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One City Isn’t Enough; or, We’re Going To Need A Bigger Sanctuary

April 1, 2017

Historian Robert Forrant offers an excellent introduction to Lowell’s history as a sanctuary city…in the 19th century. For over a quarter century, beginning with the organization of the Lowell Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, Lowellians—black and white, male and female, free and fugitives from slavery, resisted every attempt by the “Slave Power” and the federal government to defend the institution of slavery and recapture escaped slaves.

But Lowell wasn’t alone…and that’s the even more interesting story.

In Andover, William Jenkins’ farm was the hub of abolitionist activity, while William Poor’s wagon shop made false-bottomed wagons for transport. Lawrence founder Daniel Saunders’ house was a way station on the underground railroad, as was the home of the city’s namesake, Abbott Lawrence. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier and other Amesbury abolitionists served as “conductors” on the last Massachusetts stop of an underground railroad branch that ran up the North Shore from Boston.  All told, according to Wilbur Siebert’s research, no fewer than four underground railroad “routes” crisscrossed the Merrimack Valley in the 1840s and 50s.

In his lengthy and detailed 1935 essay, “The Underground Railroad In Massachusetts“, Prof. Siebert documented a network of resistance that extended through every county in Massachusetts, and connected with similar networks in every bordering New England state. At the heart of what we might call the direct action wing of the Massachusetts abolitionist movement were Negro leaders like Lewis and Harriet Hayden, Rev. Thomas James, Ellen and William Craft, Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, Nathaniel Booth, Nathan and Mary Johnson, and, most famously, Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna Murray-Douglass.

They in turn were surrounded by a small but growing network of white allies, often motivated by their religious convictions, and by their understanding of the significance of the American Revolution waged, in many cases, by their grandparents.

However, even in a state like Massachusetts, abolitionists appear never to have achieved majority support. What they did, after years of organizing and increasingly bold and large-scale actions, achieve—and this is no small feat—was majority acquiescence.

After the arrest and deportation of Anthony Burns in 1854, the federal government found itself unable to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in Massachusetts—not because the Presidents Pierce and Buchanan didn’t want to, and not because the US Marshals stopped doing their jobs, but because the passive support of the public required for any government to wield force effectively had disappeared, and was replaced by passive (and increasingly, active) support for the abolitionists.

This was true not just in Massachusetts, but across most of the North. So much so, that it was a primary cause of the Civil War. South Carolina, in its 1860 “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” bemoaned the fact that,

“The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress.”

There are many ways in which the “Slave Power” of the 1850s differs from the anti-immigrant/pro-deportation movement embodied by the Trump administration. (Among them: today’s federal government is far larger, much more powerful and much better armed than its 19th century predecessor.)

But they both ultimately rely (as do all governments) on the consent (passive and active) of the governed. When and if that consent is removed—as it was, gradually, over a period of many years, for enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act—their coercive powers to arrest, to incarcerate, and to deport, can vanish, leaving them with no alternative but to come to terms with the new reality of a people determined to create a change and powerful enough to make it happen.

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From → History, Politics

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