Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Fugitive Slave Law
 
Frederick Douglass’s participation increased as the flow of fugitives through Rochester and into Canada during 1849 multiplied.  The end result was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal legislation designed to reduce tensions between the slave owning Southern states and what was perceived by them more increasingly to be an anti-slavery North.
 
The fugitive slave act was part of a large compromise put together by Congress to persuade Southern states not to succeed from the Union.  The South had been particularly concerned about the slave status of future states formed from territory recently obtained following the successfully concluded war with Mexico.  Would these states permit or prohibit slavery?  Southern Congressmen had threatened succession if slavery were to be excluded.  The compromise offered was that California would be admitted immediately as a free state but future states would be slave or free based upon the voted upon wishes of local citizens.  Southern slave owners wanted more; they wanted a tough fugitive slave law that would not only bring back to them their property but would also punish those who had so effectively assisted fugitives in their escape.  The Fugitive Slave Law gave them that.  Then and only then were they willing to accept legislation that ended the buying and selling of slaves in the nation’s capital.  These four measures became known as the Compromise of 1850.  Threats of succession subsided.  Southern states would remain in the Union ten more years.
 
Ironically, attempted enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law intensified the bitterness of slave owners for it helped solidity anti-Southern attitudes of Northern citizens, who resented the shady practices, well-publicized in newspapers, of slave-catching agents sent north to retrieve runaways.  Free blacks had to prove their status; if they could not, they could be seized on the charge of being runaways.  The Law provided judges the compensation of ten dollars for each individual they deemed a fugitive and five dollars for each they declared to be free.  Some free black men were simply kidnapped and sent South into slavery.  So had several white people, who were not able to furnish immediate proof of their color.  The Fugitive Slave Law was the first of several events during the 1850’s that would turn the minds and emotions of a majority of citizens in the North against the threats and practices of the slave-owning South.  One of those events would involve John Brown, at the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
 
Frederick Douglass and other black leaders in and about Rochester were fearful of their own safety after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Several black ministers and their entire congregations crossed over the border into Canada.  Douglass chose, however, to remain where he was, and to continue his aid to fugitives.  He reasoned that anti-slavery whites would begin to resist and eventually thwart the practices of the slave-catchers and kidnappers.  His prediction proved to be correct.
 
Perhaps inspired by the spirit of John Brown, he took into his home a group of fugitives led by a slave named Parker.  News over telegraph wires had preceded Parker’s arrival.  Pursued into Pennsylvania and confronted by his master, the man’s son, and officers of the law. Parker had opened fire upon them with a pistol.  One shot killed the master, a second wounded the son, and a third sent the others into retreat.  A widespread search of the Pennsylvania mountains began, as the news of the confrontation spread from town to town.  Parker and his two companions were more than fugitives now; they were murderers.  They arrived at Douglass’s home soon after Douglass learned of their deed.  Parker had decided against taking refuge in the mountains but had pressed onward without stopping for two days and night.  Now Douglass had to decide what to do about him.
 
As they slept, he sent Julia Griffiths to the Genesee Rover landing, three miles away, to inquire casually about boats leaving that night for Canadian ports.  A steamer was scheduled to sail for Toronto that night.  Several hours later Douglass hitched the horses to his family carriage.  The men were seated at his table and hurriedly consumed a meal cooked by Anna Douglass.  No doubt Douglass wondered if agents would be waiting for them at the dock, alerted by those whom Julia Griffiths had spoken to earlier.  The four of them waited fifteen minutes in the carriage as the steamer prepared to depart.  At the last possible moment the four of them hurried to the dock and walked up the gang plank.  When the order was given for the plank to be hauled in, Parker clasped Douglass’s arm and slipped something into his hand.  It was the pistol.  With it Douglass returned to his carriage and drove homeward.