"On the edge of freedom the fugitive slave issue in south central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870" /

by Smith, David G.

Abstract (Summary)
The development of abolitionism in south central Pennsylvania, a border region of a border state, was different than in the upper North. Early attempts at antislavery activity met with fierce resistance, and so the area’s abolitionists adopted a less confrontational approach, to which the fugitive slave issue was well suited. South central Pennsylvania (Adams, Franklin, and Cumberland counties) had hundreds of fugitives traveling through during the antebellum decades, aided by an organized underground railroad. The issue appealed to humanitarianism, and the individual fugitive was less threatening than the potential results of mass emancipation. Area abolitionists helped lead an unusually effective petition campaign that changed state law, and they crafted a legal strategy prosecuting kidnappers who seized innocent African Americans as fugitives. Their success brought about a response from the south, and several prominent figures were tried for aiding fugitive slaves. Through Thaddeus Stevens, the border perspective on the issue even surfaced in Congress during the debates on the 1850 Compromise. In the border state of Pennsylvania, however, the fugitive slave issue alone could not drive a revolution in politics; the Christiana riot helped unseat an antislavery governor and by the end of the decade of the 1850s, it was the opponents of helping fugitives that were agitating this issue more than the proponents. The drawbacks to emphasizing this issue over militant, immediate abolitionism with an emphasis on equal rights became apparent during the Civil War and its aftermath. The fugitive slave issue was writ large during the war, as hundreds of “contrabands” from Maryland and Virginia swarmed into the area, and scores were recaptured by the Confederate army during its invasions. After the war, a variety of social and demographic changes worked against African Americans achieving lasting improvements in status or opportunities. Although many works of popular memory remembered this area as a vanguard of the Underground Railroad, by the 1920s, south central Pennsylvania had become in many ways as segregated as most parts of the Jim Crow South. Ironically, the fugitive slave issue, by reinforcing images of dependency, may have actually worked against achievement of lasting social change. iii
Bibliographical Information:


School:Pennsylvania State University

School Location:USA - Pennsylvania

Source Type:Master's Thesis



Date of Publication:

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