"It Outlaws Me, and I Outlaw It!" Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in Syracuse, New York

Article excerpt

On May 26, 1851, Daniel Webster spoke from the balcony of Frazee Hall in Syracuse, New York. He had come to Syracuse, a city which had hosted a number of anti-slavery conventions, as part of an effort to promote obedience to the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The law had been passed in an effort to appease the Southern states after the admission of land gained from the Mexican War as free territory, and he feared disunion if it was not enforced in the North. The law, however, was repugnant to many Northerners not only because of its pro-slavery nature but also because it infringed on the individual rights of white citizens. According to the terms of the new fugitive slave law the federal government would have jurisdiction over slave cases, appointing special commissioners to issue warrants for the arrest and return of fugitives to their masters. It also imposed fines or jail sentences upon anyone who aided a fugitive or refused to obey the law. Syracuse was one of the first towns to organize in resistance to the law, and Webster hoped to send a message to the city in his speech:

      They say the law will not be executed. Let them take care, for
      those are pretty bold assertions. The law must be executed, not
      only in carrying back the slave, but against those guilty of
      treasonable practices in resisting its execution. Depend on it
      the law will be executed in its spirit, and to its letter. It
      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 ... (2)

A murmur of dissent rippled through the crowd as he spoke these words. (3) Within months the citizens of Syracuse would test Webster's prophecy.

THE LAW

Initial protest against the law in Syracuse arose out of the town's free black community. On September 23, only five days after the law's passage, a meeting was called at the African Congregational Church. The black population in Syracuse was small, an estimated 350 people out of a general population of 21,900, but was vigorous in their efforts to oppose the law.

At the September meeting, they organized against the legislation, electing a black vigilance committee, pledging support for their mutual protection, and adopting the motto "United we stand." (4) Unlike many black communities in the North, those attending the Syracuse meeting repudiated the idea of flight, making the arguments that they had committed no crime and so should not have to flee, that it was necessary to resist "tyrants", and that "liberty which is not worth defending here is not worth enjoying elsewhere." (5) Their actions did not escape the notice of the rest of the town's citizens. One of the town's major newspapers, The Syracuse Standard, reported that "the fugitive slave law is causing some excitement among the colored population here, who have organized and assembled and armed themselves to resist any attempts on their liberty." (6)

Howard Holman Bell's generalization that "the decade of the 'fifties was one in which the Negro sought in various ways to work out his own destiny" (7) is illustrated in the actions of the black community of Syracuse. As in other places throughout the North, they were willing to become "more radical, more self-contained, and more independent" with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. (8) Thus, its members did not rule out the use of violence in their resistance to the law. One of the resolutions of the September meeting stated that a man threatened with arrest under the act "is justifiable in resorting to any means, even if it be the taking of the life of him who seeks to deprive of us of what is dearer than life." Other resolutions pledged to "take the scalp of any government hound, that dares follow on our track", and should slave hunters approach their families to "slay them as we would any other legalized land pirates. …