Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview
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Chapter 28 THE CAPITAL OF THE NATION

What then of the District of Columbia, where the authority of the states did not extend, where men from all sections must meet in Congress to determine the policies of the nation, and where the most humble citizen must go to seek justice in the highest court in the land? There were slaves in the nation's capital city. They were bought and sold there and transported to and from and through the city both by their owners and in the commercial slave trade. There were pens, privately owned, in the District, for their detention. There were black laws, harsh and offensive to common decency, which set the free Negroes apart, and there was prejudice against them among the people as cruel as in the slave states, for the District lay between Maryland and Virginia, currently sources of supply for the lower South.1 The slave states insisted that Congress could not abolish, restrict, or otherwise interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of Maryland and Virginia. In fact, by 1836 they were claiming almost exclusive control of the District and denying the right of anyone in the nation to petition Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District.

On August 10, 1835, Reuben Crandall was arrested in the District of Columbia, thrown into jail, and kept there until April 15, 1836, despite all efforts to obtain his release. Francis Scott Key, United States attorney for the District of Columbia, author of the "Star Spangled Banner," and brother-in-law of Roger B. Taney, initiated proceedings against Crandall and conducted the prosecution.2 Crandall was the brother of Prudence Crandall. He had studied medicine with Dr. Harris who had refused to minister to Prudence after she admitted Negroes to her school. Crandall was a physician of excellent reputation. He had come to Washington to lecture on botany. Andrew T. Judson, who had led the prosecution and the persecution of Prudence, was now in Congress and testified in strong terms for Reuben. So, too, did the president of the Washington Medical College. Judson claimed that Reuben went from New York to Canterbury to put a stop to the educational activities of his sister. The biographer of Prudence indicates that he was sympathetic and helpful.3 It is of little consequence. He was not an active antislavery agent, perhaps not even a devotee of the cause. He did not go to Washington to distribute antislavery literature, and no evidence was presented that he had actively done so or that he had any contact with slaves or free Negroes or communications with antislavery men while in Washington. On the other hand, his relationship to Prudence, her relationship with William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, and the wide interest in her trial must have accounted for his having been kept under surveillance and the discovery that he had antislavery literature in his possession.

Crandall was charged, under the common law of libel, with having published papers calculated and intended to excite insurrection and rebellion, the charge being based upon the fact that he had the published pamphlets in his possession and, second, that he or someone else had written upon them the words "read and circulate." This indictment for a seditious libel at common law,

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Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America
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