Author: H. Robert Baker.
Dramatic Scholarship, Timely Gist, and Courageous Subtext
During the early half of the nineteenth century, more than three million Americans were still being held in chattel slavery by neighbors who backed up constant intimidation with often brutal episodes of violence. These, so called, control measures were intended to demoralize an already desperate people and to block their collective demand for the individual liberties and ethnic dignities which had long been promised by the U.S. founding documents. For its victims, the institution comprised much more than a political issue; it was a daily drudgery, a hard reality akin to serving an undeserved life sentence at hard labor. But in the case of American slavery, the sentence extended to progeny, a curse to be passed to future generations with more certainty than a genetic trait.
In both the north and the south, most “white” people viewed the “peculiar institution” as a political debate, a necessary evil, a “legal,” if uncomfortable, holdover from the English colonial era, and a tradition rooted in the economic status quo of the slaveholding and expanding nation. For the politically astute, the “issue” would continue to undermine (or to preserve) the balance of power and, perhaps, to insure the continuation of southern control over the Congress, the Electoral College, and the Courts.
A slim but growing minority of conscientious reformers known as “abolitionists,” many of whom were, themselves, “free blacks” and escaped slaves, escalated the struggle against American slavery. They persevered, in fact, until their polarizing outrage had pushed most Americans back into the two opposed positions of the Constitutional Convention: those who would rather leave the union than to relinquish state sovereignty versus those who wanted to preserve the union at almost any cost. Well into the Civil War, African American liberty remained a secondary concern for most “whites,” a rationalization in this struggle over political influence.
Considered a nuisance by most of main stream America, abolitionists pursued strategies that ranged from peaceful agitation to violent and armed resistance, violence which in the new world dates back to the fifteenth century, when Europeans began enslaving Africans and Indians in the Americas. An informal and illegal effort to assist fugitive slaves, metaphorically described as the “Underground Railroad,” received encouragement and a romantic patina in editorials written for new media and literary genre, including anti-slavery newspapers, pamphlets, minstrelsy shows, and novels. Throughout the north, aid societies and “vigilance committees” raised funds through bazaars, sewing circles, and rallies attended by nationally known speakers. To their horror though, slavery continued to expand in several ways: geographically, as new territories became states, numerically, as international restrictions on slave trading made U.S. born slaves more valuable and innovations in cotton processing created a new national gold mine, and in intensity, as slaveholding communities clamped down on the enslaved out of the realistic fear of the next slave uprising.
Prior generations of historical writer explained the end of American slavery as a triumph of “white” justice over the greed and arrogance of misguided southern slaveholders. Proclamations by Republican Presidents, waves of blue uniforms in formed ranks, economic trends in the international cotton markets, and the coordinated alliances between pacifist abolitionists and elite literati have all received too many laurels in their turn. Each notion is a product of misplaced causality. And they have each faded when critiqued by a later generation of historian.
Until recent years, since the publication of Thomas P. Slaughter’s Bloody Dawn, (Oxford U. Press, 1991), the plight of individual fugitive slaves and their accomplices, as well as the impact of their predicaments on northern attitudes, have been eclipsed by book length studies focusing on richer fields for archival prospecting. Fugitives on the lamb intentionally generate slim paper trails. And they are still difficult to track after two hundred and forty years. But during the late 1990’s, a flurry of fine scholarship presented fugitive slaves and their attempts to achieve liberty. Gary Collison’s exemplary Shadrach Minkins: from Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Harvard U. Press, 1997) and Albert J. von Frank’s The Trials of Anthony Burns (Harvard U. Press, 1998) will survive as fine examples of this historical infatuation. Given these excellent prior studies, do we need yet another book length analysis of a fugitive slave being put at risk by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?
The conduct of the so called “War on Terror” and the U.S. Patriot Act’s passage into law without state ratification may have finally turned the history of heroic antebellum pacifism on its head. Now, scholarly narratives can be written from the viewpoints of the outlaw, even in cases when the criminal resorts to violence and especially when legal offices are marshaled to enforce ill-conceived and unjust law. Many, if not most, scholars today are rooting for the side of justice and individual rights. Legalistic arguments, founded on tradition and national economic interest, are somehow less convincing of late.
H. Robert Baker’s timely and very readable The Rescue of Joshua Glover is a well researched study of a community in eastern Wisconsin, and its seemingly collective response to the arrest of an escaped slave from Missouri. Baker’s relation of Joshua Glover’s story is much too dramatic to be pre-empted by any reviewer’s summary. Read and enjoy it.
Baker picks up Glover’s trail in legal archives, newspapers, and correspondence through a commendable bit of detective art, given the time and the intentional smoke screens emitted by the fleeing fugitive and the community that arose to protect him.
Unlike many works drawn from legal archives, Baker’s prose is almost entirely free of sophistry. Latinate decorations are held to a handful of “sine qua non’s,” “ipso facto’s,” and “prima facie’s.” Commendably, there are no insurmountable expressions of theoretical jargon. This book is about what it is about. Held to a relaxed chronological order, a reader learns about Glover’s arrest, his detention, and his adoptive communities’ responses. Then, Baker presents the aftermath: the plight of the rescuers, and of those who organized the local public relations effort that enabled the successful evasion of federal authority. In logical places throughout, the author down shifts the narration to provide needed analysis. During these pauses much is helpfully synthesized and Baker makes several new points. Among these synthetic treasures, Baker’s legal analysis of fugitive slave law, as it evolved from the Constitutional Convention until the time of Glover’s escape, will insure a long shelf life for this study. Most important, this book may spark a review of the role of mass public defiance of bad law. It will certainly remind nineteenth century scholars to adjust their views of appropriate mass public behavior to include what would today be seen as disruptive riot.
This reviewer will assign The Rescue of Joshua Glover as one of the supplemental readings in his American History survey courses for new undergraduates. The analysis of fugitive slave law, the western setting of events described, and the author’s sensitive treatment of the legal status of African Americans will each stimulate needed classroom discussion and deeper understanding. After reading such a dramatic story, my students will--perhaps--remember more about the nineteenth century than the 4th of July at Gettysburg.
The above review was contributed by: Joe Petrulionis: Joe Petrulionis reads, writes, and teaches the history of ideas and he emphasizes the political and cultural context in which these philosophical, scientific, and artistic notions emerge. Joe has a recent Masters Degree in History and is in recovery from a previous career and graduate specialty in finance and economics.