Fugitives From Slavery


Immediately after passing the nation’s first gradual abolition law in 1780, Pennsylvania became a haven for enslaved people escaping 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 Black people 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 Black people, 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 Black people 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 Black people, 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 Black people 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 Black individuals of being fugitives and the accused 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 Black people 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 white and thirty-three Black people 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 Black residents 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 Black persons, 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 Black people 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 Black people, 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 Black activists.

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Mason-Dixon Line

Library of Congress

The Mason-Dixon Line was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 to settle a border dispute between Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. During the antebellum period, the line, which is highlighted along the southern border of Pennsylvania in this map, began to be viewed as a demarcation between free and slave states. Pennsylvania, along with most of the other northern states, had passed emancipation laws, while those south of the line remained slave states. Due to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, slaves who fled over the border into Pennsylvania could be recovered by their owners despite Pennsylvania’s having gradually abolished slavery beginning in 1780. Philadelphia's proximity to this border and its strong abolitionist movement made the area a popular destination for slaves attempting to flee their captivity.

Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law

Library of Congress

Abolitionist sentiment in Philadelphia increased dramatically after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Prior to this, escaped slaves were essentially freed when they entered Pennsylvania due to a state law that prevented the forcible removal of African Americans with the intent to return them to slavery. The new law mandated that local law enforcement arrest fugitive slaves, and made assisting escaped slaves a punishable offense, forcing northerners in free states to be complicit in slavery.

This 1850 lithograph shows a group of four African American men being ambushed by five white slave catchers in the distance. The African Americans are depicted in fashionable and expensive clothing, intended to show the viewer that these were not fugitives but free men. Below them, passages from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence proclaim the equality of all men. The act led to some legal cases in Pennsylvania when residents continued to assist escaped slaves.

Robert Purvis

Library Company of Philadelphia

Robert Purvis, born in South Carolina to a wealthy cotton broker and a mixed-race mother, was a leader for the African American community. His maternal grandmother was a former slave whom Purvis admired greatly. He moved to Philadelphia at age nine and attended the Clarkson School, run by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society. He later became the first African American member of that organization and served as its president from 1845 until 1850. In 1833, he founded the Library Company of Colored People, a subscription library for African Americans based on the Library Company of Philadelphia. Five years later, he wrote the “Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisment, to the People of Pennsylvania” in reaction to the state's new proposed constitution barring African Americans from voting.

Purvis was one of a group of Philadelphians who helped free slaves enter the city and protected them from being returned to slavery, the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia or Vigilant Committee, which he founded in 1837. The Vigilant Committee operated relatively openly compared to the Underground Railroad, even publishing the names of members so that fugitives could find them easily. Purvis estimated that they helped one slave per day to freedom. The committee's most famous rescue was of Jane Johnson, a slave owned by North Carolina politician John T. Wheeler. Johnson and her children were rescued while on a brief stop in the city and despite court cases and a prison sentence, committee members never revealed their location.

John H. Wheeler

Library of Congress

South Carolina politician and ambassador to Nicaragua John H. Wheeler was at the center of one of Philadelphia's most notorious fugitive slave cases. Wheeler traveled with Johnson and her two young children from Washington to Philadelphia, intending to continue north to New York City where they would board a ship to Central America. While in Philadelphia Johnson approached a free black hotel porter, who alerted the Vigilant Committee, a group dedicated to helping slaves escape to freedom. The chairman of the committee, William Still, and the secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, Passmore Williamson, found Johnson and her children waiting to board a ferry with Wheeler.

Williamson explained Pennsylvania's personal liberty laws to Wheeler, who was being restrained by five black dockworkers. Johnson and her sons left with Still in a carriage. Williamson, the only white participant, was summoned to appear in court with Johnson and her sons, but Still never revealed their location. He was sentenced to time in Moyamensing Prison for contempt of court, which brought the case to national media attention.

Johnson and her family settled in Boston. Her son Isaiah fought with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. In 2002, a novel by Hannah Crafts entitled A Bondswoman's Narrative dating to shortly before the Civil War was published after historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. purchased and authenticated it. Jane Johnson and her escape are mentioned in the novel, which is set in the North Carolina home of the Wheeler family, and she was suspected of being the author. In 2013, further evidence revealed that another of Wheeler's slaves, Hannah Bond, was the author. Bond, too, had escaped Wheeler's possession and fled to the north. She settled in New Jersey and became a teacher.

Pennsylvania Colonization Society Lifetime Membership Certificate

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Despite apparent willingness to aid fugitive slaves, many whites in Philadelphia resented their presence and that of other free black men. In the 1820s, the American Colonization Society purchased a new territory on the Atlantic coast of Africa, which they named Liberia, the Latin word for “freedom.” The national organization sought to encourage and fund the emigration of blacks to Liberia by soliciting member donations, presented as a return to Africa.

It was opposed by prominent abolitionists in the city who believed it tantamount to a return to slavery and argued that many of the free men were born in the United States and held no desire to leave. Still, support for the movement was strong in the Greater Philadelphia area. In 1828, the Pennsylvania Colonization Society was founded. This certificate was presented to members who donated enough money in the 1830s, making them life members.

The Disappointed Abolitionists

Library Company of Philadelphia

Isaac T. Hopper was a Quaker who served on the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Acting Committee. Though he worked through the law to protect blacks as part of the PAS, he was also known for bending the law as early as the late 1700s and into the early 1800s by helping slaves escape. He moved to New York City in 1829.

This political cartoon from around 1838 shows Hopper, far left, with fellow abolitionists David Ruggles and Barney Corse. The cartoon was drawn in response to “the Darg Case,” in which the three men helped Virginia-based slave Thomas Hughes to escape into New York City with nearly $7,000 of his owner John Darg's money. They convinced Darg to free Hughes in exchange for the return of the money. When they refused to return the full sum, Darg charged the men with grand larceny. The case became a media sensation.

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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.

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