Why Jim Does Not Escape to Illinois in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Tackach, James, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Among critical readers of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim's decision not to escape from slavery by merely crossing the Mississippi River to the Illinois shore still provokes active discussion. The original Illinois constitution significantly restricted slavery and when Jim escapes from Miss Watson in the early chapters of Twain's novel and hides on Jackson's Island, he is only a short distance from Illinois and freedom.1 So why does he not simply swim to freedom in Illinois, rather than plan with Huck a risky journey downriver on the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, and then up the Ohio River toward the free states of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania? Writing in 1942, Bernard DeVoto accused Twain of "a lordly disregard of the fact that Jim did not need to get to Cairo or the Ohio River, that he could have reached free soil by simply paddling to the Illinois shore from Jackson's Island."2 A half-century later, Julius Lester, who finds fault with Twain's characterization of Jim, registered a complaint similar to DeVoto's criticism: "It defies logic that Jim did not know Illinois was a free state.... If Jim knew that the Ohio met the Mississippi at Cairo, how could he not have known of the closer proximity of freedom to the east in Illinois?"3
Several critics have tried to explain Jim's decision by noting that even if Jim had reached Illinois, he would not be a free man because he would still be subject to fugitive slave laws in force in that free state and to chase by bounty-hunting slave-catchers on the Illinois shore.4 Thomas Cooley, in a footnote in Chapter 8 of the third edition of the Norton Critical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, provides the most detailed explanation of Jim's reason for not heading to Illinois. Cooley reasonably suggests that Ohio might be Jim's and Huck's destination because of the success of the Underground Railroad there:
Huck earlier locates Jackson's Island only a quarter of a mile from the Illinois shore. What is to prevent Jim from crossing that short space to free soil? Illinois, and especially southern Illinois, where kidnapping and slave-catching were a thriving business, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793; thus Jim, without freedom papers, would be subject to arrest and indentured labor until claimed by his "owner." By going downriver to Cairo and then northeast up the Ohio, Jim might also have been safer because Ohio had a far more extensive Underground Railroad than any other state.5
Nick Karanovich notes that at the time of the publication of Huckleberry Finn Twain had in his library a copy of William Still's The Underground Railroad, published in 1883. Karanovich records a handwritten comment about an escaped slave made by Twain in Still's book and concludes that Twain's inscription "shows that he was well aware that a fugitive slave did not become free on entering a free state, and of course Jim could not win freedom simply by crossing the river to Illinois."6
Indeed, as Cooley and Karanovich suggest, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 explicitly states that a "person held to labor" who escapes and flees to another state may be apprehended by the authorities in the state to which he or she has fled, brought into court, and, if satisfactory evidence were presented to the judge or magistrate, returned to his or her owner. The law also mandates that any person "who shall harbor or conceal" a runaway slave "after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor" shall "forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars."7 So if slave-catchers in Illinois apprehended Jim and Huck, Jim undoubtedly would have been returned to Miss Watson, and Huck might have been subject to arrest and fine for harboring and concealing a fugitive slave.
Cooley and Karanovich provide a reasonable answer to Lester's question about Jim's decision not to seek safety in Illinois: there was no certain safety for Jim in Illinois where slave-catchers could return him to Miss Watson, who, in turn, would surely sell her rebellious slave downriver and separate him from his family forever. …