Slavery in the North

Northern Emancipation

Denying the Past



Massachusetts Slavery

Massachusetts Emancipation

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York Slavery

New York Emancipation

Pennsylvania Slavery

Pennsylvania Emancipation

Race Relations in Pennsylvania

Rhode Island


A Missed Chance

Northern Profits from Slavery

Fugitive Slaves





Back to Africa

Keeping the North White



In the treatment of the Pennsylvania negro after 1800 there is seemingly a strange contradiction, for he was the victim of violent prejudice at the same time that he received the liveliest sympathy and aid. During the whole period, while funds were being raised to ship negroes to Africa, while the Legislature was overwhelmed with petitions for their exclusion, while one race riot followed another, and while everything was done to convince the world that Pennsylvania desired no negroes, or at least no more of them, there was witnessed the curious spectacle of action on the part of the state, which betrayed an apparent desire to have them after all. From 1830 to 1860 almost never was assistance refused to a fugitive slave from the South, even when he was known to be such; and during this time it was with the greatest difficulty that a master could recover his property. In the course of this conduct men and women of Pennsylvania went any length of risk and self-sacrifice to assist runaways. Toward the end of the period the state was brought to the threshold of nullification. --Edward Raymond Turner, "The Negro in Pennsylvania 1639-1861," Washington, 1911, p.227
Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s had no difficulty over slavery with neighboring states, because all of them, Pennsylvania included, had slaves. Advertisement notices of Pennsylvania runaways ran in the Philadelphia newspapers alongside those from New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. The 1780 Pennsylvania abolition act specifically stated that its terms did not apply to fugitive blacks, and through the 1790s local officials continued to aggressively chase down runaway slaves. Local justices of the peace often oversaw the return of runaways from the Southern states, under the terms of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

In West Chester, Pennsylvania, the seat of prosperous Chester County on the state's southern tier, borough justice of the peace's dockets from the early 1800s show five or ten runaways captured each year in his jurisdiction alone. These were not tracked down by Dixie overseers with bloodhounds. They were captured by local citizens and brought to the county jail under terms of the national law. On June 11, 1798, for instance, "Negro Ester and her child" were brought in by Moses Cox "on suspicion of being a runaway from a certain Charles McDonnal in the state of Virginia near Winchester." They were discharged on June 26, "and taken away by her master to Whom she Confessed she belonged."

On Jan. 7, 1799, John Rettew brought in Negro Sam, who confessed he was a slave of Solomon Start of Bridgetown, Kent County, Maryland. His docket, too, was marked "Taken away by his master." A slave couple named Frazer and their two children, along with another slave woman, were taken March 24, 1804, and returned to their owner in New Castle County, Delaware. The dockets in the early 1800s show five or ten runaways captured a year in this jurisdiction alone. Most were from Delaware or Maryland and had not been gone long. Runaway indentured servants, both black and white, were captured at about the same rate.[1]

Early in the century, the Chester County sheriff was on the lookout for runaway slaves, and if he suspected he had one, he advertised the fact in the newspapers, hoping the owner would read it. "Was taken up, on suspicion of being a run-away, and now confined in the goal [sic] of Chester county, Pennsylvania, a Black Man, who calls himself SHADRACK MACKLIN," reads a notice in one of the first West Chester newspapers.

[A]ppears to be about 21 or 22 years of age; about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high; full face; thick lips; a small scar under his right eye, says he was brought up with Sampson Davis, a colored man, and a house carpenter, near Milford, Sussex County, state of Delaware, and set free by him March 1809 but has no credentials to show this was the case. Any person owning said black man, is desired to come forward, prove his property, pay charges and take him away before the 17th of December next, otherwise he will be discharged from prison.
Or this 1809 case, from next-door Lancaster County:
A NEGRO who calls himself NICHOLAS MARS and says he served his time with Arthur Cruddock, is lodged in the Lancaster jail. He is supposed to be a runaway; is about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high; has a short Roman nose; slim made; is an excellent farmer, and plays on the fiddle. Any person having lost such a negro may apply for further particulars to the subscriber in Lancaster.
If no one appeared to claim such suspected runaways, they might be set free, or sold into servitude, at the discretion of the local court.

Yet Quakers and abolitionists drew runaways into the state. As soon as they had secured the act gradually ending slavery in Pennsylvania, these people turned their efforts to aiding fugitives from elsewhere. As early as 1792, it was alleged that some Pennsylvanians were hiding slaves who had run off from Virginia. A 1789 advertisement in Philadelphia for a runaway, placed by a master from Virginia, noted that "The slaves of this state generally supposing they may obtain their freedom by going into Pennsylvania makes it highly probable that he is in some part of that state."[2] In spite of the mounting complaints from Pennsylvanians about the dangerous and violent fugitives moving into the state, Southerners seem to have had less luck as time went by in recovering their runaways. The abolitionists had wealth on their side, and they zealously intervened in such cases with every legal technicality available. They could drag out a case long enough for other conspirators to set the captured fugitive free. The slaveowners operated at a serious disadvantage, both in resources and sympathy of the courts.

Maryland suffered most. In 1801, she petitioned to Harrisburg for help in recovering slaves, but was told in reply that the matter was covered by the federal law of 1793. Maryland formally complained again in 1817 that Pennsylvanians were encouraging runaways, and the Legislature was more receptive this time. Within a year, Philadelphians also were petitioning that something be done to halt the flow of fugitives. The governor of Maryland wrote again in 1822, enclosing a resolution from his state's legislature which declared that runaways were encouraged by citizens of Pennsylvania. A committee of the Pennsylvania legislature looked into this, and declared that the state's laws were not adequate to prevent this. Around the same time, two Maryland men who had crossed into southern Chester County to recover a fugitive living there were killed by the slave. The court in Chester County granted the slave the right of self-defense, and, instead of returning him to Maryland, sentenced him to seven years in prison. In view of this and other incidents, Maryland wrote that it had begun to view Pennsylvania as a hostile state, where citizens encouraged blacks to kill their Southern masters if threatened with recapture.

Finally, in 1826, the two states appointed commissioners to sit down and hash out what was in effect a treaty governing runaways. By this point, the federal fugitive laws had ceased to function in any meaningful way. Pennsylvania and Maryland together worked out a new bill, which the Pennsylvania legislature enacted and the governor signed in 1826. It gave slave-owners a little aid: it allowed them to place an alleged runaway in Pennsylvania jails pending trial, after the claimant had secured a warrant under oath and produced evidence and an affidavit of the time and place of the escape. It also denied third parties the right to testify in such cases.

Already the tide of opinion in the state was turning against giving any aid at all to slaveowners. The modest concessions made to Maryland in the 1826 act were felt as being tantamount to participating in the slave trade itself, and Pennsylvanians were unwilling to do that. The ability to claim a moral superiority for the state and the region, based purely on its absence of slavery, was too important to be risked. Yet at the same time, Pennsylvanians were seeking to stop the flow of fugitives. Almost annually from 1831 to 1842, petitions implored the Pennsylvania legislature to ban immigration of blacks. Bills to this effect were considered, but none passed. "That no action was taken seems to have been owing to the horror which the people of Pennsylvania had of slavery. However much they came to dislike the negro, they hated slavery more, and accordingly could never bring themselves to close their doors to the fugitive."[3]

There was a subtle psychology to this hatred of slavery divorced from any sympathy for blacks except when they were recaptured fugitives. With few exceptions, whites in the state who wrote or spoke publicly on the topic held that blacks were inferior and the fugitive slave element among the population was the most degraded. The abolitionists, though, tended to slip in references to the degrading influence of slavery when discussing this, or to blame slave-owners for turning out the most idle and vicious element among their negroes. Pro-slavery men, examining the same statistics, saw evidence of the deleterious effect of freedom where abolitionists saw evidence of the moral depravity of slavery.


Margaret Morgan was the slave of Margaret Ashmore, a citizen of Maryland. Morgan ran off in 1832 and settled in Pennsylvania. Five years later, Edward Prigg and some others, agents of Ashmore, captured Moran in York County, together with her children, one of whom had been born in Pennsylvania. Though Prigg held a warrant, the state constable in York had refused to take up the case, and so Prigg removed the fugitive across the state line without proper permission. He subsequently was indicted in York County for kidnapping, tried, and found guilty.

Maryland got involved in the case, and at the same time she expressed dissatisfaction with the 1826 Pennsylvania law governing fugitives and their recovery, saying it obstructed the process and so violated the 1793 federal fugitive slave act. Both sides sought to make Prigg v. Pennsylvania a test case, and so temporary immunity was granted to the defendants while the matter percolated up through the Pennsylvania court system, where the guilty verdict was affirmed. Prigg then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, on the basis that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional.

The decision was handed down in 1842. The Court found the law was, in fact, unconstitutional, insofar as it obstructed the return of runaways. Prigg had the right to do as he had done. But the court split on whether a state had any power to make legislation in regard to fugitives. And Justice Joseph Story wrote in the majority opinion that the states were not obliged to do anything to enforce the 1793 federal fugitive slave law.

We hold the [Pennsylvania] act to be clearly constitutional in all its leading provisions, and, indeed, with the exception of that part which confers authority upon state magistrates, to be free from reasonable doubt and difficulty upon the grounds already stated. As to the authority so conferred upon state magistrates, while a difference of opinion has existed, and may exist still on the point, in different states, whether state magistrates are bound to act under it; none is entertained by this Court that state magistrates may, if they choose, exercise that authority, unless prohibited by state legislation.
The federal law was still in force, but only the federal government was required to enforce it. And in those days, the federal power had scant legal representation in the towns and villages of the North. If the Northern states chose to ignore the act, it amounted to nullification. Which is what in fact happened. One by one the Northern legislatures passed "personal liberty laws," taking advantage of the door Story had opened in his opinion with the phrase "unless prohibited by state legislation." The laws barred state officials on any level from lifting a finger to aid in the recovery of a fugitive.

In Pennsylvania, the old law was voided, which was the great wish of the state's abolitionists, who resented the aid state authorities were forced to give to masters in recapturing fugitives. The act that replaced it in 1847 was far more drastic. It forbade, under heavy penalty, any officer of the state from assisting in enforcing the federal law of 1793. Judges were to take no cognizance of cases arising under that law, nor were they to issue warrants under it. The new law also imposed fines on any jailer who held a black fugitive under the 1793 law, declared anyone attempting to use force on a runaway (even with the intention of bringing him to the proper authorities) to be guilty of a misdemeanor, and incidentally it repealed the old provision that had allowed an owner to bring his slave into Pennsylvania and dwell there for six months.

Such Northern personal liberties laws deeply offended the South, which felt that they effectively nullified the covenant of the Constitution. But none rankled more, perhaps, than Pennsylvania's, since that state was the destination of so many runaways. The accepted estimate of runaways escaping into the North was 1,000 per year, nearly all of them from the Border States. This hardly was a flood, but successful runaways increased the cost of slavery's enforcement. "Not just abolition but any step that increased enforcement costs consequently threatened slaveholders with massive capital losses, as it depressed the value of the income stream from their chattels."[4] This helped re-open slavery as a sectional conflict.

"From the Southern point of view the conditions in the state after 1847 were such as to make imperative the passing of a new fugitive slave law to be vigorously enforced by the government of the United States."[5] Virginia politician Charles James Faulkner wrote that the Pennsylvania liberty law "has rendered our slave property ... utterly insecure. ... [S]laves are absconding from Maryland and this portion of Virginia in gangs of tens and twenties and the moment they reach the Pennsylvania line, all hopes of their recapture are abandoned. The existence of such a law on the Statute Book of any State is not only a flagrant violation of the spirit of the Federal Constitution and indeed of its express provisions, but is a deliberate insult to the whole Southern people, which ... would amongst nations wholly independent and disconnected by Federal Relations be a just cause of War."[6]

The Compromise of 1850 shows the importance of the runaway issue to the South; it was willing to accept admission of California -- practically the only place in the West slavery would have worked -- as a free state, in exchange for a new national fugitive slave law. But the Northern state legislatures simply turned the screws tighter on their personal liberty laws, and Northern communities openly defied the federal government. This made conservative forces in Pennsylvania uncomfortable as the sectional crisis deepened. On Jan. 2, 1861, Gov. William F. Packer urged the repeal of the obnoxious law, and large Union meetings in Philadelphia affirmed the duty of the states to assist the government in enforcing the law on fugitives. But by then it was too late.

1. Docket book examined 1998, West Chester Borough offices, West Chester, Pa.
2. "Pennsylvania Packet," Oct. 22, 1789.
3. Edward Raymond Turner, The Negro in Pennsylvania 1639-1861, Washington, 1911, pp.153-154.
4. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Chicago: Open Court, 1996, p.52.
5. Turner, op. cit., p.239.
6. letter to John C. Calhoun, July 15, 1847.

2003 - Slavery in the North - About the Author