Standing in the middle of Philadelphia’s paean to American independence, one can easily become enthralled by the boldness and bravery of the nation’s founding fathers. At Independence Mall, visitors by the hundreds of thousands endure the hot and humid summer of the Delaware Valley to learn about Benjamin Franklin, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the revered delegates who drafted the Constitution. Expansive and expensive modern glass-and-steel buildings sit uneasily among eighteenth-century brick colonial facades that harbor the stories of the nation’s founding, as told by dedicated and knowledgeable National Park Service guides.
Just blocks away from Independence Hall and the mall stands a small plaque that tells a different, almost unknown, story of American freedom. Located along the Delaware River, the plaque recalls a vitally important tale in the nation’s history. As the marker states plainly, affording its subject just a handful of lines, in 1855 Jane Johnson and two of her sons escaped a life of bondage. Brought to Philadelphia by her North Carolina master, a prominent Democratic pol who was en route to a diplomatic post in Central America, Johnson was under strict orders not to speak to anyone. Yet when her master briefly left the enslaved family locked in a hotel room, Johnson managed to slip a note to a black bellhop revealing her deep desire to escape. Soon Philadelphia’s active network of black and white abolitionists, including William Still and Passmore Williamson, sprang into action, rescuing Johnson just as she and her sons were boarding a ship to New York. Johnson bravely risked her life and the lives of her children and in defiance of the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause fled to freedom. Yet Johnson’s rich tale is largely unknown except by a few specialized scholars. The stark difference between the historical marker placed on Philadelphia’s crowded waterfront and the acres of land made into a national park devoted to the founding fathers just a few blocks away shows that even after several decades of recovering African American history, the nation still struggles to appreciate the real and symbolic power of the African American experience and the place of that experience in the nation’s sectional conflict.
Understanding the importance of black activism in intensifying sectional division requires placing African Americans at the center of Civil War causation. Thanks to valuable research by Steven Kantrowitz, Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, and others, we have a much more nuanced appreciation of the black Civil War experience on the battlefront and the home front.1 At the same time, scholarship building on the valuable work of earlier generations of African American scholars like Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin, particularly the recent work of historians such as Manisha Sinha, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Patrick Rael, and many others, has shed light on the black experience before the war.2
However, scholars have been less inclined to link the black experience directly to causation, choosing to emphasize African American activism within the context of abolitionism. In examining the ubiquity of kidnapping and its legal counterpart in recovering fugitive slaves, we bring together two historiographies that rarely speak to one another: the coming of the war and the history of African American political activism. By pressing the political and legal system to protect their civil liberties, by keeping the issue of kidnapping at the forefront of white and black abolitionism, and by appealing to the sympathies of the white press in the free states, African Americans forced white Americans to determine what “free soil” really meant and helped bring the national crisis over slavery to civil war.
Even before 1865 witnessed both the end of the Civil War and the demise of slavery, Americans began struggling to comprehend the war’s causes. All knew, as Lincoln remarked in his Second Inaugural Address, that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” but what role precisely slavery played in sparking the conflict has been the subject of impassioned debate ever since the firing of shots at Fort Sumter began the war in April 1861. School children and scholars alike have sought to answer the same basic questions: How could Americans have come to believe that civil war was the only option left before them? How important was slavery in causing the war? Why did the conflict break out in 1861 rather than earlier or later? Was the war inevitable, or was deadly combat the result of blundering by a generation of inept and uncompromising political leaders?3
Generations of Americans have learned that the Compromise of 1850 narrowly averted a national political crisis when the great statesman Henry Clay stewarded the laws through Congress. Only the deft political maneuvering of the “Great Compromiser,” as Clay was known for having crafted similar settlements between the North and South in 1820 and 1833, saved the Union from plunging into the abyss of civil war in 1850. The precarious but potent Compromise of 1850, historians have told us, salved the sectional wounds inflicted by decades of hostile debates over slavery. As a result of the compromise’s soothing effect, northern and southern extremists retreated and relative sectional peace reigned until the fight over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska erupted in the middle of the 1850s, followed by further death blows to the Union like the Dred Scott Supreme Court case in 1857 and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.
This story, however, is at best only partially correct. Rather than pacify the North and South, or force powerful antislavery and proslavery forces into retreat, the Compromise of 1850 brought those activists to the forefront as never before, especially in the North. As R. J. M. Blackett, Susan-Mary Grant, Michael Landis, and Leonard Richards have argued, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 seemed to make northern citizens complicit in the return of suspected runaway slaves, lending greater credence among ordinary northerners to abolitionist cries that a “slaveholder conspiracy” had taken hold in the federal government.4 In his important new study, Blackett in particular argues that the Fugitive Slave Law dramatically worsened sectional relations as soon as it became public in the fall of 1850. Northern citizens, particularly adherents to the Whig and Republican Parties, were coming to believe that the phrase “slave power” was more than just a radical abolitionist slogan; it was an increasingly credible description of a political and legal system intended to employ the powers of the federal government to protect slavery and violate the rights of free states to keep bondage out of their borders.
Rather than alleviate sectional tensions, the Compromise of 1850 and especially the Fugitive Slave Law laid bare the very real divisions between North and South in new and potent ways. The law radicalized northerners, many of whom realized for the first time that no legitimate compromise with slaveholders was possible. Picking up their morning newspapers and reading about northerners rescuing and hiding runaway slaves, white southerners concluded with equal conviction that the Yankees were determined to circumvent the Constitution as well as laws passed by the federal government. Reaction to the law, which continued to ignite controversy throughout the 1850s, rendered civil war much more likely.
When explaining the sectional crisis or the coming of the Civil War, historians often emphasize the evolution of southern ideology over the early decades of the nineteenth century, especially the hardening of proslavery ideology after Nat Turner’s Revolt in Virginia in 1831. Scholars trace the shift in southern political thought toward a much more intolerant and intransigent view that slavery was not just a burden placed on nineteenth-century Americans by the colonial legacy of bondage, not just a relic from a previous era, but a positive good to society. The hardening of this southern position, historians maintain, worsened the sectional crisis and moved the region toward a clash with the free labor North and Midwest.
There is no doubt that white southerners, particularly political and legal leaders, became more steadfast in their defense of slavery by the 1850s. Until the later antebellum period, it had been possible to declare slavery a detriment to the region’s economy, and in the immediate aftermath of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Virginia state legislators spent weeks debating the merits and problems of southern slavery, but those debates would be the last substantial questioning of the future of bondage in the American South; in the last three antebellum decades white southerners became violently intolerant of anyone who dared to undermine the moral or legal legitimacy of slavery.
Less often studied by scholars of nineteenth-century America is the fact that antebellum northerners and midwesterners also experienced a dramatic shift in opinion, seen not just in the growth of the antislavery movement and the emergence of free labor ideology but through a fundamental change in their willingness to adhere to the constitutional compromise on which the Union had been erected. As historian Michael Woods has recently noted, central to this change in northern public opinion was the embrace of a northern version of the states’ rights ideology that often is solely applied to the South.5 Antebellum northerners had to decide: Was slavery a national obligation, as the Constitution clearly stated in its requirement that runaways be returned, or did northern communities have the right to set their own local and state laws prohibiting slavery and the return of fugitives?
Such a debate turns the traditional view of federal and states’ rights on its head: northern Democrats, abandoning their foundational notion, inherited from the age of Jefferson and continued by the followers of Andrew Jackson, favored limited government. They called for an active and powerful federal apparatus to ensure the return of the self-emancipated, regardless of state or local laws outlawing bondage, a call that became the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. On the other hand, northern Whigs and then Republicans not only advocated the preeminence of local laws that prohibited the existence of slavery, which every northern and midwestern state had stipulated by 1830, but also used a series of state “liberty laws” to render the return of runaways illegal.
Demonstrating that the powerful hand of the plantation South reached into the North does not obscure the important work of black and white abolitionists who staked their very lives on the defeat of bondage. Scholars have shown clearly how the remarkable bravery on the part of courageous abolitionists contributed mightily to the end of slavery in 1865.6 From the perspective of African Americans, though, as appreciative as they could be of abolitionist exertions on their behalf, the Unionist hegemony that sought to preserve the constitutional compact at the expense of black civil rights blurred the line between free and slave states, erasing the fragile boundaries between “societies with slaves” and “slave societies” that white political leaders struggled to maintain.7
There are many valuable historical examinations of the war’s origins, and virtually all point to slavery as the central cause of the conflict. Yet, as Chandra Manning has argued in What This Cruel War Was Over, to highlight the importance of bondage is “to open rather than solve a mystery.”8 Indeed, scholars have increasingly sought to understand the evolution of ideology in the antebellum free states, when Americans living on free soil engaged in internal political battles over the importance of protecting the rights of slaveholders as the price of maintaining the Union. As historian Adam I. P. Smith has recently argued in The Stormy Present, the conflicts free-state citizens had to confront in the early nineteenth century were “issues that most would rather not have had to deal with.” The conservative majority living in the free states, though, had no choice but to face the key conflict handed down by the founders: how to deal with the Constitution’s various compromises over slavery.9
We often revere in American “civil religion” the prescient genius of the so-called founding generation. Out of the Constitutional Convention held in the sweltering summer of 1787 came a remarkable document, remarkable as much for what it failed to do as what it managed to accomplish in setting up a democratic republic with coequal branches of government and a system of checks and balances designed to promote stability. In fact, the document that emerged from the deliberations in Philadelphia was a deeply flawed compromise that created structural weaknesses and delayed major controversies for future generations to confront. It is true that founders like James Madison developed new ways to think about how democracies might function in a nation as geographically large as the young United States, a case he made eloquently in The Federalist Papers. But Madison and the other founders were men, and not gods, whatever our civil religion might tell us. In many ways, as we will see, the flaws inherent in the Constitution doomed the young republic to failure.
Of course, the founding fathers did not consciously establish a Union that they knew was doomed to collapse, but one might well argue that the American Civil War was a foreseeable conflict given the decisions made in the Philadelphia convention. This is not to say that one could have predicted the timing and precise circumstance of that great conflict; chance, political decisions large and small, and the accumulated actions of tens of thousands of enslaved people who risked all to emancipate themselves by running toward freedom—all of these and other matters would determine the outbreak of war in April 1861. But our modern reluctance to admit that the war was inevitable has led us too often to rely on happenstance in explaining the coming of the war. I will aim to help remedy that reluctance in the pages that follow.
That the Constitution protected and defended slavery, placing on the shoulders of future generations the impossible task of maintaining a house divided between bondage and freedom, was the consequence of compromise between northern and southern interests. The document itself, as historians often point out, does not contain the words “slave” or “slavery”; the authors chose instead to employ euphemisms like “those bound to service.” Perhaps this obfuscation reflected an acknowledgment of the contradictions in establishing a democratic government that relied so heavily on the continuance of slavery. If so, the pangs of conscience were not so powerful as to prevent the document from embracing a deeply flawed and ultimately ill-fated compromise between slavery and freedom. As African American activist H. Ford Douglas of Cleveland declared, “I hold, sir, that the Constitution of the United States is pro-slavery, considered so by those who framed it, and construed to that end ever since its adoption.”10 The pages that follow take Douglas’s claim as a truism that doomed the Union to failure.
The Constitution, and indeed our entire political processes from the president down to the neighborhood watch, is based on compromise. In our day of political rhetoric and partisanship, “compromise” tends to be a dirty word, much as it was on the eve of the Civil War. That need for political compromise emanates from the Constitutional Convention itself. As scholars have argued, the Constitution granted a number of concessions to southern slaveholders, including the three-fifths clause and the guaranteed continuance of the international slave trade for the following two decades.11 But for our purposes the Fugitive Slave Clause will hold particular importance, and the chapters that follow will point to the crisis over fugitive slaves as fundamental to the causes of the Civil War. As northern states and northwestern territories were already beginning to jettison their colonial slave legacies, creating a powerful lure for the enslaved who yearned for freedom, the risk of enslaved peoples running away from bondage was of great concern to the founding fathers. Though by definition exact numbers in the colonial era are difficult to conjure, nonetheless it is clear that enough enslaved people emancipated themselves to render the return of runaways a requisite feature of the constitutional compromise.
Enslaved people, as we will see, were undeterred by the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, and their hunger for liberty would shape the course of the nation’s politics from 1787 to 1861. In fact, as historian John Ashworth has argued, by refusing to accept their lot as slaves, and by seeking every opportunity to abscond, African Americans repeatedly made a mockery of the nation’s attempts to keep a divided house under one very leaky and shaky roof.12 Generations of white political leaders from Washington to Lincoln would do their best to maintain the walls of that house—the border between slavery and freedom, between North and South—from caving in on itself. It was an impossible task.
Three factors established at the founding rendered the Union and its divided house fatally flawed. The proslavery nature of the federal Constitution represented the shaky foundation upon which the structure was erected. The Constitution was simultaneously a blueprint for an ambitious democratic government and an agreement that, in David Waldstreicher’s words, “evades, legalizes, and calibrates slavery.”13 Perhaps there was no other way—perhaps there would have been no Constitution, no American Union, without the concessions to slavery. Regardless, the Union was likely imperiled from its very inception.
Two other factors endangered the Union and its future. As chapter 2 seeks to demonstrate, enslaved peoples persisted in running away, breaching that divide between slavery and freedom by the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands, and creating a cycle of action and reaction that plagued any attempts to maintain a house divided. Political leaders at the local and national level were unable to solve the massive problem of African Americans who ran away from slavery. It was a problem that vexed politicians and tore the nation apart.
The Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause was so ineffective that every generation of political leaders before the Civil War had to contend with the problem of runaways, efforts that culminated in the notorious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of a series of measures known collectively as the Compromise of 1850, a desperate and ill-conceived set of laws that tried to solve the sectional crisis over slavery in one fell swoop and included one of the worst laws ever passed by Congress. But we should give credit where it is due: all of the fugitive slave measures from the constitutional clause to the 1850 law failed because people of color rendered them impossible to maintain. The laws failed because enslaved people refused to abide by them and ran away by any and all means they could muster: jumping on railroads, bribing steamboat captains to let them ride aboard, stowing away on ships, walking hundreds of miles, even mailing themselves, as Henry “Box” Brown did when he packed himself in a crate with some water and tremendous fearlessness. Self-emancipation was a constant earthquake that shook the foundations of the Union’s hastily constructed house, and it was only a matter of time before the aftershocks wrecked it all.
A third, equally powerful problem, plagued the Union almost from its origin. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the border separating freedom and slavery stretched a thousand of miles from the Atlantic shores to far beyond the Mississippi River. The gaping holes in the border allowed people of color to escape bondage, but they also permitted slaveholders and their slave-hunting agents to track down runaways. Indeed, as Matthew Salafia has argued, in the western lands along the Ohio River, whites on both sides benefited from the fact that the border was fluid, porous, and difficult to police.14 That physical ambiguity allowed whites to hire cheap black and white labor, creating a cross-border economy that really had little interest in any kind of hard and fast wall between slavery and free soil. And while the legal trade could prosper under such ambiguity, the constant back-and-forth across the Ohio River made a mockery of the constitutional barrier that was supposed to keep slavery and free soil distinct, a liminal space that allowed an illegal economy to flourish as well. As we will see, kidnappers crossed into free territory with almost no fear of reprisal, whisking away black people and selling them as slaves. The magnitude of the problem of kidnapping has too long been obscured, despite the popularity of Solomon Northup’s story Twelve Years a Slave.
The border between slavery and freedom was simply too long, too complex, and too varied to be policed. The constant travel across the divide, rendered all the easier by the building of every new canal, road, and railroad, meant that even as the nation matured, it was undermining its ability to sustain itself. Many scholars, from Scott Hancock to Stanley Harrold and most recently Christopher Phillips, have studied the tremendous conflicts along the extensive boundary between slave and free soil, conflicts that rise (in Harrold’s words) to the level of an enduring simmering “border war.” And “war” is not too strong a word. No, we did not yet have hundred-thousand-strong armies on immense battlefields; those conflicts would not come until 1861. But the hundreds of small conflicts, complete with armed conflict and killing, spies and traitors, heroic deeds and acts of cowardice, meant that long before 1861, American communities—especially those along the precarious boundary between slavery and freedom—were being ripped apart by the turmoil caused by runaways.15
At the center of this story are enslaved people themselves, who, in refusing to accept bondage, crossed the borders set up by political and legal authorities to keep the Union together. Following closely on their heels were slave hunters who earned rewards for recapturing the self-emancipated and kidnappers who cared little whether or not a black person was born free or slave. By seizing people of color from free soil and selling them into slavery, kidnappers made themselves wealthy even as they reminded judges and politicians that the border was impossible to secure. States took each other to court over runaways, and the federal government ultimately proved inadequate to the task of keeping order, since with each passing day, runaways, kidnappers, and slave catchers across the hundreds of miles of borders with ease.
As the fight over the Fugitive Slave Act shows, African Americans struggled mightily and persistently, often using armed resistance, to thwart the recapture of runaways. They openly and defiantly questioned the nation’s commitment to basic principles of fairness and humanity, and they chastised white Americans for failing to live up to the professions of equality in the Declaration of Independence. Especially troubling for African Americans was the abrogation of fundamental rights to a trial by jury and habeas corpus, often the only two rights they could count on in a system heavily stacked against them. To an extent still unappreciated by modern readers, black northerners and southerners articulated a rights-based attack on the Fugitive Slave Law.
While African Americans defied politicians’ calls for cooperation, the Fugitive Slave Act also sparked a profound and wide-ranging debate among northern whites who shunned abolition but angrily resented the law. Since the law placed the burden of returning fugitives on free states, it sparked a fundamental debate within northern communities over the duties of the individual to obey unjust laws. Spurred by the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law, Americans engaged in a wide-ranging debate over the meaning of “rights,” “liberties,” and “conscience” not seen since the debates over the Constitution. Supporters and detractors of the law debated the definition of treason as well as the meaning of civil disobedience. No understanding of the causes of the Civil War or of the evolution of American freedom can be complete without an appreciation of the sermons that rang out from northern pulpits or the speeches ordinary blacks and whites delivered against the law. Far from relaxing sectional tensions as Clay and others had hoped, the law caused Americans to rethink fundamental questions. The answers Americans found did not draw the North and South together. Instead the answers drove the nation farther apart and helped convince leaders in both sections that civil war was the only remaining option.