Black Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: “Freedom’s Battle” at Christiana, Pennsylvania
The October 1911 issue of the Crisis, official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, featured an article entitled “The First Bloodshed of the Civil War,” marking the sixtieth anniversary of the battle for freedom at Christiana, Pennsylvania, popularly called the “Christiana Riot.” The article opened: “The Christiana riot has not been widely celebrated, like the Boston massacre, although it bears to the Civil War exactly the same relation that the affair in New England did to the Revolution.”
In the early morning of September 11, 1851, one week short of the first anniversary of President Fillmore’s signing of the bill amending and supplementing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, a group of armed men silently approached a two-story stone house located two miles from the village of Christiana, Pennsylvania. One of the eight, a guide, pointed to it and departed. The others walked on. Suddenly a man appeared at the entrance to a lane that led to the stone house. He was a Negro. Several members of the approaching party cried, “Catch him!” and broke into a run. The Negro bolted back toward the house. His shouts of “Kidnappers!” “Kidnappers!” awakened the sleeping men and women in the house and residents of the valley.
This was the beginning of the black resistance at Christiana. It took place soon after the arrival from Maryland of Edward Gorsuch, along with a group of his relatives and friends and a party of law officers. They had come to the home of William Parker to capture Gorsuch’s fugitive slaves. Almost two years after his four slaves had escaped, Gorsuch received a letter from a Pennsylvanian informing him that he had the “required information” as to the whereabouts of two of the men. Confident that he would reclaim his slaves under the new fugitive slave law, Gorsuch decided to leave his prosperous farm in Baltimore County, Maryland, and travel by rail to Philadelphia on September 8, 1851. With him were his son, Dickinson, his nephew, Dr. Thomas Pearce, his cousin, Joshua M. Gorsuch, and two neighbors, Nathan Nelson and Nicholas Hutchings.
The Gorsuch farm, located approximately twenty miles north of Baltimore, used slave labor in raising grains and garden produce for the Baltimore market. Gorsuch, fifty-seven years old at the time, was an important member of the Methodist Episcopal church in his community.
In Philadelphia, Gorsuch went to see Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham, and on September 9, 1850, he obtained four fugitive slave warrants. Commissioner Ingraham directed Henry H. Kline to head the posse as deputy marshal. Two other officers agreed to join. The entire group set out for Gap, Pennsylvania, from where they were to continue to Christiana and the home of William Parker where, according to Gorsuch’s informant, his slaves were staying.
The village of Christiana, Pennsylvania, located in Lancaster County, eighteen miles east of the city of Lancaster, was originally the site of Noble’s Foundry and was named Christiana in 1846, when the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad required the erection of water works with a foundry and small machine shops and a boardinghouse for the workers. Even when it was without a real name, the area around Christiana was a haven for fugitive slaves. The lines of the Underground Railroad located there extended from Columbia to Phoenixville. A large percentage of the population were blacks, and it was no secret that many had been slaves. The blacks were led by William Parker, an extraordinary figure, at whose stone house the black resistance occurred.
William Parker was born a slave in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His mother died while he was still young, so he was sent to live in the quarters, a low building housing slaves of both sexes. One building was for single people and children whose parents had been sold or had died. At an early age, he learned to take care of himself, for the smallest children were forced continuously to fight for food. Put to work in the fields, Parker resolved to run away when he watched his friends being sold. At seventeen, he did escape. His master had picked up a stick to whip him for refusing to go to work in the rain. Parker seized the stick, whipped his master, and left. His brother joined him on the journey northward. Near York, Pennsylvania, they were stopped by three white men. A battle followed, and the whites fled. When they reached Columbia, Parker recognized the voice of his master speaking to someone, and he and his brother ran and hid in the bushes. They finally arrived in Lancaster County and were hired by farmers.
Establishing himself in the area of Christiana, Parker married Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard and became a lay preacher. He also became the leader of the black community in resisting the Gap Gang kidnappers, who were keeping the blacks in a state of constant terror. In an account he wrote with the aid of other blacks and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, Parker related how he and his friends organized the black self-defense organization to prevent the Gap Gang from kidnapping Negroes and selling them as slaves. On one occasion, they freed a black girl taken from Moses Whitson’s farm and administered a beating to the Gap Gang members, resulting in the death of two of the kidnappers.
In the year before the Christiana riot, the herculean strength and remarkable courage of William Parker had galvanized the blacks of southeastern Pennsylvania into active defense of their freedom. “Certain names of colored men and women stand out prominently in the strange annals of the Underground Railway,” M. D. Maclean wrote in the Crisis article on the resistance at Christiana. “William Still, chairman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, and Harriet Tubman the ‘Moses of her people,’ and others are better known than Parker, because they shared more largely in the organization and devoted their entire time to the work of helping their brothers and sisters from slavery, but nobody could have been braver or more loyal than was William Parker in his less conspicuous way.”
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, tension mounted in Lancaster County. On October 11, 1850, a meeting of white citizens in Bart resolved that they would “harbor, clothe, feed and aid the escape of fugitive slaves in opposition to the law.” At about the same time, armed blacks paraded through the streets of Lancaster vowing their determination to find and kill all slave catchers.
Nevertheless violent seizures of black residents continued to take place throughout the county. On the evening of January 16, 1851, a group of men headed by William Baer and Perry Marsh, leaders of the Gap Gang, forcibly entered the house of William Chamberlin on the road from Christiana to Gap and horribly beat an alleged fugitive. James Miller McKim, editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, informed Garrison that the black man was gagged and “dragged like a plain beast from the house to a wagon about a hundred yards distant” and from there “conveyed across the line—which was about 20 miles south of the scene and that was the last—as I know—that has ever been heard of him.” An elderly black man sitting in the kitchen sounded the alarm after the Gap Gang had left, and a band of blacks, armed with double-barreled guns and led by William Parker, was soon on the scene. But the kidnappers and their victim were already across the state border into Maryland. The Gap Gang reportedly received two hundred dollars for the capture, despite the fact that the black man was so badly maimed from his beating that he was almost incapable of work.
So bold had kidnapping attempts become that the Pennsylvania Freeman declared that “every week brings some fresh instance of outrage upon the homes of industry and peace. Must we fear the ravages forever? Must we sit inactively and see our neighbors torn from home and happiness to feed the insatiable avarice of Southern slave-barterers?” Blacks were unwilling to wait for their white friends to do something about slave catching so they resolved to move by themselves. Shortly after the brutal beating of the alleged fugitive by the Gap Gang, a Lancaster paper reported that “for several weeks, there has been an organization among the blacks to prevent the arrest of fugitive slaves. Armed gangs have patrolled the neighborhood during the night and guarded particular persons that were supposed to be in danger from slave hunters.” When Samuel Worthington of Maryland, who had come into the Christiana area in pursuit of his slave Jacob Berry, arrived at the house where Berry was supposed to be living, he was greeted at gunpoint. Upon hearing horns and bells sounding to summon support for the fugitive, Worthington made a hasty departure without his slave.
The next occasion on which horns were blown was to summon support for the fugitives sought by Edward Gorsuch and his posse.
When Gorsuch and Marshal Kline left Philadelphia, they did not know that their activities in the city had been watched by the Vigilance Committee of the Underground Railroad or that they had been overheard mentioning some fugitives in the vicinity of Christiana. Samuel Williams, a trusted black agent, was immediately dispatched with instructions “to put all persons supposed to be in danger on their guard.” Williams rode to Christiana on the morning of September 10 in the same coach as several members of the Gorsuch party.
When Parker learned of the impending assault on his house, he was not unduly alarmed, probably because he was confident that the self-defense league the blacks had organized could handle the situation. However, he told his landlady, Quaker Sarah Pownal, that the slave hunters were on the way. She advised him not to resist by violence. Parker replied that if the law protected blacks as it did whites, he, too, would be nonviolent and would appeal to the law for protection. Whites, he said, “have a country and may obey the law. But we have no country.” So the blacks, who could have fled northward to Canada before the arrival of Gorsuch and his party, remained to confront them at Parker’s house.
At about four o’clock on the morning of Thursday, September 11, the posse, led by a guide, started from Gap to Christiana. When they came near Parker’s home, the guide pointed to it and left. Just then, Joshua Kite, one of Gorsuch’s fugitives, left Parker’s home and started for work. He met the posse, and, racing back to the house, burst open the door and ran upstairs to where the others were sleeping, crying, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers! William, Kidnappers!” Parker told the blacks “not to be afraid, nor to give up to any slaveholder, but [to] fight until death.”
In an effort to impress the blacks with his authority, Marshal Kline read his warrants aloud a number of times and pretended to send Hutchings for one hundred men to enforce them. At about this time, someone fired a shot at Gorsuch from a window on the second floor. His aim was high, and the bullet ploughed into the earth. Kline fired back through a window but with no effect.
Upon entering the house, Gorsuch called upon Nelson and Joshua, two of the fugitives, to come down and give themselves up. Gorsuch and Kline then decided to go upstairs where the slaveowner recognized Nelson and told him to come down, pointing out that resistance was futile. Gorsuch continued upstairs, but someone threw down a fish jig (a pitchfork-like instrument with blunt prongs). Then an axe was thrown down, but it hit no one. Parker appeared in person to warn Gorsuch and Kline that if either took another step, his neck would be broken. Before Gorsuch and Kline could proceed, a group of blacks descended upon them, forcing them downstairs and outside. At this time, Gorsuch’s nephew, Thomas Pearce, who had remained outside the house, was struck above the right eye by a piece of wood thrown from one of the windows.
A stalemate had been reached. Neither Kline nor any member of the Gorsuch party dared to climb the stairs again. Gorsuch again attempted to persuade his slave, Nelson Ford, to give up by saying: “Come down, Nelson, I know your voice, I know you. If you come down and go home with me without trouble I will look over the past.” One of the blacks replied: “If you take one of us, you must take him over our dead bodies.”
Following this exchange, the white men were startled by the sound of a dinner horn blown by Parker’s wife from a second floor window. Assuming that this was a signal, the men surrounding the house opened fire on her, but she ducked below the sill and continued blowing.
It soon became evident from the prompt response it produced that the sounding of the horn was some sort of signal used by the blacks in case of an emergency. A group of blacks, armed with guns, swords, corn cutters, and scythes, came running across the fields and out of the woods in response to the horn.
News of the trouble at Parker’s house also had been spread by other means. Isaiah Clarkson, an old black man who passed by shortly after the Gorsuch party arrived, hurried on to Elijah Lewis’ store in Coopersville and told Lewis that Parker’s place was “surrounded by kidnappers, who had broken into the house and were about to take fugitives away.” Lewis, a white Quaker, went at once toward Parker’s house and, passing the mill of Castner Hanway, another Quaker, told him what he knew. Hanway, who was ill at the time, saddled his horse and rode the mile to Parker’s house. Both Lewis and Hanway believed that the Gap Gang had attacked Parker’s house to kidnap him and his wife.
When Hanway arrived, the besieged blacks and those who had gathered outside in response to the horn made “a great rejoicing and a great noise.” Nicholas Hutchings later testified that “they appeared to be in great spirits—all of them hallowing and shouting and singing.”
Nothing indicates that Hanway was in any way involved with the blacks in their plan for a concerted defense against the slave hunters. He had never been in sympathy with the Underground Railroad or participated in meetings called to defy the Fugitive Slave Law. In fact he had resided in the Christiana area only since the spring of 1851. He would have preferred that the fugitives flee rather than fight.
As for the jubilation and singing, it was probably caused by the fact that Samuel Thompson, one of Gorsuch’s fugitives, had just reminded the slave owner that he was a “class leader” in his church. At this, Parker recalled, Gorsuch “hung his head but said nothing.” The blacks then taunted Gorsuch by singing a popular spiritual:
Leader, what do you say
About the judgment day?
I will die on the field of battle,
Die on the field of battle,
With glory in my soul.
When Gorsuch saw Castner Hanway, he asked Marshal Kline to speak with him. Under the new Fugitive Slave Act, Hanway, as a bystander, could legally be commanded by a U.S. marshal to assist in the arrest of fugitive slaves. At first, according to Kline, when he asked Hanway to assist him under the provisions of the fugitive slave law, the latter replied that he would not and that he did not care for that act of Congress or any other act. Later Kline changed the story somewhat, indicating that Hanway had said only that “colored people had a right to defend themselves and that he would not assist.”
After realizing that he could not depend on any help from either Hanway or Lewis and observing the increasing number of hostile blacks, Marshal Kline again called for a retreat. Gorsuch, however, was determined to move ahead relentlessly. “I will have my property or go to hell,” he told the marshal.
It is a matter of some controversy as to how many blacks were present by this time. Various estimates place the figure as low as a dozen and as high as two hundred. Jonathan Katz, in Resistance at Christiana, a meticulous re-creation of the event, puts the number of black participants at “from 15 to 25,” but other studies, equally painstaking, place the figure at fifty.
It is difficult to reconstruct precisely what happened after the exchange between Marshal Kline and Edward Gorsuch, but it appears that while the others in the party retreated, Gorsuch remained in front of Parker’s house. Those blacks who were grouped outside then moved in on the slaveowner, while those in the house emerged and also advanced toward him. Gorsuch was struck down, and when he tried to rise, he was shot fatally through the chest. His son, Dickinson, in an effort to save his father, rushed back and attempted to fire his revolver. However, it was knocked down from his hand and at the same time, he received a blast of squirrel shot from very close range. The younger Gorsuch fell, coughing blood, and crawled a few yards into the lane, where he collapsed. After a short while, he was taken to the Levi Pownall farmhouse where he recovered.
Freedom’s Battle at Christiana was over. The posse and the blacks had scattered. Edward Gorsuch was dead and his son severely wounded. His nephew, Thomas Pearce, had had “a very severe blow over the eye,” had a shot in his wrist, another in his shoulder blade, two in his back, plus a scalp wound and a bullet wound through his hat. His cousin, Joshua R. Gorsuch, wrote in his diary that he had been “knocked out of my mind” and was wandering dazedly through the woods with a scalp wound. Marshal Henry H. Kline, Nathan Nelson, and Nicholas Hutchings, having left early, escaped without injury. Two blacks, Henry C. Hopkins and John Long, had received gunshot wounds, which were attended to by a sympathetic doctor.
FLIGHT TO CANADA
“Having driven the slavocrats off in every direction, our party now turned towards their several homes,” Parker wrote later. But three of the participants—Parker himself, Alexander Pinckney, and Abraham Johnson—having been warned by sympathizers that officers would soon come to arrest them, decided to leave that night for Canada. They went forth, Parker wrote, “with heavy hearts, outcasts for liberty,” provided with disguises and food by friendly Quaker neighbors. The three blacks traveled from station to station on the Underground Railroad, through Pennsylvania into upstate New York, and finally reaching Rochester. There they were led by a black man whom they met to the home of Frederick Douglass. Even though he was aware that the authorities were close on their trail, Douglass took them into his home and gave them shelter. “There are three men now at my house who are in great peril. I am unwell. I need your advice. Please come at once,” Douglass wrote in a hastily scribbled note dated “Sept. 1851” to his white Rochester friend, Samuel D. Porter. The note was signed “D. F.” in case it was intercepted.
While the men remained in hiding, Julia Griffiths, Douglass’ assistant, drove to the boat landing on the Genessee River and made arrangements for their passage to Canada. When the fugitives boarded the boat, Parker gave Douglass “the revolver that fell from the hand of Gorsuch when he died.” Years later, Douglass wrote: “I could not look upon them as murderers, to me they were heroic defenders of the just rights of men against men-stealers and murderers.”
On September 21, Parker and his two comrades landed in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “On Monday evening the 23rd,” Parker wrote, “we started for Toronto, where we arrived safely the next day. Directly after landing, we heard that Governor Johnston of Pennsylvania had made a demand on the Governor of Canada for me, under the Extradition Treaty.”
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 provided for the extradition of fugitive criminals but not runaway slaves. The return of fugitive slaves from Canada could be accomplished only by claiming them as “fugitives from justice.” But no precedents for such criminal extradition existed, and the British government refused to honor the governor’s request. On November 24, 1851, Eliza Ann Elizabeth Parker joined her husband in Canada. “The Christiana Hero is in Canada,” read a headline in The Voice of the Fugitive, published by Henry Bibb in Sandwich, Canada West. In welcoming Parker, Bibb wrote:
If we had thousands of such colored men scattered over the nominally free States, the Fugitive Slave Bill would soon become a dead letter. This man, in our estimation, deserves the admiration of a Hannibal, a Toussaint L’Ouverture, or a George Washington. A nobler defense was never made in behalf of human liberty on the plains of Lexington, Concord, or Bunker Hill than was put forth by William Parker at Christiana. We bid him, with his family, and all others, from that hypocritical Republic welcome to this our glorious land of adoption, where no slave hunter dare to step his feet in search of a slave.
Before midday of September 11, 1851, exaggerated accounts of the resistance at Christiana had reached Philadelphia and were transmitted by telegraph throughout the country. Southern journals were soon picturing the Gorsuchs, father and son, as “writhing in agony,” with Negroes “beating them with clubs and stones.” Slaveowners in Maryland immediately gathered at indignation meetings. It was clear from their speeches that they saw in a man like William Parker the embodiment of all they hated and feared and that they were terrified of what might happen if the slaves learned about Freedom’s Battle in Christiana against slave hunters. They demanded swift action to punish the “ruthless band of negroes, headed and led by brutal abolitionists and fanatics who had butchered Gorsuch.”
The Southern press joined in this call. “The body of the murdered man calls not more loudly for vengeance, than do the faith of the Government and the provisions of the law,” cried the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle and Sentinel. The Nashville Christian Advocate warned that the crisis had come:
This affair will test the matter. It will now be demonstrated whether or not the laws of Congress will be maintained, and the rights of Southern citizens be respected, and the cold-blooded murder punished, or the rights of Southern citizens be trampled under foot, and their blood cry in vain for justice.
“Unless the Christiana rioters are hung,” said the North Carolina Chronicle bluntly, “the Compromise will be a rope of sand and the Free States will obey it only as it may suit their convenience or pleasure.” In that case, the Compromise, with the new Fugitive Slave Act, “may as well be torn up.”
Governor E. Louis Lowe of Maryland made the same point in a letter to President Fillmore in which he urged immediate action to apprehend and severely punish the blacks involved. “I do not know of a single incident,” he concluded, “that tends more to weaken the bonds of union, and arouse dark thoughts in the minds of men, than this late tragedy.”
Fillmore responded by placing a company of forty-five marines at the disposal of the U.S. marshal in Philadelphia, with orders to track down the parties involved at Christiana. In Maryland, however, armed riflemen acted on their own. They prowled the countryside, looking for blacks to seize and punish for Gorsuch’s murder. Men and women alike were beaten and arrested. Their fury also descended upon Joseph S. Miller, a white man who had come to Baltimore to seek Rachel Parker, a free black servant who had been kidnapped from his home in West Nottingham Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, and had been carried into Maryland and slavery. Miller followed the kidnappers into the slave state, but his train was stopped near Baltimore. He was bound and gagged, taken to an isolated wooded section, and lynched. On his lifeless body was pinned the message: “In revenge for the death of Gorsuch at Christiana.”
Most Northern papers that commented on the events in Christiana struck three main themes. One was the intensified need to uphold the supremacy of the law. Another was that the murder of Gorsuch was the result of abolitionist agitators. The Philadelphia North American blamed it on the influence of “The Frederick Douglasses.” The Public Ledger of the same city maintained that both white and black abolitionists were men “who excite the ignorant and reckless to treasonable violence, from which they themselves shrink, but who are, not only in morals but in law equally amenable to punishment with the victims of their inflammatory rhetoric.” A third theme was that the riot proved there was no room for blacks in the free states. “Such scenes as those in Pennsylvania,” declared the pro-Southern New York Express, “are demonstrating that the white man and the black man cannot live in the Free States together.” The same idea was enunciated at a meeting in Philadelphia’s Independence Square on the night of September 17, 1851, where resolutions were adopted demanding “immediate prosecution of the negroes involved in the Christiana riot” and proposing that “negroes who cannot be our social or political equals, must be kept out of the Free States.”
The antislavery press defended the blacks of Christiana, although some did so with qualifications. Garrison’s Liberator refused to “hold the Negroes guilty of the crime of murder. They acted against one law, it is true, but they had another on their side, and that a law august and divine…the law of nature. These blacks are fully justified in what they did by the Declaration of Independence and the teachings and example of Washington, Warren, and Kossuth.” (The last named was the Hungarian revolutionist who led the unsuccessful attempt to end Russian rule in 1848.) A week later, however, Garrison qualified his endorsement by reminding blacks: “No man, bearing arms enters into the kingdom of Heaven.… A truly brave man never yet took up the sword.”
Theodore Parker exhibited a similar change of tone. He was “glad some black men have been found at last, who dared to resist violence with powder and ball.…I rejoice that a negro has shot a kidnapper. Black men may now hold up their heads before those haughty Caucasians, and say, ‘You see we also can fight.’ The power to kill is not a monopoly of the slave hunter!” “But,” he went on, “I deplore violence; let us do without it while we can, forever if we can.…Let us have firmness without fight, as long as possible.”
But the Garrisonian National Anti-Slavery Standard and the Pennsylvania Freeman did not qualify their endorsement of the black resistance at Christiana. That Gorsuch “should have been shot down like a dog,” declared the Standard, “seems to us the most natural thing in the world, and the only wonder is that such catastrophe has not occurred in every case where a fugitive slave has been arrested,” The Freeman believed that the “calm and candid thinker cannot fail to see that it [the incident at Christiana] has grown legitimately—necessarily—from the passage and the attempt to enforce the cruel and disgraceful provisions of National law.” It continued:
What right has the American nation to expect anything else from its own teachings, and its own actions? Have they not proclaimed, “Liberty or death;” “Resistance to tyrants is duty to their God,” as their National creed? Have they not honored and rewarded the daring and exploits of the battleground as true heroism? Rebellion or flight is the slave’s only hope of freedom. The government now lets loose its minions upon them, refuses them the shelter of the law, gives its law as an engine of cruelty into the hands of the manhunters. What wonder that, outlawed as they are, they think it no crime for them to defend their liberties by the same means, for using which the “revolutionary heroes” of our own and other countries are glorified?
Horace Greeley argued in his New York Tribune that “the negroes in firing did no more than they knew would be done to them.” In addition, a higher law justified them: “They defended an inalienable right to their own persons.” “Would it not, in truth,” Greeley asked, “have been a worse murder had the negroes been shot down in defending their freedom?” Yet for all this, Greeley insisted that “the blacks fell into a lamentable error. They ought to have followed the advice of their friends and escaped from the country.”
Blacks did not equivocate in hailing the Christiana fighters for freedom. Charles Lenox Remond claimed that the Negroes of New England were “encouraged” that Pennsylvania’s blacks had showed their willingness to defend themselves by armed resistance. Robert Purvis insisted that the men at Christiana, in their self-defense actions, had been “true to themselves, to liberty, and to God.” From England, William and Ellen Craft wrote joyfully: “We think a few more such cases as the Christiana affair will put a damper on slave-catchers.”
On September 25, 1851, five days after William Parker and his two comrades had passed through Frederick Douglass’ Rochester home, his paper carried an editorial headed “Freedom’s Battle at Christiana.” In sarcastic and biting words, Douglass wholeheartedly justified the armed resistance. “Everybody seems astonished,” wrote Douglass, “that in this land of gospel, light and liberty…there should be found men so firmly attached to liberty and so bitterly averse to slavery as to be willing to peril even life itself to gain one and to avoid the other.” Proslavery men, he went on, were especially “in a state of amazement at the strange affair. That hunted men should fight with the biped bloodhounds that had tracked them, even when the animals had a paper authorizing them to hunt, is to them inexplicable audacity.” What could “have got into these men of sable coating? Didn’t they know that slavery, not freedom is their natural condition? Don’t they know that their legs, arms, eyes, hands and heads, were the rightful property of the white men who claimed them?” Didn’t they know that “in the seventy-fifth year of the freedom and independence of the American people from the bondage of a foreign yoke,” a new fugitive slave law had been decreed? And that by signing the law, President Fillmore had commanded that black men should cease to be men? But, said Douglass,
if the story gets afloat that these negroes of Christiana did really hear the words of the mighty Fillmore commanding them to be brutes instead of men and they did not change as ordered—why, the dangerous doctrine will also get afloat presently that there is a law higher than the law of Fillmore.
The Christiana resistance, Douglass declared, had demonstrated
that all NEGROES ARE NOT SUCH FOOLS AND DASTARDS AS TO CLING TO LIFE WHEN IT IS COUPLED WITH CHAINS AND SLAVERY.
This lesson, though most dearly bought, is quite worth the price paid.…The frequency of arrests and the ease with which they were made quickened the rapacity, and invited these aggressions of slave-catchers. The Christiana conflict was therefore needed to check these aggressions and to bring the hunters of men to the sober second thought. But was it right for the colored men to resist their enslavers? We answer, Yes, or the whole structure of the world’s theory of right and wrong is a lie.—
On November 5 and 6, Douglass and Remond defended the action of the blacks at Christiana at a meeting of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. Remond “exhorted his people to a brave and manly bearing…and reminded them that there was one avenue left to them—that they could be traitors to the government that oppressed them, and if they died in heroic defense of their rights, posterity would reverence and cherish their memories while their oppressors would inherit an immortality of infamy.” Douglass put forth his case for forcible resistance to the fugitive slave law and ended by saying of slave catchers “that every one of them ought to be killed.” But the resolutions on Christiana embodied the Garrisonian principle of “spiritual resistance to the diabolical law” rather than the position advocated by Remond and Douglass.
In Christiana itself, most whites refused to condemn the blacks, but the newspapers in nearby Lancaster were horrified. The Lancaster Sunday Express denounced the resistance and called the events at Christiana “Civil War—The First Blow Struck.” A group of Pennsylvania citizens sent a memorandum to Governor William Johnson asking him to take appropriate steps to apprehend the persons responsible for the Gorsuch murder. The governor pointed out proudly that he had offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the capture of Gorsuch’s murders and that the state authorities had already arrested many blacks and a number of whites. He vowed that “as soon as the guilty agents are ascertained they will be punished in the severest penalty by the laws of Pennsylvania.”
On September 13, 1851, as ordered by President Fillmore, a force of forty-five U.S. Marines and about the same number of citizens in a civil posse arrived in Christiana from Philadelphia. In addition, another strong force was present under the command of district attorney John L. Thompson. But they had no one to arrest. Castner Hanway and Elijah Lewis, upon learning that they were wanted for questioning, turned themselves over to the authorities on September 12. Three of the blacks who had been present at Parker’s house, including Parker himself—the chief target of the authorities—had fled to Canada, and the others had gone into hiding far from Christiana. Nevertheless, the three forces scoured the area, and, in their zeal to arrest and prosecute any blacks who could be linked directly or indirectly to the murder of Gorsuch, the federal and Pennsylvania authorities left local residents, especially blacks, with the feeling that they had undergone a “reign of terror.” One reporter wrote: “The colored people, though the great body of them had no connection with this affair, are being hunted like partridges upon the mountains by a relentless horde which has poured forth upon them under the pretext of arresting the parties concerned in the battle at Christiana.”
When the hunt was ended, over thirty black men and several white men had been arrested. (Among the whites were Hanway and Lewis, who had already voluntarily given themselves up.) Legal hearings began September 23 before Alderman J. Franklin Reigert in the Lancaster County courthouse. Thaddeus Stevens defended the prisoners at the preliminary hearings in Christiana and Lancaster. Stevens was a strong antislavery Whig of the faction derisively called “Wooly Heads” by proslavery elements and was highly respected by antislavery groups in southeastern Pennsylvania for his declarations of “unchangeable hostility to slavery in every form, in every place.” But as a lawyer and a duly elected and sworn member of the House of Representatives, Stevens had also declared his “determination to stand by all the compromises of the Constitution and carry them into faithful effect.”
The hearings resulted in the indictment by the grand jury of thirty-six black men and five whites for treason against the United States. All but one of the men indicted were sent to Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison to await trial before the U.S. Circuit Court. These forty-one citizens (the number was later reduced to thirty-eight) remain the largest number of persons ever charged at one time with treason against the United States. They were accused of the highest crime in the land, punishable by hanging.
Only a few of the thirty-six black men charged had been active in the battle, and of the five whites, only Hanway and Lewis had been at the scene. James Jackson had not even been near Christiana at the time of the resistance and had no direct relation to it. “The federal government,” Jonathan Katz observes, “apparently included the treason charge against Jackson simply to test the prosecution of an abolitionist whose speeches or writings might be interpreted as inciting resistance to the fugitive law.” The indictments against Jackson and two other whites were withdrawn, leaving thirty-six blacks and two whites (Hanway and Lewis) to stand trial for treason.
“This,” Douglass wrote when he heard of the indictments, “is to cap the climax of American absurdity, to say nothing of American infamy. Our government has virtually made every colored man in the land an outlaw, one who may be hunted by any villain who may think proper to do so, and if the hunted man, finding himself stript of all legal protection, shall lift his arm in his own defense, why, forsooth, he is arrested, arraigned, and tried for high treason, and if found guilty, he must suffer death!” Continuing in this vein, Douglass wrote brilliantly:
The basis of allegiance is protection. We owe allegiance to the government that protects us, but to the government that destroys us, we owe no allegiance. The only law which the alleged slave has a right to know anything about, is the law of nature. This is his only law. The enactments of this government do not recognize him as a citizen, but as a thing. In the light of the law, a slave can no more commit treason than a horse or an ox can commit treason. A horse kicks out the brains of his master. Do you try the horse for treason? Then why the slave who does the same thing? You answer, because the slave is a man, and he is therefore responsible for his acts. The answer is sound. The slave is a man and ought not to be treated like a horse, but like a man, and his manhood is his justification for shooting down any creature who shall attempt to reduce him to the condition of a brute.
But there is one consolation after all about this arraignment for treason. It admits our manhood. Sir Walter Scott says that treason is the crime of a gentleman. We shall watch this trial in Philadelphia, and shall report the result when it transpires. Meanwhile, we think that fugitives may sleep more soundly than formerly.
Many others were also watching. The black self-defense at Christiana and the subsequent prosecution of thirty-eight persons, thirty-six of them blacks, for treason on account of their defiance of the fugitive slave law had breathed new life into the fugitive aid movement. In Philadelphia, the response to the resistance at Christiana and to the needs of the Christiana “conspirators” was the appointment of a Vigilance Committee “to take charge of the cases growing out of the recent Fugitive Slave Act.” This committee secured legal counsel for the defendants in the Christiana cases and urged black churches and beneficial societies to aid them. Five Negro churches and two beneficial societies subscribed over $100 to the cause. In four months, through appeals signed by black leaders John P. Burrn, J. Gould, Bliss, William Forten, and N. W. Dupee, the Vigilance Committee raised $663.41 for the “Christiana patriots.” The committee was able to provide clothing and food to “these noble men” to make them comfortable during their confinement.
In New York City, black leaders Dr. James McCune Smith, the Reverend Dr. J. C. Pennington, William P. Powell, Thomas Downing, and Charles W. Ray attended “a small but spirited meeting in the Shiloh Church basement” to “raise money to defend the Christiana Patroits.” In Columbus, Ohio, blacks contributed funds in honor of the “victorious heroes of Christiana,” and when a meeting of Chicago’s black citizens proposed “means to aid the Christiana sufferers on trial in Philadelphia,” the “Ladies of the Chicago Mutual Protection Society” contributed ten dollars on the spot. In Detroit, a large meeting of black people appointed a Committee of Vigilance, took a collection, and issued an appeal to all churches “in behalf of the Christiana sufferers.” Five days later a second large Detroit meeting reported a good response to its earlier appeal from churches and “friends in all parts of the country.” Among these contributors, a group of Detroit black women raised thirty dollars and sent it with a note to the Special Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia “in behalf of our noble-hearted, liberty-loving patriots of Christiana.” The note said:
Approving, as we do, of that most noble and manly stand taken by them in the defense of their lives, their liberties, and the peace and happiness of their families, we feel ourselves (females as we are) specially called upon to answer that portion of your appeal which relates to their suffering families.
The reply from the Philadelphia Committee thanked the Detroit women for their money but added that they “by no means like the insinuation ‘females as we are’ as though you were not a part of the great chain of humanity, and bound by every tie that links us to God our great father, and to our common destiny. In this cause which is really and truly the cause of Christ, there is neither male nor female.”
The U.S. prosecuting attorney decided to use Castner Hanway’s trial as a test case upon which the fate of the other thirty-seven prisoners would be decided. The specific charges against Hanway were that (1) he, with a “large number” of armed persons, “wickedly and traitorously did intend to levy war against the…United States…[by a] combination to oppose, resist and prevent the execution of the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850”; (2) that Hanway and others did forcibly and “traitorously resist” Henry J. Kline, a U.S. officer, in the process of executing the laws of the United States; (3) that Hanway and others “liberated” from Kline’s custody the fugitive slaves of Edward Gorsuch; (4) that Hanway and others did “meet, conspire and consult” to resist forcibly the laws of the United States; and (5) that Hanway, acting on his “traitorous intentions,” prepared and distributed various “books, letters, resolutions, addresses, etc.,” inciting “fugitives and others” to forcibly resist the laws of the United States.
The case of United States v. Hanway opened in the second-story room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on November 24, 1851. The clerk read the indictment and asked: “How say you, Castner Hanway, are you guilty or not guilty?”
Clerk:How will you be tried?
Hanway:By God and my Country.
Clerk:God send you good deliverance.
U.S. attorney John W. Ashmead of Philadelphia opened for the prosecution and stressed that the jury would be judging a crime of an “extraordinary character”:
In monarchical governments, it is true, crimes of this description are of frequent occurrence, but in a government like ours they are seldom committed. The tyranny to which the subjects of despotism are exposed, may so burden and oppress them that longer submission becomes intolerable.…In governments so constituted, the only hope for a change exists in revolution, and hence the attempt made is to overturn the whole fabric of government. Under such circumstances, treason may become patriotism, and the friends of liberty throughout the world may ardently wish for its success. No such excuse, however, exists with us; for our institutions are based upon the inherent right of the people to change and modify their forms of government.…If obnoxious acts of Congress are passed they can be changed or repealed. Hence this defendant, if he has perpetrated the offense charged,…has raised his hand without excuse…against the freest government on the face of the earth.
After noting that without the fugitive slave clause, the Constitution of the United States “never could have been adopted;…and the powerful, prosperous, and glorious Republic of the United States, never could have existed among the nations of the earth,” Ashmead declared that the Compromise of 1850 and the new Fugitive Slave Act had saved that Republic when it seemed to be about to be destroyed by sectional conflict. It was this federal law that had been attacked at Christiana. If this law could not be enforced, the prosecuting attorney warned, “then, indeed, is the beginning of the end.” Ashmead asked the jury to consider “the influence your verdict may have on the future harmony and permanence of the National Union.” They would decide, he concluded, whether the Constitution, and the laws based on it, would be recognized throughout the Union as supreme. He hoped that “this venerated hall from which the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed to an admiring world, never can be the scene of the violation of Constitution, the noblest product of that Independence.”
The presentation of evidence and examination of witnesses began on November 28, and it did not take long for the reporters and spectators to realize that the prosecution’s case was untenable. The only man against whom any concrete evidence might have been brought was William Parker, and he was in Canada. In Hanway’s case, the evidence did not substantiate the charge. Theodore A. Cuyler, who, with Thaddeus Stevens and John M. Read, made up the counsel for the defense, predicted in his opening speech that the defense would prove the case “to be the most absurd and groundless prosecution ever instituted in this or any other court of justice.” The Christiana “outrages,” said Cuyler, did not amount to treason; there was no conspiracy against the fugitive slave law involved. In fact, Cuyler went on, “It was because of previous kidnappings that the blacks, exercising but a fair and natural right, armed themselves, and to some extent organized purely for their own protection.”
As for the charge of “levying war” against the United States, Cuyler was scathing in his sarcasm:
Sir—Did you hear it? That three harmless non-resisting Quakers and eight-and-thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes, armed with corn cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms and mounted on a sorrel nag, levied war against the United States.
Even though he stretched the truth in mentioning three Quakers when there were only two, and in placing the white miller at the head of the black resistance, Cuyler made his point eloquently.
Judge Robert C. Grier, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was one of two judges in the trial, criticized the defense for using the term kidnapper, in this case calling it a “cant phrase,” covering even an authorized “master seeking to recover his slave.” Thaddeus Stevens replied that the defense wished to introduce testimony about previous kidnappings
to show, may it please your honors, that if anybody should suspect in that neighborhood that there is a covert term or slang phrase used, and that kidnappers did not mean kidnappers—to show that it did mean those who followed that business for a living.
Following this exchange, Judge Grier allowed the evidence on kidnapping to be received.
In its summation, the prosecution tried to explain the lack of direct evidence linking Hanway with the blacks in a general conspiracy to resist the fugitive slave law. It was not to be expected, it argued, that “in a case like this that direct proof shall be brought, where the whole region is infected, and where every white man in that immediate neighborhood…is leagued with the traitors.” Maryland’s attorney general, Robert J. Brent, who represented his state as part of the prosecution, attempted finally to bolster the case by conjuring up the following frightening specter: “If this armed resistance at Christiana by a band of one hundred men, be not treason…then an army of ten thousand blacks may raise in the free States for armed resistance to this law of Congress, and it would not be treason.”
On December 11, Judge Grier delivered his charge to the jury. The Supreme Court Justice had vowed just after the Fugitive Slave Act had passed that “as the Lord liveth and as my soul liveth,” he would rigorously enforce the act “till the last hour it remains on the books.” But his charge made it clear that while he still fully supported the Fugitive Slave Act, he did not believe that Hanway’s resistance to it rose to the status of treason. It was the abolitionists, according to Judge Grier, who deserved the blame for riots such as the one that occurred at Christiana because their teachings incited the blacks to acts of violence. Concluding his charge, Grier pointed out that grave dangers lay in the doctrine of constructive treason. He added that the persons involved in the Christiana riot had no intentions of making a “genuine and public” resistance to a U.S. law and were interested only in protecting one another from kidnappers. After hearing Grier’s charge, the jury took only fifteen minutes of discussion to reach a verdict of “Not Guilty!”
In view of the decision rendered by the jury, Ashmead declared that the prosecution would not proceed any further in its actions against Hanway. Ash-mead also stated that he was unwilling to prosecute the other thirty-seven bills of treason and thereby washed the federal government’s hands of the affair.
The entire group of thirty-eight blacks and whites were still subject to prosecution in the Lancaster County courts, but the charges were ignored and the prisoners were freed. The judicial aftermath of the Christiana resistance came to a conclusion when a jury in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia found Samuel Williams not guilty of what William Still described in a letter to the Voice of the Fugitive as the “enormous offence of going from this city with the intelligence to Christiana, that kidnappers were about.”
In the same letter, Still called the outcome of the trials “a sad day for the slaveholders and their allies.” History has confirmed the truth of this contemporary evaluation. As Benjamin Quarles has noted, the resistance at Christiana and the failure of the treason trials contributed to a resurgence of the antislavery movement and of organized aid to fugitives and brought widespread support for these efforts. The event convinced the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society of the value of Underground Railroad activity to the antislavery movement. “The riot,” one student concludes, “exacerbated public revulsion against slavery more successfully than did lectures and petitions.” In Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins observes that the Christiana resistance “was an important factor in shaping, and in some cases, altering American public opinion.” It forced the American people “to reconsider the feasibility of the compromise solution that had seemed a final settlement of the sectional controversy at the time of its enactment.”
On June 30, 1911, the Lancaster Historical Society marked the sixtieth anniversary of the resistance at Christiana with a series of papers. One bore the title, “The Christiana Riot: Its Causes and Effects, from a Southern Standpoint.” The author, a white southerner, wept for Edward Gorsuch, “a kind and indulgent master,” murdered by “ungrateful negroes.” He lamented the acquittal in the first treason trial and the dismissal of the others and concluded sadly: “The Christiana riot was the beginning of the end that led to the firing on Sumter and the beginning of a terrible war.” What the author did not mention was that that war also brought an end to the right of one man to hold another in property. This issue was dramatized by remarks made in the dialogue between two of the participants in Freedom’s Battle at Christiana:
Edward Gorsuch: My property is in this house. I’ve come for it.
William Parker: Go in the room down there, and see if there is anything belonging to you.
There are beds and bureau, chairs, and other things. Then go out to the barn; and there you will find a cow and some hogs. See if any of them are yours.