1850 Fugitive Slave Act: First Runaway Slave Arrested
With the nation about to plunge into a civil war over the slavery issue, Congress in September 1850 passed the Compromise of 1850, legislation meant to appease both sides. The Compromise consisted of five bills, and on September 18 Congress passed the one that most pleased slavery advocates: a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. Its approval came about in part thanks to a controversial speech Senator Daniel Webster had delivered. In his “Plea for Harmony and Peace” speech, Webster insisted the U.S. Constitution protected the right of slave owners to hunt down, capture, and bring back into bondage any fugitive slave—and that anyone harboring or in any way providing aid to a fugitive slave could be arrested.
James Hamlet, a runaway slave from Baltimore, was apprehended in New York City shortly after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act became law, the first fugitive captured under its authority. The law said any white person could claim any black person was a fugitive slave simply by swearing it was so—and the black person had no right to testify in his/her defense. Hamlet’s arrest was not without controversy, as first reported by the New York Herald and reprinted by the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on Sept. 30, 1850:
Important Fugitive Slave Case
First Arrest of a Fugitive Slave under the New Act—Highly Important Proceedings, and Great Excitement among the Colored People
The New York Herald, of Saturday, gives the following detailed account of the arrest of a fugitive slave from Baltimore, in that city:
Yesterday morning, Messrs. Wm. A. Brown and Lorenzo de Angelis, two of the deputy marshals of the United States, proceeded to the neighborhood of Water and Pearl streets, for the purpose of arresting a slave named James Hamlet, who has been a fugitive for about two years, and is claimed as the property of Mrs. Mary Brown, of Baltimore. The officers succeeded in effecting the arrest, but did not at the time, tell their prisoner the real purpose for which they had taken him. Great excitement prevailed among the colored people throughout the day; and as the proceedings are novel, and the first under the act passed the 18th of the present month, we give them somewhat in detail.
On the prisoner, James Hamlet, being brought before the Commissioner, Thomas J. Clare was sworn and examined.—I reside in Baltimore, in the State of Maryland; I am about 39 years of age; I am a clerk; I know James Hamlet; he is a slave of Mary Brown, my mother-in-law, also residing in Baltimore; I knew Hamlet about twenty years; he left my mother-in-law about two years ago; he absented himself from the premises where we resided; she is entitled to his services as a slave for life; she never parted with him voluntarily; she came into possession of him by the will of John G. Brown, her deceased husband; (witness puts in evidence, an extract from the will of John G. Brown); she held him from the time she inherited him until he escaped, as I have testified; the prisoner is the man; he is James Hamlet. (Witness also produces a power of attorney by which he claims the possession of James Hamlet.)
Gustavus Brown sworn, deposed.—I reside in the city of New York; I am about 25 years old; I am a clerk to E. M. Fenby; I resided in Baltimore before coming to this city; I know James Hamlet; I have known him since boyhood; he is a slave of my mother, Mary Brown; he is a slave for life, and she inherits him by the will of my father; he left her service by absenting himself from the house in Baltimore some two years ago; I have seen him several times within the last six months in this city; first saw him since he left Baltimore in April last; my mother is still entitled to his services, never having parted with him voluntarily; the prisoner is the man.
Mr. Asa Child, formerly Attorney General for Connecticut, here entered the court, and said he had been sent for, and requested to attend by a gentleman named Wood, in whose service Hamlet had been for some time. He then asked Mr. Clare a few questions, to which the witness replied: I married into the family of Mrs. Brown seventeen years ago; I live with her now; and did live with her at the time Hamlet went away; I think he (the slave) is about twenty-eight years old; we knew of his having gone on the Monday after the Saturday on which he left; his business was that of a servant, and doing work about the house; he was engaged in a shot manufactory where I am clerk; he was hired by the company through me.
Mr. Child said Mrs. Brown did not appear to have exercised any authority over the man.
Mr. Clare said that when the slave was not engaged about the house, he got him employment, and Mrs. Brown received the wages for his labor when thus employed through witness’s agency; I am interested in these proceedings so far that I have a power of attorney to claim him as Mrs. Brown’s property.
Gustavus Brown, in answer to Mr. Child, said he was at home with his mother when Hamlet left.
Mr. Child said he had no further questions to ask, and there was no doubt the proceedings were in accordance with the law.
The Commissioner said, upon this testimony, he would hand the fugitive over to the custody of the claimant, and, if there was any danger to be apprehended, he would direct the Marshal to give such protection as was necessary.
Mr. Talmadge, the Marshal of the United States, said he supposed his duty had now terminated by having had the fugitive arrested and produced before the court.
Mr. Clare said that under the authority of the U. States he would ask for protection of the Marshal in conveying the fugitive to Baltimore, as from the feeling that had been manifested, he had reason to apprehend molestation.
The Commissioner directed Mr. Clare to make an affidavit to that effect, and he would then give an order for a sufficient force to accompany the fugitive to Baltimore.
The affidavit was made, and the Commissioner directed that a force sufficient to prevent any attempt at rescue, should accompany the party to Baltimore.
The prisoner was then handcuffed and removed in a carriage, accompanied by Mr. Talmadge, Jr., Mr. Wm. A. Brown, and another officer, and Mr. Clare, the agent and representative of Mrs. Brown. There were a great many men of color about the court, anxiously awaiting the result, and as some disturbance was apprehended, there was a large number of police in readiness, by order of the Mayor. But, though there was much dissatisfaction, and “curses not loud but deep” were uttered upon the lawmakers, and all the officials connected with the transaction, there was no attempt at rescue. This has been the first arrest under the new act, and many more, it is reported, will follow this case, which has been marked with a peculiar degree of promptitude and despatch—the arrest having been made, the examination held, and the prisoner on his way to Baltimore, within the space of three hours. He was taken on board the John Potter, by the Camden and Amboy line, en route for his destination. The expenses of the proceedings are defrayed by the United States Treasury and amounted to $71, for which the Marshal gave his order.
As soon as the carriage drove off, many of the colored people again commenced exclaiming against the proceeding; and an Abolitionist, named Benton, expressed his indignation in no measured terms. He said it was a crying shame that a man in human form should be the slave of another man; he called upon the men of color to go home and tell their friends to resist the next attempt to arrest a black man. He would advise every fugitive slave, as they were called, to sell his clothes, even to his very shirt, and buy a “bowie knife,” and rip open the ___ of any officer who would lay a hand upon him.
A quiet looking old man of color said that there were hundreds of fugitive slaves in New York. He knew that preparations were being made for a desperate and determined resistance of any future arrest, and he predicted that hundreds of lives would be lost in these attempts.
A person remarked to him that violence would be dangerous, as in the arrest made today the officers were armed with revolvers, and there were several policemen in attendance at the time.
The man of color said that they did not care for that; they would rather die on the scaffold than live and be slaves. “At all events,” said he, “the life of the man who makes the arrest can be taken, and they can do no more than shoot the slave. They are all armed, and there will be blood spilled.” After several repetitions of similar threats and forebodings, the men of color and a few white-faced Abolitionists left the vicinity of the courts, giving more unbridled vent to their opinions of the miseries and injustice of slavery, and pouring out imprecations on the devoted heads of the lawmakers at Washington.
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