The Underground Railroad – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 2
to prove both ownership and that the slave had escaped, and the fugitive
had no rights to trial or a writ of habeas corpus. Some states resisted the
law by insisting that only federal magistrates could hear runaway cases or
passing “personal liberty laws,” which gave to fugitives who were identied
by slave catchers the right to trial by jury and the right to testify. Northern
states also imposed stiff nes for kidnapping. By 1820 most Northern
states had prohibited slavery by state statute more for political than
economic reasons. The Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery above the
36°30' line, and the abolition movement began to expand, encouraged by the Second Great Awakening and the fact
that England outlawed slavery in 1833.
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) the US Supreme Court ruled that personal liberty laws were unconstitutional, stating
that a citizen’s right to recover property overrode any state’s effort to restrict that right. Additionally, the court ruled
that enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was a federal responsibility and state ofcials or private citizens
could not be coerced into assisting in the capture of fugitives. To reinforce this provision, several Northern states
passed statutes prohibiting state ofcials or jails from being used in the recovery of fugitives.
The fugitive debate intensied with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of
1850, part of the Compromise of 1850 that greatly expanded the power of
Southerners to reclaim fugitives. Slave catchers brought a captured runaway
before a special “federal commissioner” to determine a fugitive’s status. White
witnesses or an afdavit from a slave state was all that was required to prove
ownership: the slave catcher needed only to state that the accused was a slave
unless there was documentation to the contrary. Slave catchers were paid a
fee, and the commissioner was paid by the slave owner: $10 if he ruled in the
owner’s favor and $5 if he ruled against the owner. Many saw this as a bribe to
rule in the slave owner’s favor. Another element of the 1850 law that particularly
angered Northerners was the fact that it required federal marshals to apprehend
fugitives and permitted them to deputize private citizens to aid in the effort.
The great irony of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was that the Southerners
demanded federal power to support the return of fugitives, while the Northern
states argued for state sovereignty to resist those efforts.
President Franklin Pierce (1804–1869) used the federal army and navy to
enforce the 1850 law. For instance, one of the more famous examples of a
fugitive return was that of Anthony Burns in 1854. In Boston, where rowdy
crowds lined the streets, the US infantry was needed to march Burns to a waiting ship to return him to slavery in
Virginia. The federal government spent thousands of dollars to return this one fugitive.
With the publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Anthony Burns case, the fugitive issue became even
more volatile. Northern states reacted to the Burns case by passing new personal liberty laws. The abolitionist
movement expanded, and the activities of the Underground Railroad accelerated. Free blacks and escaped slaves,
assisted by white abolitionists, continued to take a leading role in the Underground Railroad.
This lesson focuses upon letters written by Thomas Garrett to
William Still, both vigilance agents, those who assisted fugitives,
on the UGRR. William Still (1821–1902), the son of slaves, was
born in New Jersey, the youngest of 18 children. At 23 he moved to
Philadelphia to seek employment, and he joined the Pennsylvania
Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1847. He advanced
to become head of the Philadelphia UGRR ofce, working tirelessly
to raise funds, arrange passage, and negotiate safe houses for
fugitives, usually among the free black population of Philadelphia. He
remained active in the African American community until his death.
1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
2. When was it written?
3. Who wrote it?
4. For what audience was it intended?
5. For what purpose was it written?
Thomas Garrett, 1789–1871 William Still, 1821–1902