Category Archives: Background & Context

Fugitive Slave Laws

Overview

There were only two federal fugitive slave laws in American history –1793 and 1850– but they were both enormously controversial.  Each one derived from what is now known as the Fugitive Slave Clause of the original 1787 U.S. constitution (Article IV, Section 2).  However, that clause proved to be too vague and uncertain for easy enforcement, especially after Northern states began abolishing slavery within their own boundaries.  Over the years between 1788 and 1861, these states imposed obstacles against federal enforcement of the fugitive code on their “free soil,” usually dubbed “personal liberty” statutes.  Ultimately, these state laws compelled the Supreme Court to rule on the conflict in a series of landmark cases (especially 1842 and 1859).  Yet even with all of that national debate over runaway slaves, the actual operations of the federal system on fugitive recapture and rendition was notably sporadic.  Black resistance proved fierce.  Even in northern states where color prejudice was strong and abolitionist sentiment was weak, there seemed to be greater white sympathy for the plight of freedom seekers and a significant wellspring of northern state rights sentiment that made enforcing the federal code quite difficult.  Thus, it was also true that for slave states such as Missouri, their own “slave stealing” statutes often proved more important to the return of runaways and the prosecution of those “Underground Railroad” operatives who assisted them than any federal code.  Yet obviously that meant that if any individuals or groups of freedom seekers could actually succeed in crossing into free soil, there chances of liberation were strong.  Southern complaints about this reality escalated throughout the 1850s and proved to be a central component of the movement toward secession in 1860-61.


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Slave Stampedes as Mobile Insurrections

This online research journal represents the first stage of a joint effort by the National Park Service (NPS) Network to Freedom and the House Divided Project at Dickinson College to address the phenomenon of group escapes from slavery.  Our regional focus is on the Missouri borderlands during the antebellum and wartime period. Contemporaries almost always called these group escapes, “slave stampedes.”  Yet that term rarely appears in modern-day studies of the Underground Railroad or resistance to slavery.  Even the idea of large groups of freedom seekers moving defiantly together toward attempted self-liberation seems almost impossible many teachers and students to accept.  Yet stampedes happened –sometimes quite frequently– and we need to try to understand what these revolutionary episodes meant to Americans in that era.

To begin this journey, we suggest watching this short 2-minute video interview with Dr. Deanda Johnson of the National Park Service Network to Freedom.  She offers a concise history of the term’s origins and explains how the reality of group attempts at liberation can complicate our understanding of the Underground Railroad.  Then you might want to read the attached 2019 essay by Professor Matthew Pinsker from Dickinson College.  His 23-page introductory survey of the topic also helps explains why the Missouri borderlands should rightly be considered at the front lines of the stampedes phenomenon and how both antebellum and wartime slave stampedes helped tip the balance toward the final destruction of slavery.

At this online research journal, we will continue to post examples of the historical material that we are turning up in our digital and archival searches about the phenomenon.  This is truly a team effort, involving faculty and students, with significant input from our outside academic experts. Eventually, our findings will form the basis of an online report with various multi-media maps and tools, and a freely accessible database designed to provide an array of resources for anyone who wants to learn more about this important subject.  For now, however, please consider this site as a kind of open historical laboratory.  We are trying to share our progress as it develops, seeking your input and assistance whenever it might be helpful.