Fugitives and Filibusters

Christiana Riot, September 11, 1851

Despite the “final settlement” of the sectional crisis offered by the Compromise of 1850, the battles over slavery actually grew more intense over the next few years.  Students in History 288 should be able to describe the significant resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law that emerged in 1851.  Why was the law so controversial?  Where did resistance erupt?  Much of this story requires a deeper understanding of the so-called “Underground Railroad” and how the network to free slaves actually operated.  Students can read a short essay by Prof. Pinsker on this subject here and can compare his version of the resistance effort and its impact to the one emerging in chapter 3 of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.  They should also consider the nature of filibustering in the 1850s and be able to explain, using material from chapter 3, what motivated southern filibusters and how they proceeded in their goal to extend the empire of slavery.  In particular, students should be able to identify leading filibusters such as John Quitman and William Walker.

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4 Responses to Fugitives and Filibusters

  1. Brian Cook says:

    McPherson’s chapter entitled “An Empire for Slavery” does a good job of pinpointing the exact moments where violence between the North and the South regarding slavery erupted. Until the Battle of Christina aka “Civil War – The First Blow Struck” the battle between pro and anti slavery had only existed through legislation and debate. This relatively small incident, small in that there was only one fatality, sets the stage for the rest of the violence that is soon to follow in the next decade. Blacks and abolitionists were not only going to ignore the fugitive slave act, but defy it at all costs. This stand in Christina drastically increased Southern animosity towards the North and talks of secession were becoming more common.
    The South felt oppressed by the North not only because of its policy on slavery but also the North was doing much better economically. While the South harvested and owned a majority of the crops, the North bought those crops and made products for the South to buy back anyway. This process left Southerners grappling with preserving their power. Though they owned land, crops, and slaves, that is all they had capital in, everything else they owned or bought was made by the industrious North. James B.D. De Bow wrote that “ACTION!!” (McPherson, 93) must be taken against the way things were economically for the South, but the South was steadfast in its ways. Farming was considered godly and proper by most Southerners and stubbornness was one of the reasons that kept the South from creating an industry. As James Hammond claimed “Cotton is king,” (McPherson, 100).
    Action was taken eventually, however, but not against the North or by creating change in the South. Instead, seeing that it was restrained both to the north and to the west, the South set its sights on Cuba. Negotiations to acquire Cuba were immediately shot down by Spain who proclaimed that they would rather see the island sink than sell it to America (McPherson, 104). With this, an ambitious Narciso Lopez decided to take action and formed a group called the “filibusters.” Though his attempts to overthrow local government in Cuba were unsuccessful, Lopez paved the way for another soon to be filibuster known as William Walker. Walker attempted and succeeded in sacking Nicaragua and took place as its ruler in 1856. Walker’s rule was short-lived, however, and he eventually lost rule of the country due to an overwhelming backlash from his once fateful ally Cornelius Vanderbilt and the once supportive Franklin Pierce administration. What began as a promising new idea for the South ended in defeat and only increased the tension between the South and the North.
    The 1850s and early 1860s were a momentous time in American history and set the precedent of violence that was soon to follow with the actual Civil War.

  2. Aaron Hock says:

    The Fugitive Slave Act (and the Compromise of 1850 of which it was a part) was one of the most divisive events leading up to the Civil War. Slavery had already created a schism between the Northern and Southern regions of the United States, but with the Compromise of 1850 the idea of letting bygones be bygones had been thrown out the window. The north was forced to obey and respect the laws and behaviors of the south, in regards to slavery. A fugitive slave law had already been passed in 1793, but by the time the 1840s rolled around, the law had become lax. In the North most states adopted Personal Liberty Laws granting fugitive slaves the rights of “testimony, habeas corpus, and trial by jury, or they imposed criminal penalties for kidnapping” (McPherson 79). Southerners felt like this was a violation of the law and of their rights, ultimately leading to the Compromise of 1850. But this “compromise” was considered by Northerners to be a mere concession to keep the south quiet. As a result, the Fugitive Slave Law was largely not followed by Northerners. Institutions such as the Underground Railroad and the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee openly helped fugitives hide in the North or escape to Canada, violating the comity of the Southern states (the laws of the South and benefiting the South). This violation is a clear example of the growing separation.
    As Brian mentioned above, power was also a factor of difference between the North and the South. The North and South shared an economic relationship and dependence. Factories in the North produced luxuries and commodities for the South to purchase, while the South produced agricultural goods (such as cotton) that the North relied on, but less so. Because of this the South was vulnerable and reliant on the strength of the Northern economy. According to international relations (but applicable here) this vulnerability created a security dilemma for the South, in which they felt inferior and antagonistic.
    The idea of filibustering was a result of the sense of Manifest Destiny that had ruled American politics for much of the early 19th century. But in the 1850s the South was using it to spread the institution of slavery, in turn preserving it in the continental United States. Lopez aimed his sights on Cuba because he knew there was already a slave population there. Similarly, William Walker claimed himself the King of Nicaragua when he invaded a few years later, making him a hero to the South. Yet again, the South was asserting its white, male dominance over a group of people they felt were inferior. The fact that Walker was acquitted by the Buchanan administration also shows the infiltration of this sectional crisis in politics, where it stood in the way of justice being carried out. The argument over slavery was now inescapable by the American people, now matter where they lived. They were being forced to pick sides and examine their morality. Were blacks (and other people of color) people, or property?

  3. Alexandra Ostebo says:

    Antebellum slaves where reluctant to revolt against or escape from slavery for many reasons. Firstly, a Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1793 authorized slave owners to cross over state lines to recapture what they considered “their property”. This law provided no security for freed slaves because they could easily be recaptured and taken back into slavery by their owners. Often times slave owners would just capture any freed slave they found even if he or she was not theirs. Generally they wouldn’t even bother to bring them before a court, denying the black man his right to a trial. It was because of the harsh nature of this law that many slaves thought it was pointless to try to escape because the chance of recapture was so great. Another Fugitive Slave Law passed in 18050 put the burden of providing proof of identification upon capturing with no legal power. The government even mandated Federal Marshals to help capture the runaways and fine them 100$ if they refused. Also a jude would make more money condemning a man as a slave then to admit he was a fee man. Such bias laws deterred slaves even more from revolting or running away.
    However those abolitionists who participated in the transport of the underground railroad were considered heros in the north. This is why cases like Henry Brown from Virginia who travel 24 hours in a box for freedom made big news, publicizing these events was truly important to keeping up moral in the North. It showed promise in the actions of abolitionists because they were willing to get arrested for the cause.

  4. Steve C says:

    The Battle of Christiana was a foreshadowing event of the violence to come as a result of the argument over slavery. At Christiana a slave owner from the South had found his two runaway slaves at a aboltionist’s farm. When he went to go get them back, a gun battle broke out in which one man was killed and the slaves ran away to freedom. This event set the stage for a permanent divide between Northern and Southern states. The Fugitive Slave Act had legally allowed owners of slaves to go into Northen territories and reclam their property to their plantations. The men at Christiana were not punished for the ignorance of the law, clearly showing that Northen States and aboltionists were in no way going to support the Fugitive Slave Law. The law also, awarded courts for sending slaves back to the South, penalized them if they didn’t adhere to the law, forced Northen marshalls to help these Southern slave owners, and gave a fugitive slave no rights in court for a fair trial. Eventually, several Northern states passed Liberty Laws that gave fugitive slaves more rights and enfuriated the Southern people, leading to a larger crack in the North vs. Southern divison.

    Like it is mentioned above, the Northern states had an advantage in the power balance and therefore the Southern States looked to Cuba as a new territory. Famous fillibusters, like William Walker would launch unauthorized military expeditions into Cuba in order to stir up support for the Southern states and eventual counterrevolution. Their attempts failed but the fact that they had tried such a debateable attempt to counter the North’s power showed that the Southern states were adamant in their beliefs in the argument between North and South and were going to do anything neccesary to protect their rights.

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