The Power of Running Away

Philadelphia Museum of Art/Charles White Archives
Charles White: Exodus I: Black Moses (Harriet Tubman), 1951; from the exhibition ‘Charles White: A Retrospective,’ on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, until January 13, 2019. The catalog is published by the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA and distributed by Yale University Press.

In January 1850 Senators Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina and James Mason of Virginia proposed a new Fugitive Slave Law to replace the statute that had been on the books since 1793. A new law was needed, they said, because the old one was not being enforced. Free black communities in northern states routinely sheltered runaway slaves. For decades an alliance of free blacks and white abolitionists had been operating an Underground Railroad that assisted thousands of slaves escaping from the southern states. In cities and towns across the North countless white citizens and local police officials refused to assist in fugitive slave renditions.

Northern legislatures had passed a series of “personal liberty laws” designed to thwart the federal statute. Some of those laws banned state and local officials from participating in renditions. Others closed state and local prisons to slave catchers. Most often, however, the personal liberty laws mandated jury trials and habeas corpus for blacks accused of being runaway slaves, mandates the slaveholders considered an assault on their constitutional right to reclaim their slave property. Although many Northern whites sympathized with the slaveholders or viewed it as their legal and constitutional duty to enforce the law, even those who cared little about slavery were often repulsed by the specter of slave catchers swarming into their communities and enforcing Southern law in Northern states.

The new Fugitive Slave Law created a body of federal commissioners empowered to impose federal authority on the North, bypassing obstreperous state and local officials. Slave owners were required to provide only minimal proof of their claims. Those accused were stripped of due process and denied any right to appeal a commissioner’s ruling. Commissioners were paid five dollars if they ruled against the slaveholder and ten dollars if they ruled against the fugitive. There was no statute of limitations. African-Americans who had built families and worked as free people in the North for decades were vulnerable to reenslavement at any time. If there were signs of local opposition, federal marshals could conscript Northern citizens into a posse, forcing them to participate against their will in the capture and return of alleged fugitives. Heavy fines were prescribed for anyone convicted of helping slaves escape.

Senator William Seward of New York and other opponents of the proposed law warned Southerners that it could not be enforced in Northern states. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio predicted that the law would “produce more agitation than any other which has ever been adopted by Congress.” Even Butler, the bill’s cosponsor, doubted that…

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