Re-Electing Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Senator Sumner returned to Boston in something resembling triumph. Though badly traumatized and still suffering from his assault by Preston Brooks, he came home a hero and a martyr. Sumner said a few words, in a much-diminished voice, in answer to his first reception. At the State House, he intended to try a longer oration. He made it through a halting sentence or so before calling it quits. Sumner lacked the volume and ability to go further, but naturally passed his copy over to the newspapers.

Though visibly still an disability and debilitated, Sumner opted for more than the usual pleasantries. He regretted his five months convalescing, which kept him from arguing freedom’s case before the Senate and the people. No one could have missed the subtext: Sumner did want to go back to the Senate and his term did end fairly soon. They should vote for the Republicans so he could, or otherwise consider themselves friends to slavery’s swift advance.

Spent, Sumner let the throng see him to the family home. There his mother waited. They took to a window and bowed to a cheering crowd before retiring. The public ordeal cost Sumner dearly. He complained of his usual pains, but not in vain; Massachusetts stuck with its fallen Senator when the polls opened. John C. Fremont, the Republican’s first presidential candidate, lost to James Buchanan but he carried Massachusetts with seventy thousand votes, fifty thousand more than went to Buchanan and Millard Fillmore (now running as a Know-Nothing) combined. Anson Burlingame squeaked by into a second term as well. Republicans swept the state elections. His visible infirmity even convinced the previously opposing Boston Herald to endorse him.

As customary at the time, Sumner pretended he had no interest in his own re-election. In private, he kept a close eye on Governor Gardner, Burlingame, and others who though Sumner’s chair entirely too empty. He would speak about resigning only to then mention those connivers who wanted to succeed him. If a good, reliable man stepped forward then Sumner might change his mind. He named Charles Francis Adams, confident that no one would get behind that ticket. When January came around and the new legislature met, Sumner promised he would resume his duties within the month. He had a duty and would persevere, despite his continued infirmity.

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

As in his previous election, Sumner could feign aloofness in part because friends worked avidly on his behalf. The Bird Club, a group of antislavery politicians and intellectuals founded by Sumner’s friend Frank Bird, worked behind the scenes to get the senate election safely concluded and their man another six years as soon as possible. That proved soon indeed; the Massachusetts House voted before Governor Gardner’s inaugural address arrived. Only twelve men voted against Sumner. The Senate took up his candidacy four days later and approved it on a unanimous voice vote.



A Boston Welcome for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner gave up convalescence at Cresson, Pennsylvania, and returned to Philadelphia. There he received bad news yet again: his doctor believed that Sumner must refrain from any physical or mental excitement if he wanted to live. Sumner kept up an active correspondence, but refused invitations to attend public meetings. Delivering a speech, especially to a crowd and in his customary style, might well be beyond his ability. A public failure like that would not have done much for his fragile mental and physical state.

Sumner may have stayed in Philadelphia for longer, but Anson Burlingame looked poised to lose re-election. Sumner did not approve at all of his accepting Brooks’ challenge, but already at Cresson he received the Congressman with obvious affection for the benefit of the reporters on hand. When that, plus a public letter of support, did not seem adequate, Sumner returned to Boston. Ostensibly he came for a grand reception, but really to campaign. Though he did decline the banquet offered, Sumner had to muddle through the rest.

On November 3, the festivities began with Sumner driven from Longfellow’s home to that of Amos Lawrence, benefactor of the Emigrant Aid Society and longtime foe of the Senator’s. There Sumner received a plethora of guests in the afternoon, who came up from the State House in eighteen carriages. They in due course put him into an open carriage and escorted him to the Boston city line. There, in 1824, Josiah Quincy met the aged Lafayette on his return tour of the United States. Now, the aged Josiah Quincy met Sumner.

Quincy praised Sumner at length before a crowd of seven hundred, closing with thanks to Heaven for keeping him around long enough to see the day. Sumner, still in his carriage, leaned forward and appeared greatly moved. The powerful voice necessary for an orator in the age before microphones and speakers, failed Sumner. Appearing “haggard and careworn, with languid eye and pale cheek,” he spoke briefly. The Senator called his suffering “not small” but he did it for duty’s sake and it paled before what the good people of Kansas still endured.

Then the show continued, with Sumner transferred to a new carriage drawn by six gray horses, joining the mayor of Boston and Quincy for a half-mile procession through cheering crowds and beneath banners hung to welcome him. The crowd might have grown to seven thousand, packing the streets, hanging from windows, and standing on rooftops to get a look at their hero. Men, women, and children through bouquets into the carriage.

Governor Gardner welcomed Sumner to the State House with a consciously apolitical speech. All Massachusetts stood with their maimed Senator, just not necessarily on matters of policy. Sumner had a proper speech ready to go in response, but he only managed a few lines before his endurance gave out. He had somewhat more after Quincy spoke, but between that, all the crowds, and movement, Sumner had had enough. He passed the copy to reporters on hand for printing.

Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Four

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Curtis laid out a thoroughgoing definition of treason for his Boston grand jury back on October 15, 1851. You had to conspire to resist the laws of the United States, or their enforcement. You must use or threaten force. You didn’t have to plan far ahead or come in full military panoply, but you did have to intend to oppose execution of at least one law in all cases rather than just in a particular instance. Through all of this, Curtis has largely written in the context of the act itself and immediate perpetrators, but he did specify that treason came out of conspiracies and combinations. How far could those reach, legally speaking?

It should be known also, that treason may be committed by those not personally present at the immediate scene of violence. If a body of men be actually assembled to effect by force a treasonable purpose, all those who perform any part, however minute, or however remote from the scene of action, and who are actually leagued in the general conspiracy, are to be considered guilty of treason.

That spelled bad news for vigilance committees out to aid fugitive slaves in their escape. If we take the laws of Kansas as those of the United States, an arguable proposition but probably close enough for proslavery Kansans, then it also implicated the entire Kansas Legion. They had a military band aimed at resisting the territory’s laws, which they hardly needed unless they foresaw the use of force to resist. The Legion’s constitution specified that once a group reached a thirty men, it must have a military character. Jacob Branson, his rescuer Samuel Wood, and likely everybody of consequence in the free state movement had membership in such a combination.

The sudden burst of warrants and eager exploitation of the crisis to seize the free state leaders in Lawrence still looks like an opportunistic fishing expedition in light of this, but one with at least a plausible legal leg to stand on. Legal niceties didn’t bother proslavery Kansans and their Missourian allies all that much, but they could honestly say they observed some of the forms.

Curtis spelled it out in words that anticipate free state political activity almost word for word:

Influential persons cannot form associations to resist the law by violence, excite the passions of ignorant and unreflecting, or desperate men, incite them to action, supply them with weapons, and then retire and await in safety the result of the violence which they themselves have caused. To permit this, would not only be inconsistent with sound policy, but with a due regard to the just responsibilities of men. The law does not permit it. They who have the wickedness to plan and incite and aid, and who perform any part however minute, are justly deemed guilty

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Set aside the fact that Curtis had antislavery efforts in mind when he wrote all of this and I don’t see a great deal one could argue with. We might not reach for treason so quickly today as Curtis did, preferring some other offense, but his reasoning on each point appears sound and practical. His definitions don’t perfectly fit events in Kansas, but they come close. Given the real fear of slave revolt and already-extant inattention to the finer points of law, I come away from this with the strong sense that when most proslavery men said treason, they meant it. It served their purposes to make the claim, and some of the lawyers probably knew better, but it all fits together too well to read the accusations as entirely cynical.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Three

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Yesterday we looked at the first prong of Samuel Curtis’ test for treason as it related to fugitive slave rescues in his own Boston and, later on, to the events precipitating the Wakarusa War in Kansas. Curtis specified that one could levy war against the United States by any organized attempt to thwart the execution or enforcement of its laws by force. The fugitive rescuers surely did that. The free state movement, as of the end of 1855, had done the same if one counts the laws of Kansas as laws of the United States. If one does not, then they remained innocent. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, as customary for laws organizing territories, granted lawmaking authority to the territorial government with the proviso that Congress retained the power to review and annul such laws. Whether that makes them federal or not probably depends on where one stands. In the strictest reading, they don’t qualify. Functionally, however, they might come close enough to make little difference.

What of the nature of combinations to resist the laws, then? While the free state movement had a long paper trail, when Samuel Wood roused some men and came to Jacob Branson’s rescue he appears to have acted on his own authority. He led a militia company, but he made no effort to secure permission from the free state leadership to mount the rescue. Did relatively spontaneous acts count as conspiracy?

Curtis thought so:

Such a conspiracy may be formed before the individuals assemble to act, and they may come together to act pursuant to it; or it may be formed when they have assembled, and immediately before they act. The time is not essential. All that is necessary is, that being assembled, they should act in forcible opposition to a law few the United States, pursuant to a common design to prevent the execution of that law, in any case within their reach.

You didn’t have to plan ahead; you could treason on short notice. Curtis doubtless had in mind heat of the moment efforts to free slaves who dared steal their bodies from their rightful owners, but the relief of Branson counted too.

Of course, levying war still meant something more closely approximating war. You had to use “actual force” to graduate from talk to treason. What counted as that force? The Army of Northern Virginia qualifies and Samuel Wood’s band operated in similar ways, if on a vastly smaller scale. How big and organized did a treasonous conspiracy have to get? Not very:

It is not necessary that there should be any military array, or weapons, nor that any personal injury should be inflicted on the officers of the law. If a hostile army should surround a body of troops of the United States, and the latter should lay down their arms and submit, it cannot be doubted that it would constitute an overt act of levying war, though no shot was fired or blow struck.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Nobody shot Samuel Jones, but the threat of force worked just as well. If we grant that for the people Jones and his allies intimidated at the Kansas polls, then we can’t exclude the same tactics used against them. Samuel Wood and his men came out with guns, in a rush, outnumbering Jones and demanding his prisoner. It didn’t take a genius or a clairvoyant to know what would probably happen if he refused to yield up Branson. As Curtis wrote:

The presence of numbers who manifest an intent to use force, if found requisite to obtain their dmeands, may compel submission to that force, which is present and ready to inflict injury, and which may thus be effectually used to oppose the execution of the law. But, unfortunately, it will not often be necessary to apply this principle, since actual violence, and eve murder, are the natural and almost inseparable attendants of this great crime.

To cast a net broad enough to consider Jones acting under the laws of the United States also requires us to sweep up Kansas poll workers. Unlike the Sheriff, they had the letter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on their side. If it did not constitute a law of the Untied States, then no act of Congress could. Jones’ menacing of them looks at least as much like treason as Wood and company menacing him. Neither incident resulted in violence, contrary to Curtis’ expectations, but they didn’t need to.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

In October, 1851, Samuel Curtis gave his federal grand jury a definition of treason (PDF). He expected, in a Boston where antislavery Americans had lately rescued a few fugitive slaves from those who aimed to steal them back to slavery, that the jury might need to know. Curtis laid out a three point test: The accused must conspire. That conspiracy must involve obstructing the enforcement of a law of the United States. The conspiracy must then use force to that end. All of these applied to Bostonians who had saved enslaved Americans from recapture. Together, these things constituted levying war against the United States. They might, depending on how one read them, apply to the free state movement in Kansas as well.

Curtis did better than nineteenth century bullet points. He wanted his jurors to understand the law thoroughly and so gave a further explanation that runs to about a page of printed text. That section opened with an important qualifier:

It is not enough that the purpose of the combination is to oppose the execution of a law in some particular case, and in that only. If a person against whom process has issued from a court of the United States, should assemble and arm his friends forcibly to prevent an arrest, and in pursuance of such design, resistance should be made by those thus assembled, they would be guilty of a very high crime, but it would not be treason

In a Bostonian context, this means one could throw together to rescue Shadrach Minkins or Anthony Burns and not commit treason. Over in Kansas, Samuel Jones had a warrant to arrest Jacob Branson. He had that warrant under the authority of the federally-constituted territorial government. I don’t know if a territorial court operating under that law counts as a court of the United States rather than one of Kansas Territory, but even granting Jones the point Branson and his rescuers might fall short of Curtis’ definition of treason. They opposed the execution of the law, by force, in one particular case.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

However, if the individuals combined

forcibly to prevent any person from being arrested under that law, and with such intent, force is used by them for that purpose, they are guilty of treason.

Here Samuel Newitt Wood and company get into deeper trouble. They as much as told Jones that they would rescue anybody he came after with a warrant. Though the people of Lawrence tried to disavow the rescue of Branson, they had made rhetorical pledges to resist Kansas’ laws too. Their resistance didn’t extent to force, yet. They took pains to emphasize they resisted the laws of Kansas, not the United States. Charles Robinson, at least, understood resisting Wilson Shannon by force as resisting federal authority. Whether he meant that as a precise legal judgment or just a recognition of how Shannon might treat things, the ambiguity remains.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee, slave catcher

One might argue that the resistance to one law doesn’t really count, just as resisting on behalf of one person doesn’t count. Curtis anticipated the argument and would have nothing of it:

The law does not distinguish between a purpose to prevent the execution of one, or several, or all laws. Indeed, such a distinction would be found impracticable, if it were attempted. If this crime could not be committed by forcibly resisting one law, how many laws should be thus resisted to constitute it? Should it be two, or three, or what particular number short of all? And if all, how easy would it be for the worst of treason to escape punishment, simply by excepting out of the treasonable design, some one law.

The judge has a point. If the Army of Northern Virginia scrupulously held to the fugitive slave law, and they did so enthusiastically when they had the chance in Pennsylvania, then that hardly made them innocent of treason. Robert E. Lee commanded, among other things, the largest slave patrol in American history.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part One

Reading sources hostile to the free state movement, and antislavery in general, one often comes across mention of their treasonable nature. With regard to the wildcat state government that came to operate in Kansas in late 1855 and early 1856, the connection doesn’t require much explanation. They really did aim to set up an illegal government within the territory of the United States, in opposition to the legally-constituted government placed in charge of that same territory. When the guilty parties work only to obstruct the fugitive slave law, to the point of violence, the accusations seem more strained. Strained, however, does not mean insincere, hysterical, or inaccurate. I have previously tried to understand accusations of treason in the context of those making them and the situation at hand. I lacked a grounding in nineteenth century jurisprudence necessary to say more. Thanks to Al Mackey’s research (PDF), I can do better now.

On October 15, 1851, your author’s negative one hundred twenty-ninth birthday, Justice Samuel Curtis of the United States Circuit Court in Boston issued instructions to a grand jury. It doesn’t seem that Curtis had a specific case in mind when he gave these instructions, but rather made them in anticipation of cases likely to come before the jurors during their term. We know that Boston didn’t have another fugitive rescue until Anthony Burns, but he didn’t.

Curtis opens by explaining why we must take treason so seriously, noting that it alone receives a precise definition in the Constitution.

It is there made to consist in levying war against the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. This language is borrowed from an ancient English statute, enacted in the year 1352 (25 Edw. III.), mainly for the purpose of restraining the power of the crown to oppress the subject by arbitrary constructions of the law of treason.

That all sounds very high school civics. The Founders, understanding that accusations of treason could lead to serious oppression, precisely defined the crime. Themselves a band of traitors against the crown of Great Britain, they had experience on both sides of the law. To argue that either small bands rescuing fugitive slaves or a protest movement oriented towards achieving legitimacy with the United States government levied war against it may seem quite the stretch to us.

Curtis didn’t think so. According to “settled interpretation”

the words “levying war,” include not only the act of making war for the purpose of entirely overturning the government, but also any combination forcibly to oppose the execution of any public law of the United States, if accompanied or followed by an act of forcible opposition to such law in pursuance of such combination.

Curtis couldn’t read the free state movement into this back in 1851, but surely would have recognized it later just as he recognized treason in fugitive slave rescues. He provided the jury a helpful checklist for diagnosing traitors:

(1) A combination, or conspiracy, by which different individuals are united in one common purpose.

Whether the Boston vigilance committee or the free state party, we have that. The Blue Lodges gave the border ruffians much the same. But anybody could unite in common purpose. If you go out with friends to see a movie, you’ve done as much.

(2) This purpose being to prevent the execution of some public law of the United States by force.

Our night at the movies slips the net here. The free state movement, for all its rhetoric of resistance, also wrapped itself in the flag and declared specifically for a public law of the United States: the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Though one sees occasional reference to the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s sanctity from proslavery men, they generally defended their activities in terms of counteracting efforts by Emigrant Aid Societies. They concerned themselves, on paper, with tit for tat rather than the sanctity of the law, except for the Kansas slave code.

The free state party, whatever occasional disavowals its leaders made, did have active military companies enlisted for its cause. Prior to fooling Wilson Shannon into authorizing them, those forces occupied a deeply ambiguous role. However, they did not meaningfully satisfy Curtis’ third criterion:

(3) The actual use of force, by such combination, to prevent the execution of that law.

Nobody attacked the United States Army, revenue officers, or federal marshals. Andrew Reeder faced armed threats in regard to the execution of his duties, but the proslavery men declined to consummate them. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow attacked the governor and the matter ended with pistols drawn, but he had a personal grievance against Reeder for calling him a border ruffian.

By a very strict reading Curtis, it seems no one in Kansas had committed treason. The judge, however, intended a more expansive reading and offered it up to his jurors.

The Crafts (The Second Flight)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Antislavery Men on the Train Philadelphia Quakers and Boston Full text of the narrative.

Safe in Boston, the Crafts began a new life. They joined the church led by Theodore Parker, who also led the local fugitive slave protection operation. Their experiences made for a gripping narrative which the antislavery press widely disseminated. They had little reason to hide in Boston, home to two to three hundred fugitives just like them. They must have felt very safe, far from slavery, in a community hostile to it, and personally acquainted with white people sworn to protect them. Boston subscribed to Seward’s Higher Law against slavery and took from it authorization to break lower, mortal law.

Congress passed James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act on September 18, 1850. By that time, the Crafts’ owners had word that the couple lived free in Boston. Armed with the new law, which required local law enforcement to arrest and deliver back to slavery any black person that an owner or an owner’s agent proclaimed a fugitive and which stripped from the accused any possible defense, their owners sent two men to take the Crafts back into bondage.

William Craft

William Craft

The slave catchers, Hughes and Knight, reached Boston on October 25. William and Ellen went to ground. My sources disagree on where they hid. Their narrative places William at his home and Ellen at “a retired place outside the city.” James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom puts William at the home of a free black abolitionist who kept kegs of gunpowder on his porch and an arsenal in the kitchen. Ellen hides in the home of Theodore Parker, who kept a gun on his desk. I would normally give credence to the Craft’s own narrative, but McPherson had the luxury of writing long after the Fugitive Slave Act ceased to have legal force. The Crafts wrote in 1860, when naming people who aided them so directly would have also repaid their kindness with heavy fines. Their careful vagueness, especially in an otherwise specific portion of the text, speaks volumes.

While William and Ellen hid, the Vigilance Committee kicked into overdrive. Recruiting new members, it spawned sub-committees devoted to opposing Hughes and Knight, and slave catchers to come, in various ways. One group called on them and suggested they ought to leave town. Others put up posters calling them “man-stealers”. Still others arranged for their arrest, repeatedly, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap and, amusingly, defamation for calling the Crafts slaves. Still others harassed them openly on the streets.

Theodore Parker, minister and head of the Vigilance Committee

Theodore Parker, minister and head of the Vigilance Committee

As the Crafts hid and the Vigilance Committee frustrated Hughes and Knight, another man tried to put an end to the affair through more legal means: he promised if they surrendered that he would buy their freedom. William refused, seeing himself as a test case. Should the Boston abolitionists set the precedent that fugitives remained slaves and their freedom required their purchase, what would happen to the other two or three hundred of them? Did the abolitionists have pockets that deep? And given slave catchers often worked in secret, they could spirit off fugitives before the abolitionists knew to start raising the cash. Beyond that, the notion that after two years of freedom and a harrowing flight before he and his wife could still have their fates chose to suit the finances of whites must have chafed.

After five days of harassment  short stays in jail, and assurances that Boston did not want them and would not ensure their safety, Hughes and Knight left. Their employers, the Crafts’ owners, did not so easily give up. They wrote to Millard Fillmore, who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. Fillmore condemned the Boston abolitionists and promised to call out the military to take them back to slavery.

The Vigilance Committee could turn away two men. Could it turn away a hundred soldiers? If so, for how long? The prospect of hiding the Crafts from the army, and the consequences of failing to do so, must have daunted fugitives and abolitionists alike. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act did not only warm the hearts of the Slave Power South. The Crafts spend most of a page quoting Northern clergymen supporting it, including a Bostonian minister who plainly declared preserving the Union worth more than a fugitive’s freedom. If the army came to Boston, surely it would find many eager to trade the Crafts and any other fugitives in exchange for its departure.

With the clock running out, the Crafts took ship to England with a letter of introduction in hand. There they remained until the war and the Thirteenth Amendment brought about slavery’s end.