Central and Western New York and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

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Central and Western New York and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

Many historians have written of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the North's blatant noncompliance with the new law, yet virtually none of the standard works of the era have attempted to explain why the South demanded a new law.(2) Others have tried to explain the Southern desire for the law but have not offered specific evidence of what events led to the Southern outcry.(3) This article will show that although the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was already in effect, the Southern planter class demanded a tougher law in 1850 because of the ineffectiveness of the present law as demonstrated by the actions of western and central New Yorkers.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 provided for the recapture and return to slavery of any fugitive slaves. Under the law the slave owner had only to apply to a district or circuit judge for a certificate so that he could escort his slave back to the South. The law provided only for enforcement by state officials and the matter could not be brought up before the federal authorities. The fact that the law relied upon state officials for enforcement left the act ineffective in many places in the North, and this was especially true in central and western New York.(4)

Central and western New York were leading abolitionist centers in the 1840s. The Underground Railroad ran through the area, many antislavery conventions, such as the National Convention of Colored People and the Convention of Fugitive Slaves, were held there, and Frederick Douglass' North Star, published in Rochester, brought news of the abolitionist crusade to the region as well as to the world. The actions of abolitionists in western and central New York were in part responsible for the Southern demand for a tougher fugitive slave law.

A primary example of abolitionist actions was the fleeing of fugitive slaves who had been captured or kidnaped freepersons being sent back into slavery. One such stow appeared in the October 1, 1847, edition of the Buffalo Morning Express. The article, entitled "Attempt to Arrest a Fugitive Slave," described the attempt by agent Robert Perry and another white man to return a young black, Christopher Webb, to slavery in Covington, Kentucky. Webb, a waiter at a Buffalo establishment called the Gothic Hall Saloon, was apprehended after Perry claimed that he was a runaway. One of the slave catchers drew his pistol and warned the crowd that had formed that he would shoot the first person who interfered. The catcher then dragged Webb down the stairs to a local law office. A crowd quickly gathered outside of the office in such large numbers that Webb was not only freed but Perry and the other man were arrested under civil prosecution for assault and battery and false imprisonment. While the arrest papers were being processed the two men escaped in a carriage and were quickly pursued on horseback by the Deputy Sheriff and several blacks. Though this article may have been an exaggeration, it demonstrates the strong anti-slavery sentiment of the Buffalo area citizens and the ineffectiveness of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.(5)

Another example of abolitionist crowd activity was that of the trial and escape of two fugitives. In 1840, two slave catchers brought a pair of African-American men before a Judge Hayden of the Common Pleas in Utica. The white men, both Virginians, claimed that the black men were fugitive slaves. The fugitives were delivered to the claimant by the judge and imprisoned in a locked, barred and guarded room. A group of black men from Utica broke into the prison, clubbed the captors, and freed the two African-Americans. The group then locked the captors in the cell. The runaways were never recaptured and the rescuers were not pursued.(6)

These two cases of alleged slaves escaping from slave catchers were examples of abolitionist and fugitive slave activities that enraged the South. From their perspective they had good cause to be outraged. …