Historians Against Slavery is delighted to present this roundtable on Richard Blackett’s magisterial new work The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. Blackett’s work is the latest entry in the Slaveries Since Emancipation Series made possible by the partnership between Historians Against Slavery, the Gilder Lehrman Center, the Wilberforce Institute, and Cambridge University Press.
- Editor Hannah-Rose Murray (University of Nottingham)
- Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie (Howard University)
- Simon Newman (University of Glasgow)
- H. Robert Baker (Georgia State University)
- Martha S. Jones (John Hopkins University)
- Elizabeth R. Varon (University of Virginia).
- Response from: Richard Blackett (Vanderbilt University)
Editor: Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray, University of Nottingham
In his magisterial new volume, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, Richard Blackett argues that “if it is true that laws can only gain their legitimacy by being assented to by all they wished to bind, then the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was doomed to failure from its very inception.” Blackett’s cutting-edge research has given us, for the first time, a comprehensive look at fugitive voices from national and provincial newspapers, and analyses the impact of formerly enslaved individuals who constantly challenged the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press, the volume reveals the extraordinary escapes by fugitive slaves, how northern communities (particularly black citizens) reacted to such escapes and the response by law enforcement to apprehend them. Interspersed through Blackett’s excellent archival research are stories from free black communities, local governments, small towns to large cities, and to Congress itself. A recurrent theme throughout all of Blackett’s trailblazing work, such dramatic flights from slavery and attempts by the local community to subversively challenge the Law made headline news, and as Blackett informs us, contributed to the coming of the Civil War.
Professor Blackett’s ground-breaking contributions to scholarship have shaped the fields of slavery, abolition, transatlantic studies, the black diaspora, the Black Atlantic, African studies, c19th studies, American colonization, and the Civil War, to name a few. His research also has wide-ranging impact within visual culture, material and print cultures, intellectual history, politics, history, sociology and literary studies. His books have transformed the transatlantic literary landscape, particularly Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement 1830-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History (Louisiana State University Press, 1986); Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent (Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Divided Hearts: Britain and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), and Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). His research has also been instrumental for my own work on African American transatlantic abolitionism: his extensive and remarkably detailed canvassing of Victorian newspapers in Building an Antislavery Wall in particular provide essential groundwork for scholars such as myself, who unlike Blackett, now have the benefit of digital technology at our fingertips.
In this first HAS roundtable, five eminent scholars from both sides of the Atlantic have read and reviewed Blackett’s volume: Professor Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie (Howard University); Professor Simon Newman (University of Glasgow); Professor Martha Jones (John Hopkins); Associate Professor H. Robert Baker (Georgia State) and Professor Elizabeth R. Varon (University of Virginia). In response, Professor Blackett has addressed some of the key points, themes, and criticisms within these contributions in his own post, which will follow at the end.
All contributors point to Blackett’s extraordinary detail and his fine-combing of local newspapers to understand the Law’s impact on a national and provincial scale. The reviewers also highlight how not only is it the first volume to comprehensively examine the Law and its consequences, but also how numerous formerly enslaved individuals and local black communities are recovered from obscurity.
Professor Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie opens his piece with an excellent overview of the FSL, and commends Blackett’s volume for its wide-ranging detail and cross-border analysis. The book reveals the “unintended consequence of a law that was implemented and protested, with national reverberations” and highlights the rise of abolitionist and vigilante societies that protested the Law at all costs. Kerr-Ritchie points to the fascinating language used to describe fugitives in the provincial press, and for the first time, how scholars can understand the breadth of fugitive cases, supported by the reaction from reinvigorated federal commissioners and the eventual outcome. Kerr-Ritchie also refers to the extraordinary African American women who challenged the law, from those who joined communities in protest or physically threatened violence against slave-catchers. As he correctly points out, discussion of the FSL has distinct echoes to the present with the ongoing detention and separation of families at the national border. (read Kerr-Ritchie)
Professor Simon Newman begins by reaffirming Blackett’s central argument that formerly enslaved individuals were “significant actors on the antebellum American political scene.” Those who attempted to or eventually escaped were political actors that shaped the enforcement and response to the Law in the north, and were self-reflexive agents in their challenges to slavery, the Law, and white supremacy. Newman praises Blackett’s comprehensive and detailed comparison of local, regional and national events, while at the same time proving beyond doubt that these escapes undermined the ‘peculiar institution.’ Although, as Newman highlights, the question must be raised as to how many fugitives attempted to escape, Blackett demonstrates more than any other scholar the “political import of the lives and actions of the enslaved who resisted their bondage.” (read Newman)
Associate Professor H. Robert Baker focuses on the constitutional side of the FSL, and highlights how black communities in particular were essential in coming together and challenging local commissioners, judges and law enforcement. More clearly than any other volume, Blackett illustrates how the Law was a pillar in the white supremacist arsenal and “served as a shield for kidnappers.” However, constant pressure by local communities forced commissioners to provide some form of due process to fugitives and free blacks, and as a result they were “players in a constitutional drama.” (read Baker)
Professor Martha S. Jones sees comparisons with her own research, particularly how free African Americans travelled between free, slave and the border states in particular. Blackett’s work reveals the hazardous conditions in states such as Maryland and Delaware, in a time in which, as Jones succinctly reminds us, the Fugitive Slave Law “aimed to fix the condition and the place of black Americans – as persons without mobility and without rights.” (read Jones)
Lastly, and very fittingly, Professor Elizabeth R. Varon praises Blackett’s work for being an important stepping stone for future research. In response to his unprecedented and detailed study of national and particularly local newspapers, Varon is curious to know more about the local press and the editors: which newspapers supported or criticized the law or the antislavery movement? How did they influence local or even national opinion? Varon also posits about the definition of abolitionism itself: if fugitives, free blacks and their white allies were constantly resisting the Law, then perhaps we must rethink our understanding of the political dimensions of abolition. (read Varon)
Thus, one of the strengths of Blackett’s work – and in particular this volume – is a heavy emphasis on the voices of the enslaved. Scholars who focus on marginalized figures, deliberately obscured by white supremacy, face many problems: how to relate, tell or uplift these voices when most of them left few records behind. Britt Rusert has argued in relation to transatlantic slavery specifically that “mapping and data visualization projects help users envision hidden regimes of violence and power, as well as obscured patterns of movement, migration, and escape in slavery and postslavery contexts.” The “archive of slavery” is often defined by “loss, fragmentation, transience, and perhaps, above all else, a profound, irreparable violence.” (read Blackett)
In order to do try and repair some of these ruptures, scholars of slavery and abolition should follow Blackett’s impressive example: to search for as many references as possible to formerly enslaved individuals and their enduring legacy of activism on American and transatlantic soil. We must reexamine and interrogate newspapers in particular, for the local press offers a wealth of material highlighting the ways in which formerly enslaved individuals exploited the means at their disposal to escape. Often, the reports Blackett has found have ended in failure, but this gives us fresh insight into how men and women attempted to achieve their freedom at any cost. By uncovering formerly enslaved individuals and their challenges to slavery and white supremacy, it is possible to partially heal some of these archival ruptures. Recovering their testimony remains an ever-consuming and significant goal, not only to understand the extent of white supremacy and slavery’s oppressive roots (and routes), but also that each individual adopted different and radical resistance strategies to survive.
- Richard Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement 1830-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1983)
- Richard Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
- Britt Rusert, “New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery,” American Literary History, 29:2, (Summer 2017), 268-272.
- The Age of Jackson podcast, Episode 27, 22 June https://theageofjacksonpodcast.com/2018/06/22/episode-27-fugitive-slaves-and-the-politics-of-slavery-with-richard-j-m-blackett/
J. R. Kerr-Ritchie, Howard University
In September 1850, the US Congress adopted five bills known collectively as the Compromise of 1850 engineered by Kentucky senator Henry Clay. One of them, the Fugitive Slave Act, sought to bolster the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act that left litigation of escapees to local and state authorities. By the 1840s, the number of escaped slaves aided by the Underground Railroad and northern and western states’ opposition rendered the 1793 law obsolete. Consisting of ten sections, the 1850 law demanded implementation by marshals and support from “all good citizens.” Failure to do so would result in a $1000 fine for officers as well as citizens. Its greatest innovation was the establishment of federal commissioners who had hitherto served in minor legal capacities. They were to conduct hearings, provide the final decision, and empowered to call posse comitatus whenever necessary. These commissioners based in counties, towns, and cities, had the powers of Justices of the Peace and magistrates, and enjoyed “concurrent jurisdiction” with federal Circuit and District Court judges. They were to be compensated $10 for successful rendition and $5 otherwise.
Passed as a political compromise between slave and free states, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (FSL hereafter) ended up sowing even greater division. It empowered southern slaveholders to draw on federal officials and monies to claim fugitive slaves resident in free states. It engendered armed resistance by fugitives and members of black communities who refused to return fugitives. It encouraged interracial solidarity with white allies in the courtroom and on the streets. It mobilized abolitionists seeking the destruction of US slavery as well as antislavery activists who wanted to prevent the expansion of slave states and their political power. It spawned the profit-seeking proclivities of criminal gangs like the Gap Gang, Thomas McCreary, and George F. Alberti on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border who kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery. It forced the state and federal governments to take extraordinary measures to enforce the FSL, including the expenditure of $20,000 to return Thomas Sims, and 1,500 armed men to escort Anthony Burns to the ship Morris and back into Virginia slavery. In short, the FSL “nationalized the recapture of fugitive slaves” (xii). In the process, it expanded rather than reduced the gap between those committed to the sanctity of slave property in free states and those who insisted on legitimate resistance to an unjust and unconstitutional act.
Historians have provided various interpretations of the FSL and its consequences over the years. Traditional political histories usually refer to it as part of the 1850 Compromise. More recent work has illustrated its divisive impact through book-length studies of fugitive cause celebres like Jerry Henry, the Christiana defense, William and Ellen Craft, Shadrach Minkins, Jane Johnson, and so forth. Perhaps the closest parallel to what The Captive’s Quest seeks to do is Stanley Campbell’s 1968 study, although it underestimates the number of fugitive cases and focuses on renditions rather than the greater number of successful escapes.
The topic of this tome is succinctly stated in the second sentence. The Captive’s Quest analyzes the “many ways the enslaved, by fleeing their enslavement, raised questions both about the law’s legitimacy and the economic and political system it was meant to protect” (xi). Thousands of fugitives sought free soil and the rights to liberty in northern and western states. They often left in families or as groups and their quest – whether successful or not – had unintended consequences. Black communities rallied behind them and defied legal and physical attempts at rendition. Abolitionists, antislavery adherents, lawyers working pro-bono, and citizens opposed to federal incursions into state and local affairs aided this resistance. Federal commissioners Richard McAllister in Harrisburg, Edward D. Ingraham in Philadelphia, and Edward G. Loring in Boston succeeded in returning fugitives, but also ended up galvanizing a united front against the FSL. In other words, a federal law that did not have the acquiescence of many in northern and western communities met with mixed success. Most important, Professor Blackett’s fugitives drove this contradictory historical process in ways reminiscent of C. L. R. James’ rebel slaves in Santo Domingo, Edward Thompson’s rural plebians and urban artisans in eighteenth-century England, and Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker’s transatlantic revolutionary hydra.
The book is divided into two parts. The first section containing three chapters describes the passage of the FSL, its impact between late 1850 and 1851, and links between the law and the American colonization movement. This section is clear but not revelatory, although the third chapter on links between the FSL and colonization does an excellent job of illuminating that powerful constituency for whom America was for whites only. It also makes the persuasive point that colonization was not popular with native blacks. Between 1831 and 1851, Maryland spent $298,000 on colonization work, yet only 1,001 free blacks migrated to Liberia (326). This was out of a free black population of 62,678 in 1840.
It is the second section that is the real mover and shaker. Its central organizing principle is “coupling” slave with free states starting in the west with Missouri/Illinois and ending with the Eastern Shore of Maryland/Philadelphia. Each chapter begins with a fugitive escape, litigation and protest, and the outcome. Most important, it seeks to explore the wider national significance of the case for a house divided. The result is a fascinating “geopolitical map” (xiii) of state borders, intra-state lines, and national borders drawn by fugitive slave cases beginning in the immediate aftermath of the FSL and throughout the 1850s. This cross-border analysis throws up some interesting findings. The abolitionist journal Voice of the Fugitive based in Chatham, Canada West, reported on fugitive escapes from Kentucky. Sheriff notices of escapees from the Chesapeake region were placed in Hagerstown and Frederick newspapers. Blacks in Bridgetown, Barbados vowed to provide financial support to fugitive slaves seeking to evade the FSL. Professor Blackett counts 168 opposition meetings in the aftermath of the FSL’s passage. But there were also twenty-one meetings in support of the new law due to commercial and political links between the northern and southern states.
The book’s conclusions are lucid. The law was followed in many free states, but with limited impact. For instance, only one in seven cases in New York resulted in successful rendition. There were twenty-one hearings under the FSL in Philadelphia during the 1850s; but, these dropped off dramatically after 1855, and the number of fugitive slaves continued to rise. Moreover, a federal law designed to protect the rights of southern slaveholders ended up not only failing in many instances, but also resulted in mobilizing abolition and antislavery in unpredictable ways. This was no Harriet Beecher Stowe effect; rather it was the unintended consequence of a law that was implemented and protested, with national reverberations. Escaping slaves did not cause the Civil War, but the political crisis their actions generated “was a major contributing factor” (xv).
The hundreds of cases carefully examined in The Captive’s Quest are culled from years of digging through local and national newspapers. Many of these newspapers have not been digitalized and so required countless research trips that might explain why the book took so long to write. Another explanation for the book’s longevity must have been trying to determine the exact nature of all of these cases, their contrasting outcomes, and tracing the local-national links. Each case often gets several sources. This is historical research at its best. As Moshe Lewin, a renowned historian of the Soviet Union at the University of Pennsylvania, used to say: one source is journalism, several sources are history. This detailed research, however, is double-edged. On the one hand, the sheer number of cases, individuals, twists and turns can be mind numbing. On the other hand, such close research spotlights unheralded local organizations like Cleveland’s “Committee of Nine,” the Gettysburg “Slave Refuge Society,” and Harrisburg’s Fugitive Aid Society. It also throws up unforgettable terminology. Fugitive slaves shared a “leave-taking fever,” took “leg bail,” and constituted an “absquatulated party” (204, 173, 272). Abolitionist crowds were dismissed as “freedom-shreikers,” and “black, yellow and white niggers” (275, 171). Chicago was a “perfect sink hole of abolition” (162, italics in original). And my personal favorite: federal commissioners were “ten-dollar, pettifogging, unconstitutional judges” (74).
The Captive’s Quest is a significant historical work for several reasons. It provides us with the first systematic examination of the FSL and its consequences. A fugitive escape is followed by the commissioner’s response, the outcome of the case, and its broader impact for hundreds of cases across the 1850s. There is simply no other sweeping historical study like it. Moreover, Professor Blackett’s stubborn refusal to settle on any one number of fugitives makes for a very effective gauge of the disturbing influence of escapee actions on owners and their legal and political representatives. “What mattered” to slaveholders he writes, “was not so much the aggregate number of escapes…but the regularity of and unexplained peaks in escapes” and that “over the years, they increasingly came to involve groups of the discontented” (393). Furthermore, the book’s detailed research in newspapers and state records unearths local cases that compliment our existing knowledge of more famous fugitive slave cases. This does raise the question, however, of the extent to which these smaller cases had the same influence and impact nationally than the more famous ones?
In addition, this local research reveals the resistance, support, and self-defense that ordinary women played in these fugitive escapes. Several women were arrested trying to prevent the rendition of Sara Lucy Bagby (264). Black women were especially defiant. Anna Johnson was one of forty-four blacks pledged to defend the community in Springfield, Massachusetts, against fugitive retakes (15). An unnamed black woman drew a revolver on a slave catcher in Buffalo, New York, daring him to take her into custody (48). Black women were often part of the “foot soldiers” who defended and rescued fugitive slaves (73). We should welcome the rescue of these ordinary women from the enormous condescension of posterity.
Finally, The Captive’s Quest confirms this reviewer’s long-held conviction that the FSL was one of the most significant legislative acts in nineteenth century US history, an assessment that is often absent from much of the secondary literature.
The Captive’s Quest is concerned with the crossing of spatial borders and the political consequences. It succeeds beautifully. But, I want to conclude with an expansion of the book’s temporal borders from the 1850s through the 1860s up to the present. In a sentence that has spawned a remarkable historical literature on the American Civil War as a social revolution of emancipation, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1935 about “the fugitive slaves, the fugitives as ‘contrabands,’ spies, servants” whose steps from 1861 to 1868 were of “a regular beat that was almost rhythmic.” The thousands of fugitive slaves in northern and western states during the 1850s, however, suggest a longer clandestine movement. The major difference, of course, was that the federal government was not prepared to assist southern slaveholders who had left the Union. The FSL stayed on the books and was followed with some difficulties in the four Union slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware until its repeal in June 1864. In short, thousands of self-emancipators during the Civil War continued a tradition rather than started something new. The Captive’s Quest encourages a more labile approach to existing parameters of slavery and emancipation during the 1850s and 1860s in which the antebellum and bellum years are less clearly delineated.
I am reading and reviewing this book during the backdrop of the federal government’s sustained attack on illegal immigrants. The agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pursue and deport those who are illegally living and working in the United States. They descend into communities, collar a suspect, hold them in detention centers, process them in court, and frequently deport them. These modern-day ten-dollar, pettifogging, local and federal officials recall the marshals, judges, and commissioners of the 1850s. In response, immigrant communities and their white allies understandably protect and support loved ones born in the USA. Local urban municipalities have declared themselves sanctuary cities mandating that employees neither communicate nor cooperate with ICE agents.7 (My resident state of North Carolina prohibits non-compliance with federal officials linking it to the 1850s). The parallels with responses to the FSL are also striking. In October 1850, a meeting at Syracuse declared the city an “open city” from which no fugitive would be seized (20, 368). Within weeks of the passage of the FSL, Chicago’s city council passed a resolution condemning the law and ordered the city’s police not to enforce it (163). These responses by urban authorities sought to both protect existing fugitives as well as to welcome potential self-emancipators. The same is true of existing immigrants and prospective immigrants today.
 Fugitive Slave Act 1850, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp
2 Angela F. Murphy, The Jerry Rescue: The Fugitive Slave Law, Northern Rights, and the American Sectional Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2016); Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (Oxford University Press, 1991); Barbara McCaskill, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in the Cultural Memory (University of Georgia Press, 2015); Gary Collison, Shadrach Milkins. From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Harvard University Press, 1997); Nat Brandt and Yanna Kroyt Brandt, In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williams and the Rescue of Jane Johnson (University of South Carolina Press, 2007).
3 Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers. Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (University of North Carolina, 1968).
4 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938; Vintage, 1963); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Victor Gollancz, 1963); idem., Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New Press, 1993); Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2000).
5 Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Harvard University Press, 2003), Table 3: Free Black Population of the United States, 1840-1860.
6 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935: Atheneum, 1992), 83.
7 Bryan Griffith and Jessica M. Vaughn, “Maps: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States,” July 27, 2017, Center for Immigration Studies, https://cis.org/Map-Sanctuary-Cities-Counties-and-States
Simon P. Newman, University of Glasgow
In 2016 Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew announced that redesigned twenty—dollar bills would feature Harriet Tubman, replacing the slave-owning president Andrew Jackson with a self-liberated former bondswoman. Two years later and under a different administration, however, Lew’s successor Secretary Steven Mnuchin has proved reluctant to authorize the change. While Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad (2016) and the WGN America television series Underground (2016-17) demonstrate Americans’ continued fascination with the courage of enslaved African Americans who resisted their oppression, this remains a contested history. Richard Blackett’s monumental study of freedom-seeking African Americans and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 helps us to understand why, for Blackett presents those who escaped as significant actors on the antebellum American political scene. Escaping in their dozens, their hundreds and even their thousands, these freedom-seekers represented a symbolic if not a real challenge to the institution of slavery in the Southern states, prompting a series of national political crises and then the revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which as part of the great compromise of that year did more to rupture than to heal the great national political divide. In short, rather than being the powerless victims of violent racial slavery who were fought over by slave-owners and abolitionists, those who escaped were important political actors who helped shape national politics while individually seeking to free themselves. One of Blackett’s greatest achievements in this deeply researched and beautifully written book is to prove that the many men, women and children who attempted to escape enslavement in the South played an active role in the great sectional political drama of nineteenth-century America.
The three chapters of Part I of The Captive’s Quest are assembled under the sub-title “The Slave Power Asserts Its Rights,” and they chronicle the context for and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Part II represents the greater part of the volume and is organized into seven regional studies under the sub-title ‘Freedom’s Fires Burn.’ Building on the earlier section these regional studies use many individuals and their stories to build up an ever more overwhelming image of people contesting this new law. Each chapter begins with such a story and then integrates many more narratives into the regional analysis, and one of Blackett’s significant achievements is his ability to show significant local and regional differences while yet assembling a cumulative picture of an ever-deepening national issue. There was a world of difference between slave-catching and resistance to it in Cairo, Illinois and in Boston, Massachusetts, yet in the minds of pro-slavery Southerners or Northern abolitionists (or even non-abolitionist Northerners concerned about Southern over-reach) these were all symptoms of the larger national ailment.
Blackett is surely correct in his assessment that white Southerners believed that the volume and frequency of escapes was undermining slavery and the society and economy of the South as a whole. Yet what is less clear is the precise demographic nature of escape. The Federal Census of 1850 recorded the existence of more than 3.2 million enslaved people in the Southern United States, and what percentage of these attempted escape each year is unclear. Late eighteenth-century Jamaica, Britain’s slave society par excellence, may have faced the absence of approximately 2% of enslaved people, and while Jamaican planters remained vigilant against elopement this did not constitute a fundamental threat to the slave system. Clearly the situation was markedly different in antebellum America, and Blackett pays particular attention to ‘border’ states, especially those near the free states along or near the Mississippi. Many slave-owners in these areas owned only a few enslaved people and given the greater likelihood of escape from here than from the large-scale plantations of the Deep South, the effects of escape upon small-scale slave-owners were potentially greater. An annual average of 40 enslaved people escaping between 1851 and 1860 revealed in the advertisements published in the Missouri Republican (St. Louis) represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 87,000 enslaved people held in the state in 1850, and an even smaller proportion of the South’s more than 3 million enslaved people. Yet at least forty escapees per year in an area in which many whites owned just a handful of enslaved people could nonetheless appear a grievous assault on the property rights of these white slave-owners, and the ever louder complaints of white Southern politicians and Northern abolitionists made these local issues part of a great national political controversy, even though when taken as a whole, the overall total number of enslaved people was probably not significantly affected by escape during the 1840s and 1850s. What Blackett demonstrates, however, is that the perception of a problem was as significant as the reality, and white Southerners clearly rallied around the belief that if not checked escape would quickly cut racial slavery to the quick. This belief had the effect of charging individual escapes with a national political significance above and beyond a single person’s desperate bid for freedom, and this is the story that Blackett relates so effectively. By 1860 and 1861, as discussed in the volume’s conclusion, the entire political system was breaking down, and this book shows how integral the escape of enslaved people had been to this development.
One of the more powerful scenes in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great abolitionist melodrama features Senator Bird and his wife giving aid to the escapees Eliza and her child, despite the fact that Senator Bird had just returned from Washington where he had voted for the Fugitive Slave Act. Stowe wrote that before meeting Eliza, Senator Bird’s idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,—or at the most,
“the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle with ‘Ran away from the subscriber’ under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,—the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony,—these he had never tried. He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenceless child…”
Richard Blackett’s great achievement in The Captive’s Quest for Freedom is to humanize those who escaped and those who aided them and showing how these individuals combined to influence and challenge state and national politics. While the Fugitive Slave Act was intended to stem the flow of escapees it politicised the issue like nothing before, and the law’s enforcement attuned many Northerners to the inhumanity of an institution they had previously thought little about. Perhaps no other recent work of history has done so much to show the political import of the lives and action of the enslaved who resisted their bondage. The actions of myriad individuals helped unravel both the constitutional settlement of 1787 and the Congressional attempt to patch it together in 1850, and Blackett restores the freedom-seekers to their central place in America’s great political narrative of disunion.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly (1851), ed. Kenneth S. Lynn (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1962), 83-4.
H. Robert Baker, Georgia State
There is much to celebrate in R. J. M. Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom. It is broad in scope, exhaustive in detail, graceful in style. The book is organized as a narrative (broken down by region), and ought to appeal to professional historians, undergraduates, intellectuals, and lovers of history alike. It deserves, and will reward, a wide audience.
The more meritorious a work of history, the more it warrants (and even demands) conscientious criticism, which is our task here. If Blackett’s book has a weakness, it is that it resists decisive conclusions. The political historian will certainly admire the work’s clear-eyed rendering of the congressional debate over the Fugitive Slave Law, and the exhaustive work on the popular reaction in the rough years following the law’s passage. But what does this suggest about the connection between national and local politics? The legal historian will marvel at the three-dimensional descriptions of commissioner’s proceedings. But what should we conclude about the functional distinction between judicial and ministerial tasks, between Article III judges and other officers?
Not much. Or maybe everything. Blackett has crafted a nuanced narrative, one that allows for a stunningly broad historical vista, yet is attentive to the precise details in the landscape. Its value lies not in whether it answers hyper-specific historiographic questions, but in its ability to be suggestive on a number of fronts. In the domain of constitutional history, my own specialty, Blackett’s work is suggestive indeed.
Begin with the question of the Fugitive Slave Act’s constitutionality. Blackett does not treat the matter as one of abstract theory, but of constitutional politics. Its position in the Compromise of 1850 has, of course, long been acknowledged and used to help explain the law’s one-sidedness. The law’s long litany of constitutional problems—the suspension of habeas corpus, the negation of trial by jury, the extension of judicial powers to men who were not judges, to name but a few—can certainly be explained as a matter of political necessity, as a means of appeasing a slaveholding oligarchy that was plotting secession in Nashville even as Congress deliberated. Blackett wisely avoids a detour through the Supreme Court’s rambling jurisprudence on this subject. For a matter as momentous as the future of the Union, only Congress had the authority to speak.
Blackett’s signal contribution to this question of constitutional politics comes after the law left Congress with the president’s signature. Abolitionists held anti-Fugitive Slave Law meetings throughout the North, declaring eternal vigilance and resistance. These were not spontaneous protests—they were the work of self-created political societies that pledged themselves to mutual protection, that collected regular dues from their members, and established standing committees empowered to assist fugitives and alert the community if slavecatchers were spotted. All of this was done publicly, with speeches and resolutions of such meetings reprinted in newspapers. In a striking visual, Blackett provides a map showing the location of anti-fugitive slave law meetings—this was no isolated phenomenon (p. 17). Many of the meetings were called and run by African-Americans, who pledged legal aid and armed resistance. But this was only one side of the coin. Meetings in support of the law were held as well, although in far smaller numbers. Blackett counts twenty-five such meetings, twenty-one of them in the North.
Blackett does not dwell on the constitutional significance of these assemblies, nor does he extract those resolutions treating the law’s constitutionality for specific treatment. What his detailed narrative does show us is just how much these opposing public meetings were seeking popular support for their positions. These were the stakes, and the prizes came quickly through official state organs. The city of Chicago and the legislature of Vermont passed resolutions condemning the law. The Virginia governor called for a punitive tax on northern produce. Secessionists in the south seized on the resistance to press their own cause, and were met there by southern unionists. The constitutional conversation survived Congress, so to speak, and a broad spectrum of constitutional action continued, with one side seeking repeal of the law (and its practical nullification) and another committed to the terms of the Compromise.
Blackett’s book also has significance for constitutional law. I do not speak here of the field’s sophistic side, for which Blackett has little patience. His contribution is more practical. Fugitive slave rendition and the terms under which it was allowed served as a shield for kidnappers. This was a point made early and often by abolitionists, but dismissed out of hand (or just ignored) by their opponents. Blackett has provided us with incontrovertible evidence that the two issues were linked. Consider the case of Fleming Hawkins, a free black in Pennsylvania drugged and very nearly taken to Maryland (p. 301). Or John Hite, a free black New Yorker, lured to Columbus, Ohio with the promise of work and then taken over the border by his would-be employer, who claimed him as a fugitive slave from Tennessee (p. 372). Not even those who received hearings were safe. Consider that Adam Gibson, a free black with documented evidence of his freedom and picked up by a notorious kidnapper in Philadelphia, was nonetheless remanded to Maryland by a federal commissioner (pp. 54-55). The slaveholder knew he had the wrong man and (to his credit) sent Adam back. These are but a few of many cases.
The Fugitive Slave Law’s defenders, from Henry Clay to Daniel Webster to Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis (later a dissenter in the case of Dred Scott) all defended the law as fully constitutional. Due process protections were unnecessary, they claimed, because freedom claims could be tried in the courts of the slave states. This was a convenient fiction in 1850, and Blackett has now provided us with the appropriate scholarly treatment to prove it definitively false. In this case, the example of the past can provide a lesson for the present. When people in power begin justifying the denial of due process by feints and sleight of hand, by resort to the principles of federalism, separation of powers, or some other doctrine of necessity, one must scrutinize not just the constitutional theory but also the practice. Somebody’s ox, after all, is being gored.
Blackett’s story, however, is not just about the victims of the Fugitive Slave Law. The black northerners who organized themselves into protective societies applied pressure on commissioners. Where these societies were most active, federal commissioners and judges found themselves under consistent and forceful popular pressure to extend some measure of due process to alleged fugitives. They were allowed counsel, evidence was introduced on their behalf, state court judicial process was honored. Allow that to sink in. It was not appellate courts, exercising stern supervisory jurisdiction, that forced commissioners to honor constitutional rights. For the most part, appellate courts were complicit in perpetuating injustice. It was instead consistent and forceful popular pressure. There are indeed times when the rule of law may not depend upon our black-robed rulers.
Blackett does not confine the free black protective societies to one academic subspecialty, be it political history or social history or otherwise. I have made the case here that they were players in a constitutional drama, and that their actions might be interpreted in this light. But in truth, these societies did many things, and their primary concern was assisting black people to freedom regardless of their legal status or what any clause in the Constitution had to say about it. One of the paths to that end was to work against the law in legal ways. And work they did. They doxed slavecatchers, hounded commissioners. They demanded due process rights, agitated for the Fugitive Slave Law’s repeal, and for the interposition of state sovereignty. These people, many of whom we might consider powerless, nonetheless became constitutional actors. They kept alive the values of equality and due process and refused to allow it to die as a public issue. They ought to be recognized as central in the triumph of those values in the embodiment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. And we all owe R. J. M. Blackett mighty thanks for telling their stories.
Martha S. Jones, John Hopkins University
Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom is a magisterial recounting of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 — its enactment, enforcement, and most importantly the persistent efforts of enslaved people and their allies to defy it — is a critically important chapter of any history that examines slavery and law in the decade before the Civil War. My own work, the recently published book Birthright Citizens, chronicles another essential thread of this story: how free black Americans navigated black laws and traveled between the slave and free states. Both are stories about how law aimed to fix the condition and the place of black Americans — as persons without mobility and without rights.
After 1850, as Blackett explains, the circumstances of enslaved fugitives passing through Maryland’s borderland grew all the more precarious. Avenues of redress including personal liberty laws in state courts were largely cut off. Allies faced new and harsh punishments. In many instances, law was nearly bypassed altogether, as collusion between kidnappers, profiteers, slaveholders, and local officials hustled those said to be slaves off into the clutches of alleged owners or the market. Through the gripping retelling of how persons became caught up by the new law’s terms, Blackett helps us to see watchful eyes, swift moving posses, grasping arms, and the locked doors of cages and jails that came to operate with the sanction of Congress and the federal courts. There is courage in these stories — purposeful and persistent men and women for whom freedom was paramount. There is also precariousness — life chapters spent traversing the borderlands of slavery and freedom, all the while threatened by capture and nearly arbitrary rendition.
Reading The Captive’s Quest for Freedom brought a sort of borderlands into view. The line between Maryland and its neighbors to the north, Pennsylvania and Delaware, is a place I have studied. My focus has long been on the free black Marylanders who traversed that boundary, crossing over to maintain ties of work, family, church, and even the politics of the colored conventions. What a busy, dynamic, and treacherous space it was, Blackett helped me to realize. His study of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 generously dwells in these borderlands. There, the free black men and women of my study were crossing frontiers hoping to return to Maryland. In their sights, and sharing turnpikes, railway cars, information and allies, were those said to be slaves, fugitives headed northward to refuge and liberty in the free states and Canada.
Such scenes, drawn by Blackett with archival depth and exacting detail, helped me understand my subjects — free black travelers — anew. And their experiences render the borderlands all the more harrowing if only because their stories reveal that the Fugitive Slave Law as administered by federal officials was not the only circumstance in which fugitive cases played out. State courts in Maryland continued to prosecute those who aided fugitives even after 1850, as they loaned aid and assistance to people escaping bondage. Not recorded in the dockets of federal courts were instances in which black Marylanders were detained for having breached the terms of state law by providing shelter, companionship, and direction to enslaved people making their way north through their state. The record of their resistance survive in the slim notes of a court or jail clerk who recorded the charges levied and the final disposition in such cases. The work of aiding fugitives and the legal dangers that attended such efforts in Maryland’s borderland were subject to state statutes as well as the Fugitive Slave Law.
Black bodies moved through the borderland in two directions. While fugitive slaves headed northward, their free counterparts were just as often headed south, returning to Maryland after temporary sojourns out of the state. State law required such persons to re-enter the state with a travel permit in hand, a court-issued document that would have been obtained prior to leaving the jurisdiction. Many such border crossing took place unnoticed and unrecorded. However, when non-permit holders attempted to reenter Maryland, they were sometimes detained and then prosecuted.
As federal law and the related courts were regulating the movement of fugitive slaves with an increased strictness after 1850, free black travelers enjoyed a leniency dispensed by state courts which retained such discretion. Take the 1856 case of Thomas Harvey, a man who left Maryland to find temporary work in Pennsylvania. On his way home, traversing the borderlands, Harvey was detained by men who patrolled this luminal space and hoped to profit from capturing black Americans, free and enslaved. Harvey wound up before a local court facing fines and re-enslavement for having crossed into Maryland without a court-issued permit. A jury heard the evidence against him. But in the final chapter of the proceeding, the presiding magistrate intervened to hold that he, the magistrate, had not the authority to hear the case — only a judge was empowered to do so pursuant to state law. Harvey was released and resumed his life in Baltimore unmolested.
Local officials went to some lengths to ease the way for those who crossed Maryland’s borderlands headed south. In northern Cecil County, unauthorized entries into Maryland were met with official petitions for pardons rather than the exacting application of the law. Free black travelers entered the state through Delaware and were accosted by those who hoped to profit from the fines that might follow a prosecution. The local state’s attorney scrutinized such cases even after juries had found against offenders. In two instances, after concluding that the free black defendants had white support and were “respectable characters” worthy of the governor’s consideration, pardon petitions were filed. The state’s interests, the petitions argued, were better served by permitting black travelers to re-enter the state than in fining or jailing alleged offenders. The Governor agreed.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 aimed to eliminate the discretion and leniency that northern states had extended those who headed north from Maryland as fugitive slaves. Their travels through slavery’s borderlands grew more fraught as they entered the murky spaces between slave and free states. Fugitives traveled with others who shared their status and met allies along the way. Their attention was also fixed upon those who hoped to intercede, detain, and otherwise use the law of 1850 to halt their progress and return them southward. Their unacknowledged companions were free African Americans for whom the same borderlands were also well known. For these latter travelers, the greatest risk arose as they attempted to enter rather than leave Maryland. They too would be stopped, detained, questioned, and brought before officials. Still, in state courts, African American sojourners met with authorities who retained the discretion to forgive their legal transgressions and to avoid the harshest letter of the law.
The power of The Captive’s Quest for Freedom lies in its capacity to help us to understand familiar sights and scenes in a new light. Not all black travelers passed through slavery’s borderlands by the same terms. Nor did they face the same risks. And while those detained by way of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 confronted a rigid, unforgiving federal regime, others whose journeys defied state law benefitted from a discretion that only local officials appeared willing or able to exercise.
Elizabeth R. Varon, University of Virginia
Richard Blackett’s magisterial The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, by mapping the broad resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in the North and Border states, lays to rest an older scholarly consensus that the law “succeeded”: while that consensus rested on the fact that most fugitives who fell into the clutches of the federal enforcement system were remanded into slavery (rather than released or rescued), Blackett draws our attention to the countless fugitives who evaded capture; to the dramatic peak in escapes in the mid-1850s and the rising number who, over the course of that decade, escaped in groups; and to the support fugitives found in free black communities, which mobilized in courtrooms, commissioners’ rooms, on the streets, and on the printed page to defy the law and give meaning to the term “free soil.” “If the Fugitive Slave Law was meant to stem the flow of slaves,” Blackett observes, “then it had little appreciable effect” (p. 314).
Like all great books, The Captive’s Quest opens up promising pathways for future research. I will highlight three of these, to suggest ways that scholars might build upon Blackett’s arguments. The first concerns the role of the press in the fugitive slave debates. Blackett has systematically combed through newspaper accounts, and these reveal compelling human interest stories, networks of activism, and the geopolitical scale of the Underground Railroad, beyond the relatively familiar hubs of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Ripley, Ohio. But while hundreds of newspaper articles furnish the evidentiary base for Blackett’s argument, he does not tell us much about the press per se, or about the editors and journalists who generated this vast documentary record. More remains to be said about the balancing act whereby the antislavery press strategically revealed certain aspects of the UGRR’s operations in an effort to sway public opinion, while at the same time protecting fugitives’ identities and activist networks from the public gaze. James Miller McKim of the Pennsylvania Freeman, for example, worked closely with William Still of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on the project of publicity: these men wanted the public in general and slaveholders in particular to know that the Underground Railroad was thriving in the 1850s. We have much to learn still about the editorial teams who ran the key abolitionist periodicals, and about the format and policies of their newspapers, and much to learn, too, about the decision-making and shifting views of mainstream editors, and how they chose to frame the debates over the Fugitive Slave Law. Given that Blackett has immersed himself in newspapers more than any other scholar has, I was eager to learn more from him about the nature of press coverage: which antislavery newspapers and editors were in the vanguard of the resistance movement? Which mainstream newspapers were most influential in adopting a stance of opposition to the law? What change over time do we see in newspaper coverage? Or journalistic differences from region to region in the free states?
These questions point to a second major contribution of Blackett’s, and opportunity for further research. Building on recent works by Eric Foner and others, Blackett demonstrates that the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law was every bit as important as the debates over slavery’s westward expansion in driving the sectional conflict in the 1850s. But more might be said about how Northerners connected the two issues. Blackett does an excellent job of tracing all the many ways slaveholders and their agents attempted to enforce the 1850 law and thwart resistance; he shows why Northern failure to enforce the law loomed so large in secessionist rhetoric as a symbol of the North’s unwillingness to compromise. As Blackett cogently explains, proslavery Southerners and borderites came to see slave flight not as something that could be controlled locally but instead as a systematic attempt by subversives to infiltrate the slave states. While we have a clear sense of how secessionists (especially in the upper South) folded slave flight and Northern non-compliance into their litany of accumulated grievances in 1860-61, we have a less clear sense of how much opposition to the law shaped the Northern response to secession. Blackett concludes that “black communities throughout the North, backed by abolitionist supporters, did their part to undermine the law’s legitimacy…and bring the country to a moment of reckoning” (p. 460). But how long did that moment last? Harriet Jacobs as she published her slave narrative in 1861 still faced the problem of disbelief—the penchant of Northern whites to complacently accept proslavery propaganda and to dismiss abolitionism as radically disunionist. What role did the fugitive slave issue play in mobilizing white Northerners to go to war with the Slave Power in 1861? And to what extent did the discourse of the 1850s, including patterns of press coverage, shape the ways that Northerners interpreted slaves’ wartime flight to Union lines? Blackett’s book can surely provide a useful frame for looking at the wartime coverage of the emerging “contraband” policy.
My last concern has to do with a matter of definition. Every year I teach William Link’s Roots of Secession to my graduate students, as a powerful example of how to integrate electoral politics and the infrapolitics of the disfranchised. Every year the students comment that while they accept Link’s argument that slave resistance destabilized the political system in the 1850s, they feel that he hasn’t fully proved the argument–and I in turn observe that Link might have been able to prove it had he focused more on the Underground Railroad. I look forward to teaching Roots of Secession alongside The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, as Blackett clearly establishes that slaves, and their free black allies in the North, were agents of political change. Blackett offers statistics of slave flight when he can but repeatedly notes that it is impossible to determine with any certainty how many slaves fled in any given era or setting. He notes that it was not so much the aggregate number of escapees but their steady flow, and periodic peaks, which are important. Blackett’s evidence of slave flight and community mobilization in turn raises the question of how we should define abolitionism as a political movement, and measure its flow and its peaks. Antislavery spokesmen such as William Still were at pains to note that slaves themselves were the core abolitionists—that their resistance inspired the Northern immediatist movement. This argument was intended expressly to refute the slaveholder claim that slaves were content and inclined to rebel only when manipulated by outside agitators. If we see slave flight and free black community mobilization as a de facto, practical abolitionism, then we might conclude that the movement was surging in the mid-1850s. But such a conclusion is belied by other forms of evidence and testimony from the movement’s leaders, whose morale alternated between elation and despair in the era of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Black abolitionists such as William J. Watkins, Zachary Lechner has argued in his 2008 article in the journal Kansas History, were encouraged by the rising anti-Nebraska sentiment in the North but despaired at the villainy of doughface Democrats and border ruffians, the anti-black bigotry of many freesoilers, and the apathy and political divisions among some free blacks in the North.
Blackett’s book implicitly raises the question of who should count as an abolitionist and how much the Fugitive Slave Law controversy expanded the movement in the 1850s.
Like Manisha Sinha’s recent The Slave’s Cause, Blackett’s book is both an analytical breakthrough and, thanks to its meticulous, comprehensive detail, a rich resource for future scholarship. We should all be grateful to Blackett for another superb contribution to the historiography.
Richard Blackett: Reaction to roundtable on The Captive’s Quest for Freedom
My thanks to Varon, Kerr-Ritchie, Newman, Baker and Jones for their very insightful appraisal of my book. I learnt many years ago that public responses to comments about one’s book always sound carping. Having put one’s “stuff” before the public, one should be confident enough to accept criticisms levelled against it. The participants in this roundtable raise so many questions with which I tussled, some for which I found answers, but many which simply eluded me. I take comfort in the fact that “good” historians are like “bad” mechanics; at the end there are bits and pieces lying about that you know belong in the car, but you are not sure where or even if they fit. The roundtable provides an opportunity to find the right place for some of those pieces I left lying about.
Kerr-Ritchie sees in the FSL lessons about later laws and policies. He is absolutely right. But I think, he would admit, there comes a moment in any study when one has to call time to bring it to an end. The outbreak of the war is such a time for the war changed the political calculus even if the law remained in effect. The enslaved knew that and, as many historians have shown, left in droves whenever they could. DuBois was fond of the analogy of someone poking a stick in an anthill and watching the ants scatter. There was no one poking a stick in the antebellum anthill yet individuals, families and groups devised ways to leave. At the center of the history of slave resistance is the scope and range of this exodus. Newman is right to point to the fact that slaveholders everywhere have faced similar problems and found ways to both live with them and, at the same time, defend their interests. Departures from the Border States and elsewhere deeply troubled slaveholders. Newman is right, on a national scale these escapes seem relatively insignificant, placing only a slight dent in the system’s ability to function. But looked at locally, what I call the politics of scale, the decision of a slave to leave mattered. Jones points to an important connection between the activities of free blacks in Maryland and the enslaved there, and elsewhere along the slavery divide, a connection I did not see. And when those numbers rose, as they did over the decade, then they mattered in ways that only those who lost such valuable property could understand. How else to explain why a rational person would commit to the recapture of an escapee when he and his neighbors knew that the cost of reclamation would far outstripped the value of the runaway.
Baker agrees that what happened locally mattered, but wondered how they were connected to national politics. I admit not every incident did. When, for example, a group escaped from southeast Missouri, folks in Jefferson City took notice, but such incidents did not always register in Washington DC. There were, however, times when they did. Maybe, the most significant is what transpired in Christiana. The Filmore government did all it could to bring bystanders who witness the event to trial for, of all things, treason, a word that was bandied about with alarming ease by people such as Daniel Webster who knew better. The rescue of Shadrick Minkins from a Boston courthouse was another. Henry Clay thought it important enough to raise questions in the Senate and to recommend the President call out the army should a similar incident occur in the future. What occurred locally, I had hoped to show, sometimes rippled outwards to state capitals and, on occasion, to Washington.
Building outwards from the local provides an opportunity to appreciate the levels to which opponents went to contest and undermine the law. Black communities turned up at commissioners’ hearings to support the accused and intimidate commissioners. Other times they openly resisted enforcement of the law. Many times, their actions were reinforced by abolitionist organizations who offered legal aid and comfort to escapees. These “constitutional actors,” as Baker calls them, provide us with opportunities to explore the nature of pressure from without that is how those without recognized political power can influence what transpires in state and national legislatures. This issue has long been an interest of mine, and the action of the men and women who declared their undying opposition to the law, and acted on it, lies at the heart of the book.
Kerr-Ritchie is right, at the heart of this study is the larger question about the legitimacy of the law in a society that prides itself on its respect for the law. What happens when the law is seen as a violation of bedrock principles of jurisprudence as Baker points out? What happens, in other words, when, as in this case, the law is considered to be “immoral” even draconian? Some abolitionists were in a quandary about the best ways to address the law’s problems and this gets to one of Varon’s suggestions for future research: how did editors, and especially abolitionist editors, react? Those, such as J. Miller McKim of the Pennsylvania Freeman, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, simply dismissed the law as unconstitutional, morally repugnant and unacceptable. Others, such as Gamaliel Bailey agonized over the proper response. If good men, he argued, resist bad laws, what happens to the society when bad men resist good laws? He never managed to resolve his dilemma. John Jay, a man with impeccable abolitionist credentials, raised his voice in support of Bailey, calling on African Americans to resist the temptation to protest violently enforcement of the law. He was convinced that, in the eyes of the public, blood spilt in the streets of New York City, will be held against the political hopes and aspirations of black people. Someone should pick up Varon’s suggestion.
One of the joys of a roundtable of this sort is that one discovers readers see in one’s work things one never saw. Jones provides some connections about which I knew little. I’ll just have to read her book! The same is true of Baker’s “constitutional politics.” Varon’s question about how the law, and the response to it, “shaped Northern responses to secession,” is a point I only touched on briefly in the conclusion. Baker may take me to task for resisting “decisive conclusions.” I plead guilty partly because I found it next to impossible to make such firm connections; influences I could point to, but firm connections I could not. If members of the roundtable are anything like me, titles are decided on as the writing draws to a close. Note, the words “the coming of the Civil War” do not appear in the title. I recognize that its absence may affect the numbers of readers and levels of royalties, but I was convinced it would be false advertising to do so. When, to take just one example, a secessionist thundered against northerners for turning a blind eye to their constitutional responsibilities to ensure the return of escaped slaves, was that the true cause of his angst, or was it a rather transparent fig leaf behind which to hide other political frustrations? But such absences also reflect my view that, while resistance, and the troubles it caused, was a critical contributor to the coming of war, I could not show it to be the deciding factor.
Again, my thanks to the contributors for their careful reading and commentary on the book. It is much appreciated. Others could be so lucky.