Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Fugitives From Slavery

Immediately after passing the nation’s first gradual abolition law in 1780, Pennsylvania became a haven for fugitive slaves from neighboring states, putting the state at odds with slaveholders throughout the South and causing tension with Maryland in particular. Though New Jersey also attracted escaping slaves, and whites in both states had mixed reactions to the newcomers, Pennsylvania’s location on the Mason-Dixon Line created a unique situation that influenced local and national attitudes about the issue of slavery.

A color map highlighting the borders between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware

The Mason Dixon Line—the long horizontal red line on this map—is legendary for dividing free and slave territory. (Library of Congress)

Tension permeated this region where slavery and freedom sat side by side. By the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution seven years after Pennsylvania passed its abolition law, all northern states except New York, New Jersey, and Delaware had made provisions to end slavery, at least gradually. This left the nation divided along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border—the Mason-Dixon line—with Pennsylvania as the first free state north of the line and Maryland the first slave state to the south.

Questions arose over whether slaveholders could take their human property into non-slave states or retrieve runaways. The U.S. Constitution sought to answer questions like this by regulating the relationship between states, and in 1793, while Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, Congress took the matter further with a Fugitive Slave Law that enforced the return of anyone bound to labor in one state and fleeing to another. As sectional animosity reached its zenith, legislators offered a second Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 that required state and local authorities to assist in the recapture of runaways. Pennsylvania abolitionists resisted both laws through legal means and efforts to gain public sympathy for the fugitives.

Slave Catchers and Kidnapping

A black and white lithograph of four black men being ambushed by a crowd of white men

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made assisting fleeing slaves a punishable offense. In the 1850s, Pennsylvanians were sometimes brought to court for helping and concealing fugitive slaves. (Library of Congress)

While fugitive laws aimed to return runaways to slavery, they also placed northern free blacks in jeopardy of being kidnapped by eager slave-catchers. In response, in 1811 the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) began pushing for the first state personal liberty law, eventually passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1820. The law imposed fines and jail sentences for kidnappers of suspected fugitives and required judges to file reports any time they deemed someone a fugitive and returned him or her to slavery. Combined with abolitionists’ resistance to slavery and the slave trade and their reputation for assisting free blacks, the personal liberty law encouraged many fugitives from slave states, especially nearby Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, to head straight for Pennsylvania.

Slaveholders throughout the U.S. reacted swiftly in characterizing Pennsylvania as an enemy to their interests. Maryland slaveholders and legislators were especially unhappy with the personal liberty law, viewing it as an impediment to their right to lawfully pursue fugitives. With debates also raging over whether slavery would be extended into new territories, beginning with Missouri, more and more people began to question how free states and slave states could coexist as enslaved people sought refuge in free states and slave catchers kidnapped free blacks from free states.

A political cartoon of two white men and one black man cowering while being confronted by an angry white man holding a chair and a bag of money

Isaac T. Hopper (far left) was a Quaker who served on the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Acting Committee. Though he worked through the law to protect blacks, he was also known for bending the law by helping slaves escape. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

As the tensions between freedom and slavery heated up during the antebellum years, abolitionists working to protect free blacks sometimes extended their efforts to safeguard fugitives as well. Throughout the border North, notably in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, antislavery leaders stressed that slave catchers were disregarding the rights of states to legislate for themselves on the matter of slavery. This led to outcries that the “slave power” was seeking to force slavery on the entire nation. As a result, some mid-Atlantic whites began to call upon their states to adopt personal liberty laws. One successful example was the 1820 Pennsylvania law that focused primarily on providing jury trials for accused fugitives.

Defending Accused Fugitives in Court

Abolitionist lawyers such as William Rawle (1759-1836) and Evan Lewis (1782-1834) defended accused fugitives in court from the early days of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. One of the more famous attorneys, Quaker David Paul Brown (1795-1872), represented and won freedom for a number of black Americans during his forty-year career. Freedom suits grew even more complicated after the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its controversial Fugitive Slave Law. At this point, as historian Charlene Mires has shown, the old Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) became the scene of a number of heated cases in which whites accused blacks of being fugitives and blacks and their abolitionist allies fought to establish their freedom. In one case, a man named Henry Garnet ran out of the courtroom celebrating his newly-granted freedom, only to be arrested by police who assumed he was attempting an escape. This case in particular illustrates the precarious position of the men and women who pleaded their cases in the building that, by that time, was celebrated by many as the birthplace of American liberty.

A black and white photo of Robert Purvis shown in profile

Robert Purvis was a leader of the African American community and a key figure in Philadelphia’s Vigilant Committee. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

While abolitionists took their cases to the courts, free blacks and their white allies undertook covert action to assist runaways more directly through such means as the Underground Railroad and slave rescues that were often undertaken by Vigilance Committees. In addition to such noted slave rescues as that of Jane Johnson (c. 1814-22-1872), Pennsylvania also saw organized resistance in the form of the Christiana Riot. In this 1851 case, a Maryland slave owner acquired the necessary warrants to pursue suspected fugitives in Lancaster County but was killed during the pursuit. Five whites and thirty-three blacks were charged with interfering with the Fugitive Slave Law, an infraction that carried a charge of treason. To some, these men were simply carrying out the promise of American freedom, but to others they were murderers who disregarded the nation’s laws. In the end, the prosecution failed to gain treason convictions, but public opinion remained split.

Support from abolitionists and free blacks encouraged people in bondage to flee, but their presence angered many whites and led them to resent the free black community. Historian Edward Raymond Turner, one of the first to focus on race relations in Pennsylvania, contended that, even while Pennsylvanians fought to help fugitives thwart the designs of their masters, most whites in the state held prejudiced views of blacks, especially fugitive slaves, as inferior. Indeed, it was during this same period that Pennsylvanians supported the strongest state auxiliary to the American Colonization Society, a group that worked hard to send blacks to Africa.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a significant number of whites saw the fugitives, rather than the slave catchers, as the source of disruption and lawlessness. Historian James Gigantino has argued that New Jersey politicians consistently communicated “solidarity with southerners, a desire for law and order on the border, and for gradual approaches to abolition.” Historian David Smith found similar tensions in southeastern Pennsylvania, but he concluded that antislavery leaders like Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) found a way to chip away at slavery by focusing on individual kidnap victims and fugitives. In taking individual cases to court, they were able to appeal to some local whites on a personal level by humanizing accused fugitives while keeping with the PAS tradition of using legal action rather than the sweeping emotional appeals offered by those demanding an immediate end to slavery.

Rhetoric over the status of the new territories grew heated throughout the antebellum years, with opponents of slavery insisting that the new states exclude slavery in favor of a “free soil” system that allowed fair competition by preventing slaveholders from using their power, influence, and captive labor to dominate the new states. This political antislavery led to the creation of the Liberty Party in the 1840s, but, due partly to Stevens’s involvement, border abolitionists had developed a political antislavery that predated the emergence of that party and laid the groundwork for political abolition. As historian Richard Newman has shown, Pennsylvania abolitionists, free blacks, and the fugitives who sought their aid also created a “free soil” mindset even before the term was applied to the new territories in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Historians agree that the fugitives forced the issue of slavery to remain at the forefront of border state politics, and their self-help efforts reinforced the work of abolitionists and free blacks.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Densmore, Christopher. “Seeking Freedom in the Courts: The Work of the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, and for improving the Condition of the African Race, 1775-1865.” Pennsylvania Legacies (November 2005), 16-19.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Gigantino, James J. II. The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Mires, Charlene. “Slavery, Nativism, and the Forgotten History of Independence Hall.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies Vol. 67, No. 4 (Autumn 2000): 481-502.

Nash, Gary B. and Jean Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Newman, Richard. “‘Lucky to be born in Pennsylvania’: Free Soil, Fugitive Slaves and the Making of Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Borderland.” Slavery & Abolition Vol. 32, No. 3 (September 2011) 413-30.

Okur, Nilgun Anadolu. “Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1830-1860.” Journal of Black Studies Vol. 25, No. 5 (May 1995), 537-57.

Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Tomek, Beverly. Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Wilson, Carol. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in American Society, 1780-1865. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Additional Sources

Still, William. The Underground Railroad (1872). Available online via Project Gutenberg.

Turner, Edward Raymond. The Negro in Pennsylvania, 1639-1861. Washington, D.C: American Historical Association, 1911.


Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers and William Still Journals, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

Places to Visit

African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

Congress Hall, Sixth and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia.

Independence Hall, Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Did Underground Railroad pass through Cumberland Md into Wv, near West Union West Virginia ?

    Wallace Hood Posted July 8, 2018 at 7:41 pm

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