Ona Judge: The Story of a Fugitive Slave (Part Two)

Washington's Advertisement

Washington’s Advertisement

Though Ona freed herself and escaped to New Hampshire, she still had to live as a fugitive. Wanting his property back, Washington had an advertisement posted notifying Philadelphia of her escape and offering a reward. Men in Washington’s employ, or just interested in the reward, could find her and take her back at any time if they learned where she went.

A senator’s daughter recognized Ona from Philadelphia and word soon reached Washington. He wrote to Portsmouth’s customs collector about capturing Judge and returning her. The collector, a political appointee of Washington’s by the name of Joseph Whipple, refused to seize Ona on the grounds that doing so might cause a riot.  He did, however, pretend he wanted to hire her and so gained an interview with Judge.

Whipple reported to Washington:

It gave me much satisfaction to find that when uninfluenced by fear she expressed great affection & reverence for her Master & Mistress, and without hesitation declared her willingness to return & to serve with fidelity during the lives of the President &his Lady if she could be freed on their decease, should she outlive them; but that she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery & [be] liable to be sold or given to any other persons.

Washington answered:

I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.

(Wikisource has the complete correspondence.)

After leaving office, Washington dispatched a nephew to resolve matters. Ona met with Washington’s nephew and he tried to persuade her to return. A married woman with an infant child now and her husband away at sea, Judge refused. Washington’s nephew left her but confided in a senator that he would soon seize Judge and carry her away. The senator sent word to Ona and she ran a second time, hiding with a free black who lived some distance from town.

After his nephew’s second attempt, Washington let the matter drop. Judge lived until 1848. By Virginia law, she and her children (and also any children her daughters, granddaughters, etc ever had) never ceased being slaves. Washington could have tried again and succeeded in taking her and her children. So could the Custis heirs, who would include Robert E. Lee’s wife and children. After Washington died Ona might have felt safe, and certainly personal liberty laws shielded her in the 1840s when two abolitionist newspapers printed her story, but the possibility never quite went away. Even if unlikely, a Custis heir could present himself and, after 1846, use the very articles detailing her life as evidence he owned her.

The new Fugitive Slave Act stripped away that security. Slave catchers became a real threat even in the most abolitionist parts of the North. According to David Blight, something on the order of twenty thousand people fled from the North into Canada in response to the new law. It took away the security that personal liberty laws and local abolitionists gave to people like Ona Judge. While technically always runaways, the once distant threat of them and their children being taken back to slavery became at a stroke a clear and present danger.

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