Enslaved, Terrorized, Disenfranchised: Black Americans Still Found Ways to Change America

Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War
By Alice L. Baumgartner

Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War
By Jonathan Daniel Wells

One night in May 1861, mere weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., three enslaved men rowed a skiff across the James River in Virginia toward Fort Monroe, a military post near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The men — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend — were field hands, forced by the Confederacy to build an artillery emplacement at Sewell’s Point. As they worked, the blue flag of the 115th Virginia Military blew in the wind above them, its motto an ironic appropriation of another Virginia slaveholder’s dramatic call, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

After learning that the rebel colonel Charles Mallory planned to send them further south, away from family and kin, to build additional fortifications in North Carolina, the men decided to flee. Fort Monroe, the last federal military stronghold in Virginia, provided sanctuary, but only after Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the fort’s commander, met with Colonel Mallory’s agent, who refused to denounce Mallory’s allegiance to the Confederate States of America.

Butler, a conservative Democrat until South Carolina seceded from the Union five months before, was no abolitionist. Nevertheless, he agreed not to send Baker, Mallory and Townsend back to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided federal protection for “absconded” property. Butler reasoned that, because Colonel Mallory intended to use the men to support further insurrection against the United States, he had the right to confiscate them and their labor in service to the Union Army.

Historians have argued that Butler’s so-called contraband of war policy did not concern itself with the Black men’s humanity. Regardless, the actions taken by the three men — the fact that they compelled the racially apathetic Butler to alter the Union Army’s fugitive slave policy — changed the course of the Civil War. By engaging in what W. E. B. Du Bois referred to as “the slaves’ general strike,” Baker, Mallory and Townsend joined a defiant stream of enslaved migrants who used the chaos and uncertainty of war to define freedom on their own terms.

These “contrabands,” like centuries of enslaved people before them, challenged the pro-slavery federal government to confront the political reality wrought by its peculiar institution. In response to Butler’s decision, and the steady flow of fugitives flooding Union strongholds across the South, Congress passed a series of Confiscation Acts that effectively dismantled more than 200 years of slavery in North America. Unwilling to wait for emancipation from a government built on their degradation, enslaved people walked, rowed and ran to freedom.

The story of how Black people in a slaveholding society affected federal policy by their movements, by their defiance and by their very existence has been told before. But rarely has this story been told as compassionately, or rendered as beautifully, as it is in two new books, “South to Freedom” and “The Kidnapping Club,” by the historians Alice L. Baumgartner and Jonathan Daniel Wells, respectively. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America” (1935) acknowledged the radical effect that enslaved people had on the Civil War and Reconstruction. And 20th-century Black scholars like John Hope Franklin showed enslaved people as “rebels on the plantation” who challenged white America’s notion of Southern bondage as, in the words of the award-winning scholar Ulrich B. Phillips, “perhaps a chapel of ease.” Similarly, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” Steven Hahn’s 2003 account of Black nation-building during and immediately after the Civil War, forced historians to reckon with the formerly enslaved as actors on their own behalf.

Baumgartner and Wells place the constant push of enslaved Black people against the nation-state at the center of antebellum politics. Significantly, both authors take the long tradition of Black resistance as a given; their books are not studies of racial exceptionalism, but of Black political agency as a persistent current. In “The Kidnapping Club,” Wells shows how the “booming and prosperous metropolis” of antebellum New York City profited from the rendition to the South of escaped slaves who sought freedom in the North. In “South to Freedom,” Baumgartner traces the journey of enslaved people to New Spain and Mexico, even as white planters, emboldened by federal law, spread their cotton kingdom west. Both books are masterfully researched, yet their greatest contribution lies in the radical implications of their respective theses: that 19th-century American politics were shaped as much by Black resistance to enslavement as by the institution of slavery itself.

When Baker, Mallory and Townsend rowed their stolen skiff across the James River in 1861, nearly 90 percent of African-Americans were enslaved, and most of the nearly quarter million who resided in Northern “quasi freedom” were disenfranchised. Yet, as both Baumgartner and Wells show, Black movement against the laws and institutions that enslaved them affected American politics far more than any ballot cast or Electoral College vote.

The United States’ early-19th-century border with New Spain — a vast expanse of diverse climate and varying geography spreading from present-day Florida to California and south through the Gulf Coast and Yucatán Peninsula — was a particularly porous boundary between slavery and freedom. Relying on Mexican and American archives, including congressional records and letters from the period of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Baumgartner demonstrates how enslaved people fled to Mexico, where they invoked the republic’s contested antislavery laws to claim their freedom and, in doing so, contributed to the political wrangling over slavery’s future in the United States.

New Spain provided legal protections for the fugitives, despite a long history of African and Indigenous enslavement throughout the Spanish empire. Siete Partidas, a 13th-century legal code that protected enslaved people from mistreatment, was grounds for African-American sanctuary in the face of slaveholding America’s most brutal forms of control: branding, maiming, starvation. In the hands of a less meticulous scholar, the notion that fugitive slaves invoked Siete Partidas when they arrived in New Spain after fleeing the horrors of Louisiana or Mississippi could come across as matter-of-fact. Yet there is nothing matter-of-fact, Baumgartner argues, about the conflict between white plantation owners, perpetually hungry for fresh cotton land in the Southwest, and the antislavery laws of the Mexican republic. To show this, she enlists the heartbreaking and carefully researched stories of escaped slaves themselves.

In 1820, when Moses Austin, the owner of a lead mine near St. Louis, petitioned Spanish authorities for permission to settle 300 Americans in the New Spanish province of Téjas, he was accompanied, for part of his journey, by a Louisiana slave owner, James Kirkham. Kirkham carried his own petition to the provincial capital of San Antonio de Béxar for the return of three enslaved people who had escaped from his plantation the year before.

Other scholars have framed Austin’s journey as the starting point for Anglo settlement in Téjas, a prelude to the supposedly exceptional story of Austin’s more celebrated son, Stephen Fuller Austin, known as “the Father of Texas,” who carried out his father’s mission, and to the two decades of political conflict that led to the annexation of Texas by the United States. But Baumgartner situates this first step in the incursion into Mexico of norteamericanos within the 1819 escape of the enslaved people: Martin, Fivi and Richard, from Kirkham’s plantation, and Samuel, from a neighboring one, who together fled more than 100 miles west to Nacogdoches. One of the fugitives had attempted escape before, and bore the terrifying brand “R” (for runaway) on his cheek, a detail that Baumgartner renders with the same novelistic flair that she does the slaves’ harrowing journey on to Monterrey, 600 miles south, where the military commander in Nacogdoches, reluctant to emancipate them himself, sent them to plead their case before a judge. In Monterrey, they invoked the Siete Partidas and were eventually freed.

Baumgartner’s placement of fugitive slaves at the center of this story is not merely cosmetic. The fact that the commander in Nacogdoches wrestled with whether to grant them freedom, despite the legal precedent for doing so, shows how slavery, emancipation and empire were constantly renegotiated based on enslaved people’s movements across geographical and political boundaries. The commander’s hesitation arose from fear of American reprisals: Spain had failed to stop the United States’ violent incursions into Florida under the leadership of the future president Andrew Jackson, who, in 1816, attacked the so-called Negro Fort on the Apalachicola River. Like the rest of New Spain, Florida had long been a refuge for enslaved Africans; Spanish law protected them at the Negro Fort as surely as it shielded Kirkham’s slaves in Monterrey. But Jackson and his soldiers, determined to remand the Negroes on the Apalachicola River and subdue the Seminole Indians with whom they were allied, continued to occupy Florida as the Spanish empire collapsed from Venezuela to New Grenada.

Thus, Baumgartner argues, the four fugitives’ arrival in Nacogdoches, and their successful petition for freedom in Monterrey, had a significant effect on relations between the slaveholding United States and what eventually became antislavery Mexico. James Kirkham returned to Louisiana without his slaves, and Moses Austin died in Missouri soon after he was granted permission to bring Anglo settlers to Téjas. Yet his plan was eventually fulfilled by his son and other white Americans, many of whom brought slaves with them, with the result that political crisis characterized Mexican-American diplomacy every time Black people crossed the border.

Baumgartner’s important conclusion is that we must reconceive the impact of the supposedly powerless on the economically and politically powerful: “We cannot understand the coming of the Civil War without taking into account Mexico and the slaves who reached its soil,” she writes. “‘American’ histories of slavery and sectional controversy are, in fact, Mexican histories too.”

Constant resistance by the politically powerless against a white racial establishment is a motif as well in Wells’s analysis of New York City’s 19th-century “kidnapping club.” His narrative dissects the tragic effects of an organized group of local police officers, merchants and Democratic politicians who supported Southern slave catchers unleashed upon the city’s Black community by federal fugitive slave law. And yet, much in the way that enslaved people crossing the Southern border changed the political relationship between America and Mexico, Black New Yorkers challenged the city’s pro-slavery ruling class by building their own network — through the press, through Black abolitionist leaders and under the protection of the newly formed New York Vigilance Committee.

The city’s economic expansion in the decades after the American Revolution was made possible by Southern slaves and the hundreds of thousands of cotton bales that they produced every year. Wall Street financed cotton production, which bloated the coffers of textile mills in New England and Britain; cotton plantations, in turn, relied on New York City brokers, financiers and businesses. Insurance companies grew rich protecting the Southern plantocracy’s slave investments, and banks extended credit to plantations as they spread to the south and west. The fact that America’s largest city was so intimately entwined with the cotton kingdom meant that New York’s political class, controlled by Democrats in Tammany Hall, used the press, law enforcement and elected officials to appease Southern slaveholders rather than to protect its Black residents. Gradual emancipation made New York a free state, but Wells shows that white New Yorkers, like other whites across the North, had a vested interest in preserving slavery through a lucrative kidnapping industry.

The city’s so-called kidnapping club, established by two police officers in the early 1830s, relied on the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause to corral law firms, the city recorder and district court judges into a sustained campaign against Black residents, who were abducted and sold to slave catchers, whether or not they had previously been enslaved. Readers familiar with “Twelve Years a Slave,” the film based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative, might recognize the horror of free Black people forced into Southern enslavement in Wells’s harrowing account of men and women abducted by police officers as they walked the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan.

Yet one of Wells’s greatest contributions is his reminder that there were many Solomon Northups, and that some of them were children. In 1834, 7-year-old Henry Scott was kidnapped from his desk at Manhattan’s African Free School as his classmates and teacher looked on, one of many scenes of racialized terror that Wells describes in detail. His larger story, woven from court records, newspaper archives and historical monographs, is particularly unsettling for what it reveals about the deep roots of anti-Blackness in New York City’s law enforcement divisions. “Part of the story we learn from the New York Kidnapping Club,” Wells concludes, “is that the relationships between the Black community and the police have long been fraught.”

Because the kidnapping club was “a microcosm of the much broader and more widespread disregard for Black lives that pervaded the city,” militant Black resistance, rather than white evangelical philanthropy, defined New York City’s antislavery politics in the decades before the Civil War, even as the club’s collusion with Southern slaveholders shaped the state’s conservative Unionism during the war. Wells’s protagonist, the Black abolitionist David Ruggles, helped to found the city’s Vigilance Committee to protect Black citizens from police officers acting on the Southerners’ behalf. The book’s first chapter opens with Ruggles returning to Manhattan by train from an abolitionist meeting in Pittsburgh and provoking his white fellow passengers to think about their complicity in Southern slavery. Ruggles coined the term “kidnapping club” to describe what Wells calls “a true Goliath, a potent, systemic enemy that believed Black bodies were cheap and expendable.”

Black New Yorkers might have faced an insurmountable Goliath in the white political establishment, but by challenging the kidnapping club in court and on the streets, they were not entirely powerless.

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