On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870

Synopsis

In On the Edge of Freedom, David G. Smith breaks new ground by illuminating the unique development of antislavery sentiment in south central Pennsylvania a border region of a border state with a complicated history of slavery, antislavery activism, and unequal freedom. During the antebellum decades every single fugitive slave escaping by land east of the Appalachian Mountains had to pass through the region, where they faced both significant opportunities and substantial risks. While the hundreds of fugitives travelling through south central Pennsylvania (defined as Adams, Franklin, and Cumberland counties) during this period were aided by an effective Underground Railroad, they also faced slave catchers and informers. "Underground" work such as helping fugitive slaves appealed to border antislavery activists who shied away from agitating for immediate abolition in a region with social, economic, and kinship ties to the South. And, as early antislavery protests met fierce resistance, area activists adopted a less confrontational approach, employing the more traditional political tools of the petition and legal action. Smith traces the victories of antislavery activists in south central Pennsylvania, including the achievement of a strong personal liberty law and the aggressive prosecution of kidnappers who seized innocent African Americans as fugitives. He also documents how their success provoked Southern retaliation and the passage of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The Civil War then intensified the debate over fugitive slaves, as hundreds of escaping slaves, called "contrabands" sought safety in the area, and scores were recaptured by the Confederate army during the Gettysburg campaign. On the Edge of Freedom explores in captivating detail the fugitive slave issue through fifty years of sectional conflict, war, and reconstruction in south central Pennsylvania and provocatively questions what was gained by the activists' pragmatic approach of emphasizing fugitive slaves over immediate abolition and full equality. Smith argues that after the war, social and demographic changes in southern Pennsylvania worked against African Americans achieving equal opportunity, and although local literature portrayed this area as a vanguard of the Underground Railroad, African Americans still lived "on the edge of freedom." By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was rallying near the Gettysburg battlefield, and south central Pennsylvania became, in some ways, as segregated as the Jim Crow South. The fugitive slave issue, by reinforcing images of dependency, may have actually worked against the achievement of lasting social change.

Excerpt

In between the Black Belt South and the Yankee Upper North lies a lush middle ground, less explored by historians, particularly on the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. There, residents had views that often diverged from the views of inhabitants of both of those better-studied regions. A great historian once aptly captured this in twentieth-century terms: C. Vann Woodward, writing to Robert Penn Warren after reviewing the manuscript of his brilliant, cantankerous Life magazine article on the centennial of the Civil War, wondered if Penn Warren’s “a-pox-on-both-your-houses” critique of North and South had not been influenced by his border state, Kentucky heritage. Woodward described Kentucky as an “Alsace-Lorraine of pragmatism” between the die-hard crusaders of the antebellum crises. Similarly, the focus of this study, south central Pennsylvania—here defined as the counties of Adams, Cumberland, and Franklin—was part of the North’s metaphorical Alsace-Lorraine. It was fought over, disputed, and changed hands in a both a physical and philosophical sense. This region was part of a vital borderland where pre-war conflicts over issues such as slavery and fugitive slaves were contested in the legislatures, in the courts, in town hall meetings, and in the backwoods, back roads, and back rooms. Pennsylvania’s antislavery activists were often radical in their goals but practical in their approach. The results of that contest—before, during, and after the war—continue to shape our nation’s legacy of race and slavery.

Studying the impact of fugitive slaves and the fugitive slave issue in a particular border region of the antebellum North illuminates the processes at work in rural antislavery and antebellum grassroots mentalité and politics. The transition that saw this area move from permitting slaveholding to prohibiting it, and then having many of its residents oppose slavery elsewhere (the South or West), was fraught with difficulties and danger in this border region. This study examines key parts of this process in southern Pennsylvania through the lens of the fugitive slave issue, which also illustrates the development of pragmatic tactics for radical antislavery along the Mason-Dixon Line.

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