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Our Undying Past

''Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania''

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable. Here, from April 2, 1851:

The operation of the Fugitive Slave Law seems to have opened a new market for the slavers of the South. This may sound strangely in the ears of some … A slaveholder wishing to realize a few hundred or a thousand dollars, instead of risking the uncertainties of a Southern market, has only to dispatch some special agent, equipped with a letter of Attorney, executed in due form of law, to the North, authorizing him to seize, apprehend and sell some poor negro, who may be unable to prove his freedom the moment he is arrested.

The summary manner in which cases of this kind are required to be disposed of, almost necessarily prevent investigation into the character of such agent himself as a competent witness, to prove the identity of the fugitive, no difference what his character for truth really may be, for that, from the very nature of the case, cannot be inquired into. Thus is is rendered extremely easy to establish a claim of this kind.
It is well known that there is strong sympathy here in the North in favor of freedom, and although our citizens are ‘law abiding,’ yet they would pay almost any price rather than see a man dragged from his home into perpetual bondage. In this way it is that those claimed as slaves are sold in Pennsylvania.” The article mentioned a Pittsburgh case in which people paid $800, and said, “Thousands of dollars have already been extorted from the North in this way, and yet this odious law has only been in operation a few months. … If this state of things is to prevail, but a few of our colored citizens are secure in their persons or property for a day, notwithstanding the vaunting boast that America is the asylum for the oppressed and downtrodden of all nations.”

What a racket: black suspects railroaded; slave owners win by getting a new field hand or by extracting a bounty payment instead; mercenaries cash in either way. It was a rotten system that helped turn much of the Northern public against Southern “Slave Power”--and that lurched the nation closer to war.
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