Community Forum: Jane Williamson, Present times echoing 1850
This week’s writer is Jane Williamson, executive director of Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum, a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
Echoes of 1850
The Trump Administration’s order banning immigrants and refugees from seven mostly Muslim countries reminds us how history can repeat itself. Many reporters and commentators have recalled past bans or quotas — the Chinese in the 1880s, southern Europeans in 1924 and the infamous refusal to admit a shipload of German Jews in 1939.
I can’t stop thinking about 1850.
The “refugees” subject to federal mandate that year were born in one part of the United States (though they were not counted as citizens) and sought asylum in another. The new Fugitive Slave Act was designed to plug holes in the old one, passed in 1793. It imposed a dreadful choice on northern citizens: assist federal agents in recapturing runaway slaves or face a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. It also specifically denied the slave’s right to a jury trial that several northern states, including Vermont, guaranteed. It put federal commissioners in charge and paid them $5 if they released alleged fugitives and $10 if they returned them to former owners.
Outrage and opposition came swiftly in 1850, just as they have today, and the similarities resonate. Within days of its passage that September, the Fugitive Slave Act created both turmoil and defiance in northern black — and white — communities. Many fugitive slaves living in the North fled to Canada _ an estimated 20,000 from 1850 to 1860. But many resisted. They organized massive protest meetings and mobilized to protect their homes and neighbors.
They didn’t call them sanctuary cities in 1850, but many pledged to shelter the fugitives in their midst. Addressing a rally in Syracuse, N.Y., Reverend Jermain Loguen thundered his defiance as he urged the assembled citizens to declare their city a refuge. A fugitive slave himself, Loguen appealed to his neighbors to resist the law that would re-enslave him: “Whatever may be your decision, my ground is taken … I don’t respect this law — I don’t fear it — I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it. If you will stand by me — and I believe you will, for your freedom and honor are involved as well as mine — I say if you will stand with us in resistance to this measure, you will be the saviors of your country.” The assembled residents voted four to one in favor.
The Burlington Daily Free Press also promised protection. An editorial printed on Oct. 7 invited “every Fugitive Slave in the United States to take Vermont on his way toward freedom in Canada. We are willing to guaranty [sic] that he can get a night’s lodging and a free pass over the Lines, without any particular danger from that elevated species of the human race known as ‘slave catchers.’”
The first fugitive slave seized in New England, Shadrach Minkins, was arrested in Boston in February 1851. But Boston’s free black community would not give him up without a fight. As abolitionist lawyers stalled for time, a huge crowd gathered at the courthouse. Twenty black men rushed in, overpowered the federal marshals, and carried Minkin’s bodily down the stairs and out the door. The marshals stood helpless before a crowd of 200 angry Bostonians. Minkins was spirited away and transported to Canada. His exact journey remains a mystery, but his arrival in Montreal means he almost certainly traveled through Vermont.
Both the Fugitive Slave Act and the current ban addressed picky legal and jurisdictional issues. Then and now, Vermont officials disagreed with federal action and refused to take part in it. In 1850, the legislature took less than two months to pass a habeas corpus act seeking to subvert the jury trial ban. And last week, Gov. Scott, Attorney General Donovan, and several legislators vowed to pass legislation protecting immigrants and refugees living in Vermont.
The federal actions of 1850 and 2017 have one more thing in common: unintended consequences. By making northern citizens complicit in what they saw as treachery, the Fugitive Slave Act enraged many and transformed once lukewarm antislavery supporters into activists. Instead of calming sectional tensions, it exacerbated them — the exact opposite of the law’s intent. The Trump Administration’s ban has had a similar impact, as citizens and immigrants, attorneys general from different states, and the courts have all joined in opposition. When presidential candidate Trump promised to unite the country, I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
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