Documenting the American South: Thomas H. Jones and the Fugitive Slave Law

By Bolick, Cheryl Mason | Social Education, April 2002 | Go to article overview
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Documenting the American South: Thomas H. Jones and the Fugitive Slave Law

Bolick, Cheryl Mason, Social Education

To the Friends of the hunted American Slave in England:

BOSTON, MARCH 29, 1851.

In consequence of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, at the last session of Congress, a general flight from the country of all fugitive slaves in the Northern States has become necessary as a matter of personal safety. Among the number thus compelled to leave is the bearer of this, Thomas H. Jones, a Wesleyan preacher, and pastor of a colored church in the neighboring city of Salem, who carries with him a narrative of his life for sale. My personal acquaintance with him is limited; but those among my friends who know him intimately speak of him as a most worthy man, and one peculiarly entitled to the sympathy and aid of those who love God and regard man. Though he is a man, "created a little lower than the angels"--exemplary in life--a servant and minister of Jesus Christ--in all the United States there is not a spot on which he can stand in safety from pursuing bloodhounds, and must flee to England to prevent being again reduced to the condition of a beast! May the God of the oppressed raise him up many friends abroad!


So writes William Lloyd Garrison to the abolitionists in England. This letter is one example of the digitized primary sources available through the website Documenting the American South (docsouth. Documenting the American South is an online archive of more than 1,000 documents from the colonial period through the twentieth century that tell the story of Southern culture and history through digitized literature and manuscripts. The archive is organized into five main projects: First-Person Narratives of the American South; Library of Southern Literature; North American Slave Narratives; the Southern Homefront, 1861-1865; and the Church in the Southern Black Community.

Online archives, such as Documenting the American South, provide teachers and students the opportunity to "do history" much as scholarly historians have done for years. Traditionally, conducting scholarly research was reserved for professional historians who had the time and resources to travel. For example, in 300 B.C., ancient Greek historians had to travel to Alexandria to conduct research with a collection of 700,000 manuscripts. Until recently, U.S. historians were forced to travel distances to libraries, such as the National Archives and Records Administration or the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Today, historians still must travel to conduct much of their scholarly research; however, bemuse a large number of primary sources are available on the Internet, teachers and students can now gain access to these resources from their own classrooms.

"Doing history" requires teachers to adapt traditional pedagogy and employ new methods that go beyond basic lecture, memorization, and note-taking tasks--the foundation of traditional classrooms. A survey of eleventh-grade U.S. history textbooks reveals that the Fugitive Slave Law, for example, is explained in an average of two pages. And in those books that do contain information about the law, that information is basic and factual, usually describing the background and purpose of the Fugitive Slave Law, as in the following example:

   It deprived suspected runaway slaves of virtually every right normally 
   granted in law. By merely submitting an affidavit to a federal 
   commissioner, a person could claim ownership of an avowed black runaway. 
   The commissioner might, on investigation, reject the affidavit, but if he 
   did, he received a fee of only $5; if he ordered the suspect's return, he 
   pocketed $10. (1) 

Students may learn the main points of the Fugitive Slave Law, but they do not begin to understand the far-reaching impact of this legislation. At this point, teachers who want to provide more information about the law can turn to the Documenting the American South collection.

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Documenting the American South: Thomas H. Jones and the Fugitive Slave Law


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