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A “Dirty and Diabolical Business”—Dividing Lines Over Slavery and Slave-Catching in 19th-Century America

Posted on 10/21/2014

The October release of The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes documents illustrating the deep religious, political, and legal divisions within 19th-century American society over the issue of slavery.

An Address, Delivered on the Fourth of July, 1836 (1836)
By Charles Fitch, Pastor of the Free Congregational Church, Boston

“We hold it to be self-evident, that God has created all men equal, and endowed them with certain unalienable rights, and that among these rights, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is my text—and if ever one sentence was written in the English language, which expresses more than any other, the true spirit of those who would abolish slavery throughout the world, it seems to me to be this. It comprises just everything for which abolitionists contend. It covers the whole ground, and reaches the farthest possible extent of all their avowed principles, and of all the measures which they contemplate, or which they desire to see used, for the deliverance of their fellow-men who are held in chains.

Thus begins this address by Pastor Fitch who was adamant that “God has given men equal rights, according to the Declaration of American Independence” and “he who will not allow [African-Americans] these rights, is a transgressor of [God’s] law.”  Nor did Fitch equivocate between types of slave owners, saying:

I know there are many, who mean to be considered among the better sort of slaveholders, who think, by kindness, to make up to their slaves what they forcibly withhold from them. But it seems to me, that I could regard it as nothing better than adding insult to injury, for a tyrant, after having stripped me of all the rights of manhood, to think to atone for the wrongs he was daily inflicting upon me, by a few kind words now and then, and some few efforts to render my wretched condition, in some measure, endurable.

I said a tyrant, and I wish to have it fully understood, that I consider the best slaveholder on earth, a tyrant.

Fitch recognized others could quote scripture to support their claim that slavery is a divine institution but suggested they were misunderstanding the larger context. Just as arguing that because “the Israelites slew the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, therefore it is right for us to put our enemies to death whenever we can” is wrong, so to is making the argument that “God permitted the Israelites to hold slaves, therefore it is right for us.” Fitch explained why these interpretations were incorrect:

The truth on the subject is this. The Canaanitish nations were devoted to destruction by the God who made them. He therefore gave a special commission to the Israelites, to go and put to death men, women and children, and possess themselves of their country. For the same reason, they were permitted to hold them as bond servants. It was a judgment from God upon the inhabitants of Canaan. But that God ever gave his permission to any thing like the system of American Slavery, is something that wants proof.

Mr. Everett's Address to the Whigs of Vermont, July, 1848 (1848)
By Horace Everett

Former Representative of Vermont and state delegate of the Whig Party, Horace Everett attended the 1848 Whig National Convention in Philadelphia and opposed the nomination of Zachary Taylor as the party’s presidential nominee. In this address he explained his concerns and urged his fellow Whigs to join him in leaving their party. At the core of Everett’s discontent with the nominee was Taylor’s position, or lack thereof, on the Wilmot Proviso.

On August 8, 1846, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced the Proviso as a rider to the appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican-American War. The Proviso would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico. The bill failed to pass in 1846, and again the following February. An attempt to make the Proviso part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed, but Everett felt it could be used as a litmus test for Taylor’s position on the expansion of slavery, stating:   



The single ground upon which I shall rest my refusal to give in my adhesion to the nomination, as a sufficient justification, is this, that I had no evidence that General Taylor would oppose the further acquisition of Mexican Territory, or that he would not veto a bill containing the principles of the Wilmot Proviso….—on the contrary, I did and do believe, and I have good ground for believing, that Gen. Taylor is in favor of further acquisition of Mexican Territory, and will veto any bill that contains the principles of the Wilmot Proviso.

Everett understood the fissures within the party that would be deepened by the expansion of slavery to the territories, saying:

In my judgment the Whig party, as a national party, was dissolved, at the Chinese Museum, at 6 P.M. on the 9th day of June, 1848. And from that day and hour I dedicate myself to the Free Soil Party.

Prof. Stuart and Slave Catching: Remarks on Mr. Stuart's Book “Conscience and the Constitution” (1850)
By Reverend George William Perkins

The Wilmot Proviso, among other issues, led to the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and new points of political contention. Reverend Perkins found in the Bible the basis for his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, specifically the requirement of citizens in Free states to cooperate in the return of escaped slaves to their masters. However, Perkins could not find unanimity among believers for his interpretation. He described the “lowest stage of debasement” as:

…the condition of that man who voluntarily comes forward to defend the slave-catcher, and brings his Bible to prove that it is a work of justice and a sacred duty to be slave-catchers. Beyond this the soul of man would seem to be the incapable of going. To this last stage, has come, Rev. Moses Stuart, in his book entitled, “Conscience and the Constitution.”

In that work Stuart had presented several Biblical justifications for slavery, which Perkins here refutes by offering greater contextualization of the Old Testament passages, much like Charles Fitch had done in 1836. And in responding to Stuart’s quote from the New Testament that “Christ did not intermeddle in political affairs,” Perkins chided:

Does Mr. Stuart mean to argue, that because Christ had nothing to do with politics, therefore Christians now must have nothing to do with politics? that because Christ did not vote, therefore we Christians must not vote? that because Christ did not oppose, expose, and aim to repeal, bad laws, therefore Christians now, must not do it? Is that his meaning? Plainly not. Then why this pompous array of Christ’s example in this particular if we are not to imitate it?—what argumentative impertinence to allege the example of Christ in not intermeddling with politics, when all admit, that Christians now are to have much to do with politics, and ought, to vote and act in political affairs.
Suppose Christ did not intermeddle with slavery: what then? He did not intermeddle with adultery. There was a case brought before him: a clear case: there was no denial of the fact: no extenuating circumstance. He would have nothing to do with it: nay, expressly said to the adulteress, ‘neither do I condemn thee.’ But what does it prove? that we are to have nothing to do with condemning adultery: or with making laws for its suppression? Certainly, if there is any force in Mr. Stuart’s appeal to the example of Christ, about slavery.

Perkins found Stuart’s defense of Daniel Webster, who had supported the Compromise of 1850, equally specious. After parsing Webster’s statements regarding the Compromise and its amendments prior to passage, Perkins noted Stuart’s hypocrisy for feeling he needed to defend Webster at all:

But why vindicate Mr. Webster from the crime of supporting Mr. Mason’s bill. Has not Mr. Stuart put forth an elaborate book to prove that fugitive slaves ought to be sent back? that God required it? and that Paul himself set us the example of so holy a work? Did not Mr. Stuart and his reverend colleagues at Andover, publicly thank Mr. Webster for recalling them to this sacred duty, which in their backslidden state they had almost forgotten? Why should Mr. Webster be ashamed of recommending the most efficient measures, for effecting [sic] the duty? or Mr. Stuart, be compelled to put language to the torture, to prove that Mr. Webster did not say, what it is plain he did say, and ought to have said, on his principles? Or does it prove that both of them are ashamed of the dirty and diabolical business of slave catching, after they have proved it right?

The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case: Involving the Right to a Writ of Habeas Corpus (1851)

Prior to the Compromise of 1850 citizens of Free states were not obligated to assist slave-owners seeking to recover their human property, yet the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 guaranteed the right of slave-owners to recover escaped slaves. The 1851 South Bend Fugitive Slave Case illustrates the conflict between that guarantee and the right to a writ of habeas corpus as well as opposition in the North to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The South Bend Case revolved around the detention by John Norris of Boone County, Kentucky, of alleged escaped slaves, the Powell family. Two years after their alleged escape, Norris and others located members of the Powell family in Cass County, Michigan, and attempted to take them back to Kentucky. Wright Maudlin, a neighbor of the Powell family, pursued Norris, overtaking the group in South Bend, Indiana, about thirty miles from their Michigan home. Maudlin hired an attorney in South Bend, and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was drawn up. Norris, now facing kidnapping charges, hired two Indiana defense lawyers who cited the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 as justification of Norris’s actions.

When the decision in favor of Norris was announced, he “gathered his men around the captives” who “seized the captives with one hand, brandished their weapons with the other, threatening to shoot the first man that interfered.”



Everything had been perfectly quiet up to this moment, but upon this display of force, the people rose to their feet highly excited. Some ran out and spread the alarm through town, others crowded around the Kentuckians and their captives, calling upon them to put up their weapons; but they continued brandishing them, threatening to shoot all who dared to oppose them. Mr. Liston, one of their counsel, jumped upon a table, and called upon the Kentuckians to shoot all who interfered, and they would be justified in so doing. His language was most violent and abusive towards the citizens, and did much to fan the excitement.

The following day “several warrants were issued against the Kentuckians for assaults and batteries, and one for a riot, predicated upon their violent proceedings in the court-house….Two suits were also commenced by the Powells against Norris and his party for trespass and false imprisonment, and they were held to bail in the sum of $1000 in each suit.”

After several days of legal wrangling, the Powells were released under on a Supreme Court decision, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which declared “all laws passed by the States in relation to fugitives from labor, are unconstitutional and void...” The Kentuckians were also held harmless when “the Grand Jury refused to find an indictment against [them] for a riot, and in a few days after they quietly departed for their homes, with new views of Northern feeling on the subject of slavery.”

The citizens of South Bend generally, without distinction of party, evinced the strongest feeling of sympathy for the oppressed. The trials called forth crowds to hear the arguments. The presence of the poor trembling captives, in their weak and helpless condition, surrounded by a party of armed men in a court of justice, was a practical exhibition of slavery, which needed only to be seen to stir up the deepest fountain of feeling. The Kentuckians were looked upon almost universally with loathing and abhorrence. The sight of a family thus torn from a happy home, separated from those they held most dear, with nothing but slavery, hopeless, life-long bondage staring them in the face, made our citizens feel that nothing should be left undone, to save them from such a horrid fate.

Infidelity and Abolitionism: An Open Letter to the Friends of Religion, Morality, and the American Union (1856)

Abolitionist supporters of the 1856 presidential candidacy of John Charles Fremont were accused of infidelity, sectionalism, and favoring the Union’s dissolution. An advocate for Fremont responded to the Christian Messenger’s claims that “Infidelity strikes at the root of social order, domestic purity, and national security” and “Infidelity fans the flame of sectional jealousy and hate,” writing:

The only question which, at the present day, can possibly be said to excite sectional jealousy and hate is the Slavery question, and this is the flame which the American Tract Society declares is fanned by infidelity. If it be true that infidelity is raising its voice against the iniquities and abominations of American bondage, it has in fact become more Christian than cotton divinity, which insults the Almighty, revokes his precepts, and degrades his Holy Word by making it the warrant for the foulest injustice, the vilest cruelty.

Also outraging the American Tract Society and like-minded believers and defenders of slavery was the following extract, reprinted in this document, from a letter published in the Boston Liberator by Francis Barry:

I have carefully looked over my last article (see Liberator, Feb. 2), and I can but find a single expression that begins to compare, in point of ‘profanity,’ with the above extracts. I said, if God had the power to abolish slavery, and would not, he was ‘a very great scoundrel.’ Now, did I recognize the existence of an infinitely holy being, and then should speak of him in such a manner, you might call it profanity; but as I believe in no God, my statement amounts simply to this: Any being whatever, having the power to strike the chains from the limbs of the slave, and should refuse to exercise it, is a scoundrel—I should have said, devil. And if there is a man, not a fiend in human shape, who does not respond to this sentiment, it is because his humanity is swallowed up in his ‘theology.’ No doubt you would agree with me, that the man who will not do all in his power for the abolition of slavery, has more of the devilish than of the divine in his nature; but God may be deaf to the cry of despair, may even command his serviles to rob, ravish, and murder, as did fabled ‘Israel’s God,’ and yet we must yield to this omnipotent fiend unlimited reverence. This is one of the pernicious effects of belief in a God. He may do whatever he pleases, whether it be right or wrong, angelic or devilish, and it is right, because he does it! The immutability of Justice is not recognized. Right, justice, truth, are arbitrary affairs—the present will or opinion of a changeable being—now one thing, now another. Belief in a being whose word, whatever it is, is recognized as truth, and whose will, however unreasonable or tyrannical, is recognized as law, involves a contempt for the eternal, immutable principles of justice and truth.

For more information about The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922, including pricing, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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