Antislavery Politics and the Pearl Incident of 1848

By Rohrs, Richard C. | The Historian, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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Antislavery Politics and the Pearl Incident of 1848

Rohrs, Richard C., The Historian

As the debate over slavery intensified in the United States before the Civil War, antislavery agitators exploited events to increase public indignation against slavery and the "Slave Power." The Daily Union of Washington, D.C., labeled two such agitators, Senator John Hale of New Hampshire and Representative Joshua Giddings of Ohio, "abolitionist incendiaries." But these men were not abolitionists; instead, they advocated the disassociation of the federal government from the institution of slavery by ending slavery and the slave trade in the nation's capital, denying slavery's expansion into the territories, and terminating the interstate slave trade. These objectives could be achieved only after the Slave Power's domination of the federal government had ended.(1)

Antislavery proponents became more numerous during and after the Mexican War, as opposition to the extension of slavery grew in the North. Although a politically diverse group, they shared a hatred of slavery and a desire to prevent its expansion. Their agitation was designed to keep the problems of slavery and the Slave Power before the public. The antislavery activists' response to the attempted escape of more than six dozen slaves from the nation's capital in April 1848 provides a unique insight into their aims and tactics. In the wake of the incident, they coordinated their response in such a way as to denounce both the "slaveocracy" and the federal government's continued support of slavery.

On the night of 15 April 1848, seventy-six fugitive slaves and three white crewmen slipped out of Washington, D.C., and sailed down the Potomac River aboard the schooner Pearl. The night was calm, and only the current propelled the ship downstream. After traveling about half a mile, the Pearl met the incoming tide and anchored. Near dawn a breeze rose from the north, and the ship and her cargo once again proceeded toward freedom. At the mouth of the river, the ship encountered strong northerly winds that prevented it from sailing up the Chesapeake Bay, and again it anchored.(2)

Around noon on the following day, the steamboat Salem, loaded with about three dozen armed men, left Washington in pursuit. Fourteen hours later, as the passengers and crew on board the Pearl slept, engine noise and footsteps on the deck awakened the expedition's leader, Daniel Drayton. As they had no weapons, he advised the crew and passengers not to resist. Drayton, Edward Sayres (the Pearl's owner), and Chester English (his helper) were then moved to the Salem for questioning, and the steamer towed the Pearl back to Washington.(3)

The antislavery coalition began to plan its response as soon as it learned of the attempted escape of the Pearl. Besides Giddings and Hale, the most vocal antislavery man in Congress during the spring of 1848 was Whig representative John Palfrey of Massachusetts. Giddings had long been an outspoken critic of slavery. Born in Pennsylvania and trained as a lawyer, he served in the Ohio House of Representatives before being elected to Congress in 1838. Neither Hale nor Palfrey was as experienced as Giddings in congressional affairs. Although both had been state legislators, in 1848 they were serving their first terms in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, respectively. Hale had earlier been a United States attorney and served one term in the House, while Palfrey had been a minister and editor of the North American Review.(4)

These men had considerable support from other members of Congress and men outside the federal government. Horace Mann, a Whig elected to replace John Quincy Adams after his death, was also associated with them. Others included Liberty party supporters such as Gamaliel Bailey, the editor of the National Era - a Washington-based antislavery newspaper - Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Samuel Sewell of Massachusetts. Conscience Whigs from Massachusetts such as Charles Francis Adams, Dr. Samuel Howe, and Charles Sumner were also active participants.

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