Fugitive Slave Laws And The Christiana Riot - 9/11/1851

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On September 11th of 1851 was the Battle of Christiana. A group of African Americans, assisted by white abolitionists, got into a fight with a Maryland posse intent on returning four black slaves to their owners. The slaves were believed to be hiding somewhere in Christiana, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania had abolished slavery way back in 1780, with gradual implementation. The existing six thousand slaves would remain slaves, and the children of those slaves would be slaves until their 28th birthdays. The last child born into slavery in Pennsylvania was free by 1839. 

The Christiana Riot happened about a year after Congress had passed the second fugitive slave law, which was part of the “Compromise of 1850” between the northern and the southern states. The second fugitive slave law required that all slaves in the north be returned to their owners in the south.

The first fugitive slave law, passed in 1793, said approximately the same thing, but that law was simply ignored by the northern states, who had already abolished slavery long ago. In fact, in response to the first fugitive slave law, many northern states passed laws ensuring future slaves a fair jury trial. Several northern states went as far as to prohibit state officials from aiding in the capture of, or jailing, runaway slaves.

The southern states were enraged at the sheer lack of cooperation by the northern states. Both laws mandated that all escaped slaves be forcibly returned to their original so-called owners in the south. The second fugitive slave law still required the slaves returned, but offered the slaves a fair jury trial, on the condition that they did not testify in their own defense. Fugitive slave trials like the Dred Scott case further ignited public opinion on both sides, while fugitive slaves continued to evade the law by way of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad, whose most famous leader was Harriet Tubman, was a series of “safe houses” where runaway slaves could find food and shelter, as they escaped, usually on foot, to the northern states. The Underground Railroad consisted primarily of free African Americans, but also a few white abolitionists. Harriet Tubman made 19 trips, mostly on foot, from southern Maryland as far north as New York and Canada. On each trip, she took any slaves who wished to join her. By way of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman single handedly helped approximately 300 slaves escape the horrors of slavery. 

After the passing of the second fugitive slave law, things came to a head in Christiana, Pennsylvania, when Edward Gorsuch, a land owner and member of the Maryland posse, was killed. Two other members of the posse were wounded. Thirty-seven African American men and one white man were arrested and later charged with treason, in accordance with the fugitive slave laws. This is what became known as the Christiana Riot.

Most of those arrested were later acquitted, thanks to the promise of a fair trial, in accordance with the Compromise of 1850. 

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