure. One thing that is worth noting and one we spoke to Professor Foner about was the extent to which the Underground Railroad movement did not have the entire support of the abolitionist community. There were abolitionists who did not think this was a good use of resources for such a small and fledgling group of activists.
S7: There were those who said this is not what we ought to be doing and not spending our money or resources. What we are doing is fighting for the abolition of slavery. Helping people escape from slavery is not abolishing slavery. And you know, if someone wants to help them, fine. But there were people at the abolitionist movement as an organization should not be devoting resources and time to this. And I write about this kind of controversy in the 1850s where Sydney Howard, Gay’s wife in New York, wrote a letter to leading abolitionist woman in Boston who would organize the fair is up there. And she said, we want to organize a fair in New York to raise money for fugitive slaves. And Chapman said, no, I’m not gonna help you do that, because that’s not really anti-slavery. What you should do is raise money and give it to the American Anti-Slavery Society for its agitation against slavery, not help individual slaves.
S8: You know, what’s so interesting about that is those were kind of the same debates that I think radical activists have today about so many issues, whether it is trying to address poverty or prison reform or any of these issues that in some sense are spiritual descendants to the progressive reform movements in the 18th century. There’s always debate about do we help individuals, we help people as they come? Or do we focus our fire on the institutional forces that are responsible for the broad system. And even today, that’s that’s unsettled. People cannot decide whether that’s people they want to take in. And I should say, I kind of said this was a problem for radical movements, but it’s a problem for any kind of reform movement. I’m at the forefront of our mind at the moment. Are your movements to improve schools? And there’s a constant debate over whether or not you focus on teachers and individual students or whether you focus on trying to improve the situation institutionally and trying to improve entire school systems or entire educational funding systems and so on and so forth.
S9: So I think something that we don’t often talk about when we’re talking about abolitionism is the way that people within the movement had, you know, all kinds of perspectives about how an anti-slavery person should approach helping people who are trying to escape slavery. And so especially in the 1850s, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Virts required people on all states to help returning fugitives to their slave holders. And it made it illegal, basically, to deny aid to slave holders that we’re trying to recover their human property. You know, not in that act really catalyzed this debate within abolitionism about, you know, how far should you, as a person who was anti-slavery, go in, you know, physically defending that, maybe fighting for the freedom of someone who was trying to escape the clutches of a slave holder.
S10: There was escalating violence in the 1850s. These violent fugitive slave rescues bleeding Kansas, a civil war in Kansas in 1855, 56 57.
S11: In other words, the civil war was, of course, a much more titanic example of violence.
S10: But nonetheless, there were things leading up to it. It didn’t just come out of whole cloth, particularly along the border. You know, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, there was a lot of violence even going back to the 1820s where slave catchers would grab someone and then a bunch of black people usually would fight the slave catchers. Sometimes a guy would get away. Sometimes he wouldn’t. But what happens in the 1850s is this violence extends further into the north. So when they said you have this in Boston, you had it in Syracuse, Milwaukee or Troy, New York, those other places. So it becomes more widespread.
S9: In the 1850s, you know, one thing about the book also that was really interesting to me is to remember that New York, which had a very southern friendly city government and there was a lot of financial interests in New York that are sort of tied up in slavery and that this place. Dr. Foner argues it’s sort of a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the United States in that there is, you know, this sort of governmental sympathy into slavery. And then there’s also quite a few people in the city who are starting to feel a different way about it and that there is, you know, this sort of volatile situation that results in sort of these little violent incidents in defense of fugitive slaves.
S2: Right. And I want to sort of emphasize something Professor Foner says about the violence not coming out of whole cloth. This is probably one of my little hobbyhorses. But one of the things that does frustrate me at times when ever there are discussions of the civil war is severe. That it was kind of a sudden thing. But as Professor Foner notes, thanks in part to the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, you’d have this preceding decade of really sort of dramatic violence between abolitionists and slaveholders or pro-slavery groups in these border states and territories over sort of the question of, you know, while slavery expand and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, which was a tremendous imposition of federal power in the direction of slave holders who, you know, for a decade could just waltz into Pennsylvania, say, or waltz into New York City and essentially claim any black person bear who couldn’t prove their history as a fugitive slave and then forcibly take them south.
S9: Yeah, it’s kind of a terrifying vision. But getting back to the larger question of why it is that people love to talk about the Underground Railroad, which is something that we’d sort of been thinking about throughout this whole interview, we asked Dr. Ferner directly why he thinks it is that the old method that. Grandma Read has proven so hard to shake a why is it that almost everyone that you speak with in a northern state who has purchased an old house will tell you that there is an underground railroad like hidey hole or a closet that was used to help fugitives? And he had some interesting things to say about that.
S10: You know, I think that people like to read about the Underground Railroad. First of all, you do have stories of amazing individual courage and resourcefulness of people escaping from slavery. You know, the stories of these people are remarkable. And it was very, very hard to escape from slavery. You know, we should not underestimate that at all. And in the South, it was mostly done either on their own or with the assistance of a very, very small number of people once they get to the north. Now, Harriet Tubman is a exception. She goes back down and leads people out. Most people who escape were not let out by anybody. I got out by themselves. But, you know, so it’s stories of courage, stories, you know, of great drama. But also, as we said before, interracial cooperation. I think this is something that both black and white people can look back on with pride. You know, slavery is still a very fraught subject in our public consciousness. People get slavery 150 years ago, the end of slavery. Nobody in the United States today was ever a slave or owned a slave, at least in the United States. Right. Nonetheless, people find it uncomfortable to talk about slavery. I’ve just noticed as I lecture around a lot, white people often feel that you’re accusing them of something if you emphasize slavery. I’m not accusing anybody of what happened 200 years ago, you know, but nonetheless, that’s why there’s so much resistance to even acknowledging that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War. Everybody at that time knew that that was obvious. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said, hey, I’m paraphrasing here. You know, let’s get serious, folks. Everybody knows slavery is the cause of the Civil War. Nobody got up and said, Lincoln. No, you’re wrong about that. Everyone knew it. They don’t know it anymore. They don’t like to hear that. They like, oh, it was states rights. It was the tariff or something like that. So slavery is uncomfortable, but the Underground Railroad makes people feel proud somehow. Here you have both black and white people in an undeniably just cause. You know, I think it’s a it’s at a time when race relations are rather complex, to say the least, in this country. This is something that is a good example of interracial cooperation in our past.
S9: All right. I’m very curious to melt, to hear what you think about people’s love for the Underground Railroad, because I myself am deeply conflicted about whether or not I think it’s a good thing that we’re so fixated on this particular part of the history of slavery.
S12: It’s tough because.
S8: Why Professor Foner says it is an inspirational story of interracial cooperation. It is really in some sense heartening to know that there were people who were white, obviously black, who were trying to do what they could to help people escape this very awful institution. And so I you know, I very much sympathize as someone who thinks it’s important for people to be able to look back to their history and find something inspirational to hold on to. I completely understand the tendency to expand and to borrow a fake word from The Simpsons in big in the role in the place of the Underground Railroad. At the same time, this is one of those situations where we’ve put so little emphasis and we’ve said so little about the realities of slavery, the institution that goes by the wayside because professor is right. People do not want to hear about this. People do not want to think about the role slavery played in this country’s history. They don’t want to consider how terrible the institution that was. People would prefer to think that all of this was, you know, a in a distant past and be know relatively mum. We’re not Mylo, you know, all things considered, not the worst thing in the world. And it’s much more comfortable to talk about something like gun to run railroad. And I think we’re at a point where focusing on the Underground Railroad to the exclusion or to the, you know, lesser emphasis of the entire institution itself is a real disservice. I think it would be best if we spent a little less time talking about the Underground Railroad and a little more time talking about the millions of people who never escaped and who did endure a genuine historical atrocity.
S9: You know, I totally agree with you. I think part of the problem is that the Underground Railroad makes like a beautiful geographical argument for freedom, like there is like the sort of like cinematic quality to it. It’s very like a huge story. And I don’t know, I keep thinking about there’s a story that Cornell historian Ed Baptiste tells, thinking it’s Booker could be in another essay that I read about, you know, and it’s like person who I don’t believe ever made it out of slavery, but who the story is about. Basically his the two families that he makes, you know, he first he has a family that sold away from him and then he, you know, sort of almost adopts a younger kid who has come to the same plantation where he is. And the story is about the ability that this person had to sort of make a new family despite the tragedy that happened to him. And that’s like a tiny little story. You know, it’s this beautiful story and it’s a beautiful and horrible story. But I don’t know, I think about it all the time because I’m kind of thinking about ways that we can, again, talk about slavery and talk about the sort of like the persistence of the human spirit within slavery without sort of falling back on these narratives that, you know, always end with making us somehow feel better about it.
S2: Right. Like I said, I don’t begrudge anyone’s anyone’s desire to want to feel good about the past. But at the same time, the past isn’t just there for us to feel good about.
S8: And I do think that given the still intractable nature of racial problems, racial issues in the United States today, we all do ourselves a real disservice by not thinking harder and thinking more seriously about the realities of slavery and the reality of life for the enslaved, because all of that stuff does reflect back on the present, whether it’s obvious or not.
S13: So in the next half of our episode, we’re going to talk to Stephen Roubaix, who’s a historian of law from Northwestern, who writes about fugitive slave trials in the 1850s. So these are trials of both people who tried to run away and people who helped them.
S14: Remember, you can write to Rebecca and me with your thoughts about this episode. Our email address is History Academy at Slate.com. We’ve also launched the private Facebook group just for Academy members. You can find it at Facebook.com, Slash Groups and Slash History Academy.
S15: You can read an excerpt from Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner. As part of this Slate Academy. Find the link in our show notes at Slate.com. Slash A. Want to prepare for Episode 9 of the Academy? You’ve read ahead, Rebecca and Jamelle. We’ll talk to Adam Rothman and Heather Williams about the journey of emancipation and the many ways enslaved Americans had to grab freedom during the war. Find an excerpt from Rothman’s book Beyond Freedom’s Reach. The Kidnapping and the Twilight of Slavery in our show. Notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi.
S9: Welcome back to the History of American Slavery a Slave Academy. I’m Rebecca Onion.
S2: And I’m Jamelle Bouie. Today, we’re talking about the final decade of American slavery, the 1850s and specifically what happened to the slaves who managed to escape and make their way to the free soil of the north.
S16: We’re going to talk a little bit now about another form of resistance that’s sprung up in many cases when those runaways were discovered and unfortunately recaptured on. The scholar who is going to help us in the second half of this podcast is named Steven Lou Bay, and he’s a professor in the Northwestern University School of Law. He’s written quite a bit about the legal landscape for runaways and for the people who aided them, especially after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which, as we’ll discuss a little bit, was not the first law put in place to help slaveholders recover fugitives, but was a really extreme one that was passed as part of the compromise of 1850 to try to keep, you know, southern votes in Congress happy. And one of the major effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is that if you helped a fugitive, you will be punished. There was major incentives to recover fugitives, you know, monetarily. And it became much easier legally for a fugitive to be renditioned back, to be brought back to a slave holder. And one of the unintended consequences is also that people who weren’t actually enslaved, free black people will be kidnapped out of the northern states and brought back down to slavery. So the first story that Professor LBA told us takes place in Oberlin, Ohio, a town that we now sort of know, mostly because of the existence of Oberlin College, an excellent small arts college that many of my friends attended and loved. But in the 1850s, as Professor Levey told us, Oberlin had another, more radical claim to fame, or Oberlin was was the most integrated and most abolitionist community in the United States.
S17: And it was known as a haven for fugitive slaves. Slave catchers operated all around Oberlin in Ohio, but they seldom attempted to get into Oberlin itself because the population there, white and black, were so committed to the resistance. But in September of 1858, a group of Kentucky slave catchers did manage to kidnap someone in Oberlin, a runaway named John Price. And they took him off to the nearest railroad tipo in Wellington, where they intended to take him first to Columbus for a perfunctory hearing and then back to Kentucky. But they were observed, and hundreds of Obra Linares students and townspeople and faculty chased him down, tracked them down to a hotel in Wellington. And then they stormed the hotel and rescued the fugitive. And that became known as the Oberlin rescue of the Buchanan administration was outraged because the posse had been led by a deputy federal marshal. And Buchanan himself depended on southern support for his presidency. And so 36 of the rescuers were indicted and two of them were brought to trial. Both were convicted.
S18: And these were white rescuers, one white, one black.
S19: The rescuers themselves, the group of rescuers themselves were completely interracial. Whites and blacks together. And then when the case was brought to trial, the first defendant was a white man.
S17: And the second one was a black man named Charles Langston, who, by the way, was the grandfather of Langston Hughes.
S20: Amazing. And what ended up happening to those defendants?
S17: Well, those two were brought to trial and and convicted. And then the slave hunters themselves were arrested for kidnapping by the county authorities in Lorain, Ohio, which was dominated by Republicans. And then you had a standoff with the rescuers in federal custody and the slave hunters in county custody.
S18: And they reached a detente and let everybody go crazy like chaos.
S17: Well, it’s a sort of fascinating example of the dispute over states rights. You know, we think of states’ rights as being completely a southern phenomenon and being asserted in support of segregation. But up until the civil war, there was a mirror argument in the north where the northern states insisted that it was their state’s right to protect alleged fugitives.
S20: It’s funny, Professor LOBET mentioned states’ rights because one of the things I think that’s lost in a lot of the ideological talk about the civil war even now in disputes about whether the war is about slavery or.
S2: Notes through trades is that in the prior decade, 1850’s and professional based right here, you had a northern argument about states rights, too, and now was that the South was unjustly using federal power with the Fugitive Slave Act, the kind of demand national commitment to their institution in northern states had prerogatives as states to resist that.
S8: Mean, this gets, I think, lost in my conversation about states rights, but it’s very, very much a part of the political scene here. But there is real anger over the sense that the South really is expanding federal power beyond the reach it should have.
S16: Thinking about it that way sort of helps me understand the sort of extreme reactions that people had to the enactment of that law. And I think that was in a lot of ways exacerbated by the way that this law was kind of implemented or the way that these trials went and which this is one of the major arguments that Professor Lubet makes in his book, which is that there are, you know, these panels of commissioners that are kind of authorized by this federal law to sort of move the matters through the court quickly. And so, you know, there’s this sort of sense that there is not due process, there’s not a right to appeal. The fugitives have very few protections. And so we asked Professor Levey how that works. What the standing of somebody who ran away and then was recovered by a slave holder would have in one of these federal courts.
S17: Well, they were technically the subject matter of the proceeding. Really? And not parties to the proceedings. So standing was minimal. Most of the times the commissioners would allow lawyers to appear for them. If a lawyer showed up, there was no right to counsel. There was no appointment to counsel. And then they were sort of dependent on good luck.
S6: Were there juries at all?
S17: There were no juries at all in fugitive slave renditions under the Act of 1850, and that was very controversial when it began. Up until 1850, fugitive slave renditions were handled by state courts and the states might have jury trials and they might not. But generally speaking, there was a greater amount of due process involved. And that all changed in 1850 when the federal government took it over and instituted these very summary proceedings, really skeletal proceedings that were aimed at hasty, quick, almost immediate decisions.
S2: So it’s worth saying real quick a bit more about why the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was so controversial. If we go back to the signing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution, the Constitution in Article 4 has a clause essentially allowing states, cities, towns, so on, so forth, to recapture fugitive slaves. Of course, Constitution does not say slave. It never used the word slaves. It avoids that word and used euphemism instead. But it does it does allow for this thing to happen. So if if if a slaveholder wanted to press upon his state to recapture a slave, there’s nothing in the constitution forbidding it. But the Constitution doesn’t have any enforcement mechanisms for it. It’s just kind of a theme that you can do if you want to. And so in the second Congress, the Congress passes and George Washington signs the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which puts an enforcement mechanism behind it. But this enforcement mechanism is more focused on the states themselves. So officials in cities and towns and counties have the right to pursue fugitive slaves and try fugitive slave cases. And state courts are set up to do this. But let’s say a slave escapes into Illinois or escapes into Massachusetts in a city or official doesn’t want to do anything about it, says while they’re here in slavery is illegal here. So we’re not going to enforce any South Carolina law, then that’s it. There’s nothing the South Carolina slave holder can do. And for the entire period between 1783 and 1850, slaveholders really think this is outrageous, that like if they’re, quote, property escapes, they have no real recourse once they kind of leave southern territory for northerners, this is fine. 1850 comes in in order to sort of appease Southern slave holders. A new fugitive slave act is proposed and this one actually puts teeth behind both the constitutional clause in kind of essentially it broadens the enforcement of this Fugitive Slave Act to 1793, making what was formerly a very local and state based decision into sort of expanding it into a federal system of fugitive slave courts and fugitive slave enforcement. And that I mean, from the perspective of someone in 1850, that is a dramatic change over what the law has been basically since the founding of a country.
S6: And so now under this feature, Selective 1850, not only are city local, you know, county officials required, they are deputized by the federal government to pursue fugitive slaves, whether they want to or not. But Southern slaveholders and southern authorities can come into northern states in in circumvention of northern law, take any one they deemed to be fugitive slave. And if you are caught harboring or defending a fugitive slave, you’re liable to a fine of a thousand dollars, which is roughly, you know, adjusted for inflation, $20000 today. And first sense of how much money that would take someone to accumulate, that’s a two years worth of wages, basically.
S2: It’s so much money. It’s a ridiculous amount of money and then jail time. And so from the perspective of northerners at the time, this is you know, this is a massive expansion of federal power designed to protect an institution which many, if not opposed to kind of view disgust.
S16: So, Jamal, you had what I thought was a really apt question for Professor Levey, which is given the fact that, you know, it’s a contention of people who are able to escape slavery before 1850, but it’s not a huge percentage of people who are able to escape. And given the fact that this law, this new law and the way that it’s enforced created a lot of. Controversy around the institution and how people in the north more up in arms about slavery than they may have been before this law was passed. You know, you sort of asked why would the South have devoted so much energy to trying to get along like this on the books?
S17: The Southerners regarded this as a point of honor, which apparently was much more important to them than freedom. And they thought that cooperation from the north in returning fugitives was essential to continuing to participate in the union. But there was more to it than honor. Southerners really insisted that slavery needed to be a national institution. And this is where the great political fault line was to northerners. Slavery was local and regional, and it shouldn’t have any force of law outside of the states where it already existed. And the southerners demanded that slavery be regarded as something national. They said that the Constitution follows the flag and the Constitution protects slavery. So it was really a matter of both pushing slavery into the territories and also enforcing their rights to own human property, even in the northern states.
S6: One thing that I’m not sure, modern readers, your listeners were observers who really could really get from the political environment of the 1850s. And really the 1840s is a very pervasive northern paranoia about the power of slave holders in the federal government. There is something called slave power. And if you kind of read early Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and even later ones, he’s sort of railing against slave power of the railings, a bit of an unfair description of how he purchased it.
S2: But the basic idea is that slave holders aren’t just another faction or interest group within the American government, but they’re a conspiracy of interests, all pushing the entire federal government and the entire country to acknowledge and support the institution of slavery. And while this doesn’t make northern opponents of slave power, it doesn’t make them abolitionist. Does it make them people who believe in black rights? But it does make them people who are really resistant to the idea that the federal government ought to be engaged in directly supporting and propping up slavery. Instead, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 really convinces a lot of people that slave power not only is real, but is dominant and rising in American political life.
S21: So switching gears back a little bit to the way that the trials went. So we talked a little bit about the Oberlin rescue that didn’t really result in sort of a lengthy trial. But there’s one other trial that Dr. LOBET told us about that sort of illustrated another principle, which is the idea that when it came to prosecuting people who were involved with rescues or escapes, there were a lot of instances in which the people who are prosecuted were the white assistants. And as to sort of illustrate that example, we talked about one of these trials that had at its center this incident that happened in the town of Cristiana, Pennsylvania, which is right across the Mason-Dixon Line from Maryland.
S16: And this happened in 1851. So for enslaved people had come over the state line, taken refuge with free, a black farmer who was sort of known as a defender of runaways. And they had been there, I believe, for a couple of years when the slave holder came across the Mason-Dixon line to capture them in this sort of dramatic story, sort of amazing story. The wife of the person who was harboring the runaways sounded a horn to try to call assistance to her farm when the slaveholder showed up with them, hired muscle to help him. And one of the people who came to the rescue was a white Meller named Castner Hanway, who is not necessarily an abolitionist, but he was a neighbor and had sort of a basic belief that that slaveholders should not be able to take back the enslaved people who were had been living on the neighboring farm and the slave holder was killed and a couple other people with him were wounded in the ensuing fracking’s. But the person who was most strenuously tried for this was Castner Hanway and White Miller, and he was actually tried for treason. And so we asked Professor LOBET why that was Hanway was the defendant.
S17: They tried first because the notion of black inferiority was so deeply ingrained that they could only assume that there had to be white people behind. Also, the whole theory of slavery rested on on the idea that that. Players were complacent and that they would only rebell if they were incited by outsiders. You know, this mythic notion, what was indisputable among Southerners and among many northerners. So of course, when the federal posse was repelled by armed black men and when the slave master was killed in Cristiana by people who were resisting recapture, it was reflexive that there had to be white people behind it. There weren’t. This was African-American resistance beginning to end. Frederick Douglass called it freedom’s battle, which indeed it was. But, you know, the slave owners couldn’t see it that way. They had to search for the white schemers that they assumed had to have been behind it, the outside agitators, outside agitators. So that’s why Hanway was the first person they chose to prosecute white. Why? Treason is a very complicated legal issue. There was a theory, a legal theory that didn’t originate in the slavery context, that the attempt to overthrow a particular law was what was called constructive treason. So the Constitution defines treason as either making war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies and war against the United States. It was once thought could mean violent resistance to the existence of a law.
S19: And that was the theory.
S17: Henry Clay actually was behind. This was the theory for bringing a treason prosecution against the resisters to this Fugitive Slave Act. He said Since you’re attempting to prevent the law from ever going into effect, that’s the equivalent of treason. And the courts rejected it and said, no, you have to prove more than that.
S9: So in the end, Kassner Ham, I was quite quickly found not guilty. And this trial with sort of a big turning point in people’s awareness of what the Fugitive Slave Act was going to mean for people who wanted to help fugitives.
S20: One question this raises and one question we asked Professor Roubaix was who exactly were these people defending fugitive slaves to begin with? It’s not doesn’t appear to be a politically easy task. It is a risky task. And it really is putting herself at the center of a massive political controversy at a time when these sorts of political questions weren’t so much determined through the courts.
S22: There was no method of fugitives obtaining lawyers unless these individuals came forward. And and often they did. There were lawyers who volunteered their services, who risked their careers in order to participate in defending either rescuers or fugitives or the fugitives themselves are very admirable people. And some of them quite famous. Thaddeus Stevens, for example, who is a member of Congress. And if you saw the film Lincoln, he was essential in the passage of the 13th Amendment.
S2: Yes. These are people who choose to become involved in these trials. Right.
S22: They they were they they chose to become involved. They inserted themselves. We sometimes think of civil disobedience or civil rights litigation as a modern phenomenon. But really, it existed in the 1850s.
S9: So one of the things that I found really interesting about Dr. Levey’s Fugitive Justice book is the way that it sort of makes the point that it’s not just that lawyers are having their ideas about law evolve because of the Fugitive Slave Act, but also that there’s sort of a new consciousness of what it means to be governed by a law among people in general who are interested in abolition when the Fugitive Slave bill was being debated in the Senate.
S17: William Seward had recently been elected to the Senate by the New York legislature. William Seward, of course, went on to become Lincoln’s secretary of state. And he gave a speech opposing the Fugitive Slave Act. Now, now, the proponents of the law said it was required by the Constitution, by Article 4 of the Constitution. And Seward said there’s a higher law than the constitution and that that was explosive when he said that would be today.
S18: Yeah. Yeah. Or maybe it would be today. Well, you can’t imagine somebody saying that in this on the floor of the Senate today. Right. Right. But so so it said there’s a higher law than the constitution.
S17: And that became a you know, a really, really symbolic statement. People who opposed the capture of fugitive slaves became known as higher law man or votaries of the higher law. And that argument was made mostly by ministers from the pulpit or at public meetings. And eventually it worked its way into the courts, but not until the end of the decade.
S20: One thing that’s worth emphasizing is that this really is a whole decade of activity from 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act to 1859, 1860, and during this decade we have bleeding Kansas. We have fighting in Missouri. We have constant cases of, you know, northern citizens kind of resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. We have just a rush of activity and growing tension into this is, you know, I’m sure most people listening to the podcast afraid of John Brown and John Brown pretty much comes out of all of this. Right, this escalating tension, this growing violence. This real sense that there is a confrontation happening and a violent one between the north and between the slave power.
S16: And so actually, Dr. Lee Bey has a new book coming out, right, as we record the podcast. It’s Coming Out, which is a biography of a figure, John Anthony Copeland, who was a free black man who went to Oberlin College and participated in the Oberlin rescue and ended up getting recruited along with some other black participants in the Oberlin rescue on by John Brown to be part of his read. And sadly, Anthony John Anthony Copeland ended up getting convicted of treason and was hanged on December 16th, 1859. But his life kind of makes the point that this is sort of evolving. Decade of conflict.
S17: The Fugitive Slave Resistance was inextricably linked to the John Browny invasion. And the John Brown invasion really made the tensions between north and south almost irrepressible. And none of that would have been possible if 21 men hadn’t joined John Brown. He could not have done it alone. He certainly couldn’t have done it if no African-Americans had been with him. Mean his whole plan was to create resistance among slaves and he depended upon having African-American soldiers with him to inspire that. Which is why I think the involvement of John Anthony Copeland was so important to the events at Harpers Ferry.
S20: In traditional narratives of how the civil war happened, we tend to pretty much just focus on whites on both sides of the conflict. Whether it’s abolitionists in the north and fire eaters put unquote in the south with a northern politician versus southern slave holders and southern politicians can the locus of action in the entire drama is among whites. But I think what Professor LOBET illustrates, what sort of all the interviews and conversation this episode of Illustrated is the extent to which driving this conflict and driving many of the forces that eventually led to the war were the actions of individual and slave people in their communities and people trying to escape to freedom, people trying to help others escape to freedom in how their actions met. Organization set up be irrepressible conflict that would eventually come in 1860 and arguably defined through the rest of the century and then really the rest of the United States.
S23: Yes. And that’s one of the major things that I learned from reading about John Parker. Also going back to her biography with which we started the episode is the amount of risk that he put himself in in order to help people who were in the position that he had been in until he was 18. It’s kind of amazing to think about, you know, the degree to which he stood to lose everything that he had gained. And it just goes to your point, which is that there are forces at work in the sexual conflict that were coming from the very people who were sort of most affected. And when we get to our ninth episode, which is our next episode, which will be about emancipation, we’ll see this dynamic again and we’ll see again the degree to which the people who were struggling to get free during the war were able to sort of fight for themselves in different ways.
S24: Yes. If so much of the history of American slavery before the war and emancipation is really the history and stories of individual lives, then I think the history of the Civil War in history of emancipation and history of reconstruction is again the history of these individual formerly enslaved people trying to make their lives whole.
S25: You’ll find that ninth episode in a couple of weeks time wherever you found this one. And in the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think about this episode. You can e-mail us at History Academy at Slate.com. You could also leave a comment on our Facebook page, which is available to me members. You can find that at Facebook.com Slash Groups Flashed History Academy.
S14: And finally, if you’re in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Or hey, why not? If you were anywhere and want to come to the greater Washington, D.C. area, you can come and join us later this month for a special series ending live event. We’ve got a terrific panel of guests, including LeVar Burton of Roots fame. And also for those of you for LaVar Burton, fans like myself, Star Trek The Next Generation. It’s happening on September 17th at George Washington University. And you can find out more about that. And if you’re a slate plus member, get discounted tickets at Slate.com Slash Academy. I’m Rebecca Onion. And I’m Jamelle Bouie. Thank you so much for listening.