Williamson: Echoes Of 1850

Mar 22, 2017

We banned the Chinese in the 1880s, southern Europeans in 1924 – and, infamously, refused to admit a shipload of German Jews in 1939.

But I can’t stop thinking about 1850.

A new Fugitive Slave Act, designed to plug holes in the old one, passed that September. It required northern citizens to assist federal agents in recapturing runaway slaves or face fines and jail time. It also denied the slave’s right to a jury trial that some northern states, including Vermont, guaranteed.

It took only days for northern communities – black and white – to react with outrage and defiance. They didn’t call them sanctuary cities in 1850, but many pledged to shelter the fugitive slaves in their midst. An editorial in the Burlington Daily Free Press invited “every Fugitive Slave in the United States to take Vermont on his way toward freedom in Canada” and guaranteed “a night’s lodging and a free pass over the Lines.”

The first fugitive slave seized in New England, Shadrach Minkins, was arrested in Boston in February 1851. A crowd of 200 angry Bostonians quickly gathered at the courthouse. As abolitionist lawyers stalled for time, twenty black men rushed in, overpowering the federal marshals, and spirited Minkins away to Canada. His exact route remains unknown today, but his arrival in Montreal means he almost certainly traveled through Vermont.

Then as now, Vermont officials who disagreed with federal action refused to comply. The legislature took less than two months to pass an act subverting the 1850 jury trial ban – and today Governor Scott, Attorney General Donovan, and many legislators have vowed to protect immigrants and refugees living in Vermont.

And there’s one more thing the events of 1850 and 2017 have in common. By making northern citizens complicit in what they saw as treachery, the Fugitive Slave Act enraged many and transformed once lukewarm antislavery supporters into activists. The Trump Administration’s ban has had a similar impact, as citizens and immigrants, attorneys general from different states, and the courts have all joined in opposition.

When presidential candidate Trump promised to unite the country, I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.