Academic journal article International Social Science Review

"The Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel": Hoosier Responses to Fugitive Slave Cases, 1850-1860

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

"The Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel": Hoosier Responses to Fugitive Slave Cases, 1850-1860

Article excerpt

On September 18, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed what one historian labeled "the most hateful statute since the Alien and Sedition Acts," the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (1) Part of the Compromise of 1850, this law placed federal commissioners in each county in the nation and gave them broad powers--to issue arrest warrants, form posses, and even determine the status of alleged fugitives. It denied legal rights to accused runaways and offered financial incentives to commissioners to return slaves to their masters. Since the law provided no statute of limitations, self-proclaimed slaveholders and their hired agents could enter a community, arrest any African-American, claim that person as a slave, have the claim certified by a U.S. commissioner, and then depart with their property. (2) "What a mockery of justice! Of common sense! Of law!" the anti-slavery Richmond Palladium (Indiana) exclaimed. "Why not issue a license to kidnappers, authorizing them to enter any of the free states and take into slavery any man with colored skin!" (3)

Northern defiance--and support--of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is well known. In Boston, abolitionists and free blacks formed legal and vigilance committees to aid runaways. Even before the law had passed Congress, nine states, all northern, had enacted "personal liberty laws" to guarantee some legal rights to assist accused fugitive slaves. When legal action failed, opponents of slavery sometimes used force to free them. (4) In October 1850, speaking in Boston, the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass vowed that former slaves, such as himself, "without the slightest hope of making successful resistance, are resolved rather to die than to go back." (5) Douglass' rebellious words implied an important reality, namely, the chief enemies of the act, white abolitionists and free blacks, represented a small and somewhat embattled fraction of the Northern population. In 1851, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, who had helped to fashion the Compromise of 1850, reported that the fugitive slave law was being enforced in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Only in Boston, he asserted, was there opposition. (6)

Within Indiana, historians have examined individual fugitive slave cases, but there have been fewer attempts to analyze them collectively to discern larger patterns. (7) In order to gauge Hoosier responses, this study considers fugitive cases in Indianapolis, Vincennes, Terre Haute, New Albany, and Vernon. These communities were selected on the basis of location, circumstances surrounding the cases, and availability of primary source material.

A number of trends in Indiana stand out. Real fugitive slaves received little sympathy, but communities resisted attempts to kidnap into slavery people who were known to be free. When a longtime resident or a white person faced prosecution, citizens used legal means to defend them. In most cases, judges refused to release suspected runaways, and citizens respected their decisions. Finally, Hoosiers seldom resorted to extra-legal means to release alleged fugitives.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: Sources of Support, Pockets of Resistance

Before examining specific cases, Hoosier assumptions about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 require explanation. Support for the Union, racism, and property rights moved most state residents to respect the law. The presence of Southern emigrants in the lower part of Indiana provided a social anchor for such sentiments. At the same time, the state's small African-American and Quaker populations used clandestine, sometimes illegal, means to resist the "slave catchers."

Many Indianans accepted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 out of support for the Federal Union. The law, a concession to Southern slaveholders, sought to head off the secession of the slave states. "Union" and "compromise" were familiar and respected concepts to Hoosiers. In 1850 Democratic Governor Joseph A. …

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