Northern Vigilance, Personal Liberty, and the Contest over Fugitives

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:50 PM
Grand Hall C (Hyatt Regency Atlanta)
Matthew Pinsker, Dickinson College
In this paper, Matthew Pinsker reexamines the legal and sometimes violent contest between antislavery and proslavery forces regarding enforcement of the federal fugitive slave code in the urban North.  Pinsker argues that recent scholarship on this subject has made clearer that northern vigilance committees were remarkably successful in pursuing various legal and political strategies on the ground, even in cities with strong anti-black, pro-slavery sentiment and even after passage of the supposedly draconian 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.  Relying on personal liberty statutes, sympathetic juries, targeted mobbing, and a host of other tactics, the vigilance movement largely succeeded not only in frustrating slave-catchers on northern territory, but also in protecting their own operatives from violence and legal repercussions.