Stark Mad Abolitionists; Concord and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

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By Richard Smith

In 1837 the Female Anti-Slavery Society was established in Concord, Massachusetts, at the home of Mrs. Samuel Barrett. Mary Merrick Brooks became a key member of the Society. Membership included Mrs. Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau and her daughters, Helen and Sophia; Mrs. Minot Pratt; Mrs. Lidian Emerson and her daughter, Ellen; Mrs. Lucy Brown; and Mrs. Abigail Alcott. Among the founders of the Society was Susan Garrison; her membership is notable because she was the lone woman of color listed in existing Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society (CFAS) records.

Over the next two and a half decades, the CFAS would be front and center in the fight against slavery, and it became one of the best known Societies in the country.  But while these women, and many men, were involved in the anti-slavery battle, Concord itself was not necessarily considered an abolitionist town. In fact, anti-slavery lectures at the Concord Lyceum were even frowned upon, and throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Abolitionism was very much on the fringe of society; out of a population of 2,000, perhaps only a few dozen Concordians would have considered themselves “Abolitionist.”

Yet this all changed in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.

But first … back to 1776. From the very beginning of our country’s creation, the issue of slavery was a problem that plagued the founding fathers and the succeeding generation of Americans. Indeed, many of the colonists who sought freedom from British tyranny themselves bought and sold human beings. By underpinning the Colonial economy with the brutal institution of chattel slavery, the early Patriots deprived roughly one-fifth of the American population of their own “inalienable” right to liberty.

In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, blamed Britain’s King George for his role in creating and perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade—which he describes, in so many words, as a crime against humanity, calling the institution of slavery “piratical warfare,” “execrable commerce,” and an “assemblage of horrors.”

Yet, when the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon, the passage about slavery was gone. Why? It seems that the as yet unborn nation was already divided along sectional lines; southern colonies,  particularly slave-dependent Georgia and South Carolina, objected to the clause. If Jefferson, John Adams and others wanted to see the Declaration of Independence unanimously adopted by all 60 members of the Second Continental Congress, compromise over the clause … and concessions to slavery itself … needed to be made. That’s why slavery is ignored in the Declaration of Independence.

When the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation in 1787, there were several issues on the agenda, with the major issue being slavery. Though the word “slavery” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, the issue was central to the debates over commerce and Congressional representation. The “Three-Fifths Compromise” provided that three-fifths (60%) of enslaved people in each state would count toward congressional representation, thus increasing the number of Southern seats in Congress. In return for this concession, Southern states agreed to stop importing enslaved people from Africa by 1808. As a result, Congress assumed the power to regulate the commercial aspects of slavery.

And so, compromise and concession over slavery would continue well into the 19th century. As the nation grew, and new states were added, political leaders did their best to strike a balance so as not to create any sectional tension over the issue. If a new state entered the Union as a “free state,” a slave state would be created to keep the balance of Congressional power even; for instance, with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entrance of slaveholding Missouri was balanced by the creation of Maine, while slavery was prohibited south of the 36° 30′ parallel. There were now 24 not so United States: 12 slave, and 12 free.

The 1840’s saw a rapid increase in new territories beyond the Mississippi River. Westward expansion, dubbed “Manifest Destiny” was in full swing. The Mexican-American War in 1845-1846 and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to mass emigration into these unclaimed territories (ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of native peoples already lived there). Texas entered the Union as a slave state in 1845, while Wisconsin came in as a free state in 1848; we were now at 15 slave and 15 free states.

Which finally brings us to the Compromise of 1850.

After gold was discovered in California in 1848, almost 300,000 fortune seekers had flocked to the territory in the hopes of striking it rich. Many did not find their fortune in California, but many stayed to make a living in some way or another. On September 9, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State, and a free state at that, thus permanently denying the expansion of slavery to the Pacific Coast. But with the creation of a new state arose the old issue of sectional power; neither the free states nor the slave states wanted to feel as if the other side was in control of Congress. Which section was going to control the country, the slaveholding South or the free North? Congress now had to deal with the slavery issue in a very real way.

Enter Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas. Together they crafted the legislation that became known as The Compromise of 1850. Simply put, it was a package of five separate bills that would hopefully defuse the ongoing political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired in the Mexican–American War. It also set Texas’s western and northern borders and included provisions addressing fugitive slaves and the slave trade.

It was the Compromise’s Fugitive Slave bill that garnered the most attention in the North; the measure strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which granted jurisdiction to all state and federal judges over cases regarding fugitive slaves. However, several Northern states, including Massachusetts, were dissatisfied by the lack of due process in these cases, and passed personal liberty laws that made it more difficult to return alleged fugitive slaves to the South. In other words, many Northern states simply ignored the law.

But, the new Fugitive Slave Law penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $31,000 in present-day value). Law-enforcement officials everywhere were now required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slave on even the flimsiest evidence, such as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.

The suspected slave had no rights in the matter; he or she could not ask for a jury trial or even testify in his or her own behalf. Since a suspected slave was not eligible to ask for a trial, the new law sometimes resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free Blacks into slavery;  suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against the accusations of being a runaway.

The new Fugitive Slave Law now demanded that all US citizens return alleged runaways to their masters, or face fines or imprisonment. Any person aiding or abetting a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Furthermore, officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Judges who decided in favor of slaveholders reclaiming their property, got a bigger bonus than if they decided in favor of the runaway.

The five bills making up the Compromise of 1850 were passed by Congress on September 18, 1850 and signed into law by President Millard Fillmore. While some naively believed that the problems of slavery had been solved once and for all, in reality, the Union was now more polarized even more than ever between North and South.

The Compromise in general, and The Fugitive Slave Law in particular, were met with violent protest across the North. Many Northerners viewed the law as evidence that the South was protecting slavery through federal coercion and force, regardless of the will of Northern voters. This led to mass protests by many Northerners who believed that the influence of the Slave Power on the Federal Government was now overwhelming and one sided, and a number of altercations, some violent, took place in Northern cities between Southern slave catchers and Northern abolitionists throughout the 1850s.

Because of the new Law, cities like Boston began to utilize vigilante justice as an avenue of resistance against slave catchers, calling themselves “Vigilance Committees.” Militant abolitionism led to fugitives being rescued, armed patrols in the streets keeping an eye out for slave catchers, and the harassment of Federal marshals who arrested slaves. Suddenly, it seemed, people who had little or no opinion about slavery were now protesting not only the Fugitive Slave Law, but slavery in general. As one wealthy Bostonian would later remember it, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”

Meanwhile, in Concord, Massachusetts, a town filled with famous personalities and radical reformers, the news of the Fugitive Slave Law was met with anger and dismay. It seemed that almost everyone, from the famous to not so famous, had something to say about it.

The most famous man in town was, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson. By 1850 he was known around the world. Yet, it was that world fame that usually kept him from making public statements about political or social issues.

“I do not often speak to public questions” he would say. “They are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work … . And then I see what havoc it makes with  any good mind, a dissipated philanthropy.”

All had changed in 1844, when he gave his first anti-slavery address on commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the English Emancipation of slaves the British West Indies, and it was now well known in Concord that Mr. Emerson had abolitionist tendencies.

The die hard abolitionist in the Emerson household was not Waldo, however; that honor went to his wife, Lidian Jackson Emerson. In fact, Waldo’s recent transition to speaking out on slavery was in no small part due to Lidian’s radicalism. The woman who decorated her front gate in black crepe on the 4th of July (as a sign of mourning for the almost 4 million enslaved) had a huge influence on The Sage of Concord speaking out on slavery.

As for the Fugitive Slave Law, Lidian called it, “Our National Shame in standing on the neck of the enslaved black man …”

Waldo was, of course, appalled by the new Law. He called it, “a filthy enactment” created “in the 19th Century, by people who could read and write.” And, in his Journal, Emerson would vow, “I will not obey it, by God.” The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law made Emerson from that day forward a committed Abolitionist. And he would publicly speak out against “the filthy enactment” on May 3, 1851, when he would give an address to his fellow Concordians called, “The Fugitive Slave Law.”

“But I put it to every noble and generous spirit, to every poetic, every heroic, every religious heart, that not so is our learning, our education, our poetry, our worship to be declared. Liberty is aggressive, Liberty is the Crusade of all brave and conscientious men, the Epic Poetry, the new religion, the chivalry of all gentlemen. This is the oppressed Lady whom true knights on their oath and honor must rescue and save…the Fugitive Law did much to unglue the eyes of men…The Anti-Slavery Society will add many members this year. The Whig Party will join it: the Democrats will join it. The population of the Free States will join it. I doubt not, at last, the Slave States will join it. But be that sooner or later, and whoever comes or stays away, I hope we have reached the end of our unbelief, have come to a belief that there is a divine Providence in the world.”

The Emersons were not the only ones in Concord who were fired up over the new law. While anti-slavery sentiment had not been popular even a few years before, now the climate had changed in Concord.

Bronson Alcott, a life long Abolitionist, journalized in 1850, “Even Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison are now listened to with some respect, and their doctrines and measures find favor from a very excellent body amongst us.”

To the Alcott family, the Fugitive Slave Law was a moot point; they’d been involved in the Underground Railroad for several years. The home on Lexington Road that they called “The Hillside” sheltered one, possibly two runaway slaves in the winter of 1847.

Bronson Alcott would write of one fugitive, “His stay with us has given image and a name to the dire entity of slavery, and was an impressive lesson to my children, bringing before them the wrongs of the black man, and his tale of woes.”

His wife, Abigail, was equally dedicated to the Abolitionist cause. She would also write about their guest, saying ” We have had an interesting fugitive here for 2 weeks — right from Maryland — he was anxious to get to Canada and we have forwarded him the best way we could — his sufferings have been great — his nature sickly…”

Activity on the Underground Railroad in Concord ramped up after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Besides the Hillside, we know of at least six other homes in Concord that harbored fugitive slaves; some of the people involved in this highly illegal activity were Abiel Heywood Wheeler, Henry Thoreau, Edmund Hosmer, Mary Merrick Brooks, Mary Rice, William Whiting, and Ann Bigelow. In an 1892 interview with Edward Emerson, Bigelow said that Concord became more active in the Underground Railroad after 1850. Much like bigger towns and cities, Concord had its own Vigilance Committee to shepherd fugitives safely through town.

The most famous fugitive slave to come through Concord was Shadrack Minkins. Minkins was the first fugitive to be captured in Boston after the passage of the new law. Many fugitives considered Boston a safe-haven since it was the hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment: William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, Lewis Hayden all called Boston home, and it was a relatively safe place for fugitives to stay… at least until 1850.

Minkins had escaped slavery in Virginia in early 1850 and was living in Boston as a free man and working at a coffee house on Beacon Hill.  But in February 1851, he was seized by federal marshals under the auspices of the new fugitive slave law.

Brought before a judge for an initial hearing, hundreds of people, black and white, gathered outside the Boston Court House to protest Minkin’s arrest.  Several dozen men, mostly black, and including Lewis Hayden, rushed into the court house and bodily dragged Minkin’s outside and on to the streets, where they disappeared with him through the crowd into Boston’s West End.

The next morning, in the pre-dawn hours of February 16, 1851, Minkins found himself, in the company of Lewis Hayden, in Concord and at the home of Ann and Francis Bigelow on Sudbury Street.  As Minkins rested, plans were made for Mr. Bigelow to take the Fugitive to Leominster; from there he would be taken through Vermont to the American-Canadian border, where he would cross over to Quebec and freedom.

But while Minkin’s rescue was a success for the Boston and Concord abolitionists, there were failures. Late in 1851, another fugitive, Thomas Sims, was captured in Boston and returned to his owner in Georgia.

Minkins, of course, was by no means the only fugitive to come through Concord. One has to wonder, exactly how many runaways were helped by Concord’s Vigilance Committee.

While the exact number will  never be known, Ann Bigelow would later remember that, after 1850, “Nearly every week some fugitive would be forwarded with the utmost secrecy to Concord to be harbored overnight.”

An estimated 300 Fugitives arrived in Boston in the 1850s; one wonders, how many of those people came through Concord.

The Thoreau family had long been involved in the Anti-Slavery movement. They were followers of William Lloyd Garrison, and they whole heartedly believed in Garrison’s motto, “No Union With Slaveholders.” They wanted nothing to do with the Union so long as it continued to support slavery; this meant no voting and no paying of taxes. As Henry Thoreau would write in 1849, “I cannot consider it my government when it is the slave’s government as well.”

The Thoreau family supported another tenant of Garrisonianism: disunion.

Throughout the 1840s Cynthia and her daughters were involved with the call for the North to secede from the slaveholding South. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Thoreaus were involved with the Underground Railroad.

In his book, “Walden,” Henry Thoreau even goes so far as to mention that he helped “one real runaway slave … forward toward the North Star,” while living at the Pond.

The Thoreau family home on Main Street was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and in October 1851, Henry would write a very detailed Journal entry about a fugitive staying at their home. The man had been forwarded to Concord by William Lloyd Garrison.

Thoreau would report that the “intelligent and very well behaved man”… . “Lodged with us & waited in the house until funds were collected with which to forward him. Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time period.”

This last line reminds us of the danger of being involved with the Underground Railroad, not only for the runaways, but also for the so-called conductors. Thoreau … and everyone else involved in helping the fugitives … were taking a tremendous chance by breaking the Federal law.

Another visit by a runaway to the Thoreau house in late July 1853 was well documented by a Harvard Divinity student named Moncure Daniel Conway, who happened to be visiting Concord at the time. Conway would later remember:

“In the morning I found the Thoreaus agitated by the arrival of a colored fugitive from Virginia, who had come to their door at daybreak. Thoreau took me to a room where his sister Sophia was ministering to the fugitive … I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to the African. He now and then drew nearer to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. The whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was the slave hunting time period, but the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house. The next day the fugitive was got off to Canada, and I enjoyed my first walk with Thoreau.”

Obviously, Thoreau was a regular participant in the Underground Railroad. Again, Ann Bigelow would remember that Thoreau, “more than any other man” helped nurse wounded or hurt runaways. He would also purchase Railroad tickets for them and, occasionally, escort them to a train station to make sure that they were safe from slave catchers.

Thoreau … indeed, anyone who considered him or herself an Abolitionist … would again be up in arms a year later when, on May 24, 1854, another fugitive slave was arrested by Federal marshals in Boston. Like Minkins, Anthony Burns was also a refugee from Virginia. But, unlike Minkins, Burns would not be spirited safely away to Canada.

The Anthony Burns affair can be a lecture into itself, but for our purposes, its safe to say friends and associates of our Concord radicals, men like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker, (both Unitarian ministers), were involved in the attempt to rescue Burns from the slave catchers. Even Bronson Alcott, normally a pacifist, took part in the rescue effort, which turned violent and resulted in the death of a Boston Court House guard.

Sadly, Burns was returned to slavery. The abolitionists of Boston and Concord were incensed.

Emerson would write in his Journal, “When the guards of personal liberty, writ of habeas corpus and the like, are not used or not enforced for fear of bringing the state and federal courts into collision … when the United States Congress passes a law to stop the march of human civility & virtue, by pre-establishing the barbarous institution of slavery … I submit that all government itself is treason; you the constituency are swindled in the face of the world.”

Like Emerson, Henry Thoreau also put his anger and frustration over the Burns arrest into his Journal. Two months later, he put those entries into a lecture that he would give at an anti-slavery meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts on July 4, 1854. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth would all be on the rostrum  that day to hear read “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

“The judges and lawyers — simply as such, I mean — and all men of expediency, try this case by a very low and incompetent standard. They consider, not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. Is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? In important moral and vital questions, like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity. The question is, not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the Devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God — in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor — by obeying that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being.”  — An excerpt from “Slavery In Massachusetts,” Henry Thoreau, 1854

By 1855, it seemed as if the Union was indeed splitting apart because of slavery. The concern over the Fugitive Slave Law led to even greater concern over the fate of the country, as armed warfare broke out in the Kansas territory over whether or not Kansas would enter the Union slave or free. By 1856, the country was already at war with itself. Civil War. And, in a very real sense, the Fugitive Slave Law was a major cause of that war.

The abolitionists in Concord and Boston … and throughout the North … were the first responders to the nightmare of slavery. Black and white, male and female, famous and obscure, these people pushed aside personal safety and risked their lives and reputations for a cause greater than themselves, indeed, a cause that was greater than the Union itself. Breaking the Fugitive Slave Law was their duty, because it was the right thing to do.

As Henry Thoreau would write in “Resistance to Civil Government:

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Sadly, unjust laws and racial oppression still exist to this very day. The words of Lidian Emerson, talking of “Our National Shame in standing on the neck of the enslaved black man …” conjures up images of recent events in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Like the 19th Century Concord Abolitionists and Transcendentalists, we must decide what’s more important, following laws and executive actions that we disagree with, or standing on the side of justice and not injustice. It is our duty as American citizens to take a stand when government and our so-called leaders are immoral; it is a stand that the Concordians of 1850 would understand and support.

I’ll leave you with the words of Henry Thoreau’s “Slavery In Massachusetts”; they are just as pertinent now as they were in 1854:

“I wish my countrymen to consider, that whatever the human law may be, neither an individual nor a nation can ever commit the least act of injustice against the obscurest individual without having to pay the penalty for it. A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughing-stock of the world.”

Richard Smith is an historian and the author of five books.

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