"It Outlaws Me, and I Outlaw It!" Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in Syracuse, New York
Murphy, Angela, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
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.
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." (9)
Although the black community of Syracuse was clearly ready to stand alone, Thomas G. White, a member of the vigilance committee formed at the September meeting, recognized potential support from the community at large. Syracuse, after all, was a town with an active anti-slavery element, and he hoped to tap into this to involve the entire town in the protest of the law and call for protection. (10) With the aid of men at the Liberty Party Paper, White issued a circular inviting the town to a candle lighting ceremony in protest of the law. He enlisted white and black antislavery leaders in the town to help him publicize the meeting, to be held on October 4. (11) Syracuse became one of the first localities to call a town-wide meeting to repudiate the law.
The October meeting brought diverse elements of the community together to protest the Fugitive Slave Law. The mayor of the city, A.H. Hovey presided over the meeting and eight vice presidents, all highly respected men, were selected from among the town's various political parties. According to Samuel May, a prominent anti-slavery agitator from Syracuse, only one of these vice presidents had been active in the cause of abolition. (12) Many men who previously had been outspoken opponents of the antislavery movement were in attendance at the meeting as well. (13) The law seemed to present a bigger threat to stability for many of these men than the abolitionists did. (14)
In addition to attracting men who had previously not been involved in abolition, the meeting brought together different elements within the anti-slavery movement. Some were representatives of the black community who were directly threatened by the law, and others were representatives of the white community who were concerned about the government overstepping the bounds of its authority. Some were in favor of violent resistance, and others advocated more peaceful means. Some were members of the Liberty Party, and others were Garrisonians. The rhetoric of the meeting illustrates the views of the various factions.
The mayor, although emphatically anti-slavery, represented a conservative element. He opened the meeting declaring that "the Colored Man must be protected--he must be secure among us, come what will of political organizations," (15) but he also emphasized that it was his duty as an officer of the law and as a citizen to obey the laws of the land, and he expressed a hope that he would be able to do so. (16)
Others also emphasized the law of the land as their chief concern, although they encouraged resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law because they believed that it was not constitutional. Charles Wheaton, who was a Liberty Party man, told the members of the convention, "Your proud state is to be made the hunting ground for the dealers in human flesh." He called for the state of New York to unite against the law, attacking the constitutionality of the law's provisions, specifically concerning the denial of trial by jury. (17) Charles Sedgewick, who had helped to organize the new Free Soil party in Syracuse, addressed the crowd on the unconstitutional nature of the law as well, calling for defiance of what he termed "the vilest law that tyranny ever devised." (18) He claimed that "good citizens were under no obligation to sustain it ... and should anyone fleeing from bondage seek an asylum at his house, let no 'agent or attorney' of any pretended owner spirit him away." (19) Reverend Robert R. Raymond, one of the town's ministers, echoed this pledge, inviting any "persons fleeing from oppression" to his house, as it was his duty as a minister of God to "oppose this most unrighteous law." (20)
Two of the most radical speakers were the leading black abolitionist leaders from Syracuse, Jermain Loguen and Samuel Ringgold Ward, who made it clear that the black community was prepared to resist the law at all costs, even should they have to resort to violence. (21) Loguen spoke in persuasive tones, "It outlaws me, and I outlaw it!" (22) He called on the citizens of Syracuse to consider what actions they would take if he, as a fugitive slave, were arrested under the act,
The question is with you. If you will give us up, say so, and we will shake the dust from our feet and leave you. But we believe better things ... If you will stand by me--and I believe you will do it, for your freedom and honor are involved as well as mine-- it requires no microscope to see that--I say if you will stand with us in resistance to this measure, you will be the saviors of your country.... Heaven knows that this act of noble daring will break out somewhere--and may God grant that Syracuse be the honored spot, whence it shall send an earthquake throughout the land. (23)
Thirteen resolutions were generated at this meeting in protest of the law. In keeping with several of the speeches, the resolutions portrayed the act as an assault on the Constitution: due process, habeas corpus, and legal council were all denied to the fugitive. It was therefore not only the right but also the duty of citizens to resist the law. The convention declared the Fugitive Slave Law to be "null and void", and asserted that agitation against its enforcement was …
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Publication information: Article title: "It Outlaws Me, and I Outlaw It!" Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in Syracuse, New York. Contributors: Murphy, Angela - Author. Journal title: Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. Volume: 28. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2004. Page number: 43+. © 2007 Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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