The Burned Over District and the Jerry Rescue

Not every fugitive slave rescue could involve a pitched battle like what happened at Christiana, surely to the relief of all involved. Nobody wanted to get shot, even if they accepted the risk in certain circumstances. Most fugitives captured ended up back in slavery with the cooperation or silent indifference of the white North, or by the simple expedient of the slave catchers seizing their quarry and bolting South without risking the proper channels. We should not take the inspiring, if also deeply troubling, stories of the more dramatic rescues as evidence of a unified North committed to ending slavery. One would have trouble finding that even fairly late in the war.

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

In Upstate New York, the Burned Over District got its name from the waves of religious revivalism that swept over it in the few decades before the Civil War. The area gave birth to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Adventist family of denominations. But the revivalists did not limit themselves to matters spiritual. The District helped make abolition from a movement largely focused on persuading slaveholders and limited to small discussion groups into a popular, if still very much minority, affair. Something similar, if on a smaller scale, happened with women’s rights. The area also gave us temperance, which we took far too long to give back.

All of those public meetings, sermons, lectures, platforms, and papers translated into real action too. The Burned Over District gave birth to the nation’s first antislavery party, the tiny Liberty Party. Its small share of the New York vote might have swung the election of 1844 from Henry Clay to James K. Polk, as Clay and his Whigs even then had a somewhat more moderate position on slavery than the Democrats did. One can thus presume that at least some Liberty votes came at the expense of Clay, who lost New York by a margin of 5100 votes. The Liberty Party delivered 15,800 votes for its own James G. Birney. Had Clay won in 1844, the entire course of the following decades might have run very differently. Or it might not have, since Clay would face many of the same pressures Polk did.

At any rate, the Liberty Party had its state convention in Syracuse, a major station on the Underground Railroad, in 1851. Secretary of State Daniel Webster warned the party, and Syracuse in general, that the government would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act even under their noses and on October 1, as they convened in a local church slave catchers took William McHenry, a cooper who escaped slavery in Missouri. In Syracuse, he went by the name Jerry.

His captors told Jerry that they wanted him for theft, put him in irons, and then told him the truth. Jerry then put up a fight, but did only as well as someone in chains could expect. Word reached the Liberty Party in their church. The wife of the commissioner who would hear the case may have tipped them off. Hundreds of Liberty Party faithful and other abolitionists stormed the jail, under the leadership of prominent abolitionists Gerrit Smith and Samuel J. May and with Seward’s Higher Law as their ideological backbone. They took Jerry out and saw him off to Canada.

The grand jury indicted twenty-four people, half white and half black, for their roles in the Jerry Rescue. In a step back from the charges after the Battle of Christiana, which had yet to reach trial, they faced only accusations of rioting instead of also treason. Nine of the black defendants remained safe in Canada. Of the remainder who stood trial, only one black man received a conviction. He died during the course of appeals.

This and the previous rescues sound wonderful to most modern people, but imagine what they looked like in the South. The Georgia Platform came out in December of 1850, telling the nation that only the Fugitive Slave Act’s zealous enforcement by the North held the South to the Union. Now they saw mobs of Northerners ready to in effect overthrow the Union by jury nullification, by base violence, and in fact by treason, to subvert that very act’s enforcement. The minds of the long dead do not sit on a shelf where we can peer into them to know their every reaction, but it must have resembled the way Northerners looked on a later South using the same tools to subvert civil rights laws.

The Unionism of Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs rested on a plank to which the North eagerly applied a saw. How long could it last? Every rescue further armed their fire-eating opposites.

One comment on “The Burned Over District and the Jerry Rescue

  1. Chris says:

    I think you’d enjoy the history of the Bristol Hill Church in Volney, NY–do some searching, there’s a great story there!

    Very cool blog, glad I landed on it!

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