XX: Constitutional and Legal Culture

Fugitive Slaves

Principal Routes of the Underground Railroad. Prepared by James DeGrand. Source: Charles Oscar Paullin, Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States (1932), plate 67 G.
    The free states of the Midwest shared more than a thousand miles of borders with the slave states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. This long connection between slavery and freedom led to thousands of slaves crossing the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and the northern border of Missouri into Iowa. Despite discrimination and racism in much of the lower Midwest, the region was a powerful beacon of freedom for slaves who escaped into the region. Moreover, in the Upper Midwest, along the Great Lakes, freedom had significant content as blacks gained substantial legal rights and economic success in those parts of the region. 
    The first national fugitive slave legislation appeared in Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, which provided “That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.” The provision was never tested in court mostly because during the territorial period the governments in the lower Midwest were notoriously sympathetic to slavery and hostile to free blacks. However, by the second decade of the nineteenth century the issue of fugitive slaves captured the imagination of many Midwesterners. Harriet Beecher Stowe relied on her experiences growing up in Ohio when writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851). She modeled Tom after the famous fugitive slave Josiah Henson and one of her white characters after John Van Zandt, a Quaker abolitionist who was successfully sued for aiding runaway slaves.
    In the 1840s and 1850s Midwesterners often resisted enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850. Gatherings of abolitionists and other concerned citizens rescued recaptured fugitive slaves from their masters or police officials in, among other places, Salem, Iowa (1848), South Bend, Indiana (1849), Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1854), Wellington, Ohio (1858), and Ottawa, Illinois (1859), and Iberia, Ohio (1860).   In the 1840s and 1850s most Midwestern states passed personal liberty laws, designed to impede the return of fugitive slaves. On the other hand, federal courts in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan upheld the fugitive slave laws in a number of cases. In Jones v. Van Zandt (1847), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was reasonable to presume that any black in the Midwest might be a fugitive slave, even though all blacks legally living there were free.
    In 1854 the U.S. marshal in Wisconsin, Stephen Ableman, arrested the abolitionist newspaper editor Sherman Booth for rescuing a fugitive slave from federal custody.   The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a writ of habeas corpus freeing Booth. In Ableman v. Booth (1859) the Supreme Court upheld the 1850 fugitive slave law and Booth’s conviction under it, but a mob later rescued Booth, and he made speeches for some months before Ableman recaptured him.
    In 1858 students and faculty from Oberlin College rescued a captured fugitive slave in nearby Wellington, Ohio. A federal grand jury indicted numerous rescuers, while Ohio officials secured indictments of the Kentucky slaveowners and two federal marshals for kidnapping. Two of the convicted rescuers, Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston, appealed to the state supreme court for a writ of habeas corpus. In Ex parte Bushnell, Ex parte Langston (1859), the Ohio Supreme Court refused to issue the writ of habeas corpus to free the rescuers, thus avoiding a confrontation between state and federal officials. The state then dropped charges against the Kentuckians and the federal government released all the rescuers after being given token fines. Had the Ohio Supreme Court issued the writ, Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio was prepared to call out the state militia to enforce the court’s order.
    Located on the border between slavery and freedom, the free states of the Midwest became the destination of tens of thousands of fugitive slaves. The very presence of so many people seeking freedom altered the nature of politics in the region, as white Midwesterners were confronted by the reality of slavery and the brutality of masters trying to recapture their human property. In 1856 Margaret Garner, a fugitive from Kentucky, killed her own child, rather than allowing her to be returned to bondage. This act of desperation, while unique and horrifying, underscored how the emotional issue of fugitives seeking liberty could affect the politics and feelings of the region. Perhaps symbolic of the power of this issue was the political success of Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, who was involved in so many fugitive slave cases that he earned the nickname, “the Attorney General for Fugitive Slaves.” This reputation helped him rise to the U.S. Senate, the governor’s mansion, and ultimately to the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Paul Finkelman
The University of Tulsa
Frederick Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics (1987); Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (1968); Paul Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom (1985); Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1860  (1974).