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John Brown and the Fugitive Slave Law.
By Wm. Wells Brown.

The Independent, March 10, 1870

When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851 became the law of the land, it found a large number of escaped slaves in the Northern States, who, on their flight from the South, had temporarily taken up their abode in towns through which they were passing, instead of going to Canada, as they had at first intended. Many of these had been years from slavery, had accumulated property, raised up families, and were considered a part of the resident population. In some places they had churches of their own, where a sufficient number warranted a separate organization. The announcement of the passage of the law created a profound sensation throughout the country, both amongst the whites and blacks; and especially the latter. So great was their feeling and the fear of recapture that large numbers fled to Canada, without waiting to dispose of their property; others sold out at an enormous sacrifice; while many laborers and domestics left without stopping to settle with employers. Thus families were suddenly broken up, and every railroad train toward the British Provinces was a bearer of these people. In one town in the State of New York the whole of the members of a Methodist church, with their pastor, fled to Canada. In Springfield, Mass., where a large number of fugitives had taken up their residence, the excitement appeared intense. The blacks left their employment, and were seeking more secluded hiding-places in the surrounding towns, or preparing to leave the country. At this period John Brown, who had formerly resided at Springfield, hearing of the state of affairs, returned, called the fugitives together, organized them into a body for mutual defense, inspired them with hope and self-reliance, and thus saved these frightened and helpless people from suffering and poverty.

The advice, agreement, and code of laws that bound this little band together was written out by John Brown, and is now for the first time put in print, and is as follows:

“WORDS OF ADVICE.

“Branch of the United States League of Gileadites. Adopted January 15th, 1851. As written and recommended by John Brown.

"UNION IS STRENGTH.

“Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. The trial for life of one bold and to some extent successful man, for defending his rights in good earnest, would arouse more sympathy throughout the nation than the accumulated wrongs and sufferings of more than three millions of our submissive colored population. We need not mention the Greeks struggling against the oppressive Turks, the Poles against Russia, nor the Hungarians against Austria and Russia combined, to prove this. No jury can be found in the Northern States that would convict a man for defending his rights to the last extremity. This is well understood by Southern congressmen, who insisted that the right of trial by jury should not be granted to the fugitive. Colored people have more fast friends amongst the whites than they suppose, and would have ten times the number they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury. Just think of the money expended by individuals in your behalf in the past twenty years. Think of the number who have been mobbed and imprisoned on your account. Have any of you seen the Branded Hand? Do you remember the names of Lovejoy and Torrey? Should one of your number be arrested, you must collect together as quickly as possible, so as to outnumber your adversaries who are taking an active part against you. Let no able-bodied man appear on the ground unequipped, or with his weapons exposed to view; let that be understood beforehand. Your plans must be known only to yourself, and with the understanding that all traitors must die, wherever caught and proven to he guilty. ‘Whosoever is fea[r]ful or afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead.’ - Judges, vii. chap., 3 verse; Deut., xx. chap, 8 verse. Give all cowards an opportunity to show it on condition of holding their peace. Do not delay one moment after you are ready; you will lose all your resolution if you do. Let the first blow be the signal for all to engage, and when engaged do not do your work by halves; but make clean work with your enemies, and be sure you meddle not with any others. By going about your business quietly, you will get the job disposed of before the number that an uproar would bring together can collect; and you will have the advantage of those who come out against you, for they will be wholly unprepared with either equipments or matured plans - all with them will be confusion and terror. Your enemies will be slow to attack you after you have once done up the work nicely; and, if they should, they will have to encounter your white friends as well as you, for you may safely calculate on a division of the whites, and may by that means get to an honorable parley.

“Be firm, determined, and cool; but let it be understood that you are not to be driven to desperation without making it an awful dear job to others as well as to you. Give them to know distinctly that those who live in wooden houses should not throw fire, and that you are just as able to suffer as your white neighbors. After effecting a rescue, if you are assailed, go into the houses of your most prominent and influential white friends with your wives, and that will effectually fasten upon them the suspicion of being connected with you, and will compel them to make a common cause with you, whether they would otherwise live up to their profession or not. This would leave them no choice in the matter. Some would, doubtless, prove themselves true of their own choice; others would flinch. That would be taking them at their own words. You may make a tumult in the court-room where a trial is going on by burning gunpowder freely in paper packages, if you cannot think of any better way to create a momentary alarm, and might possibly give one or more of your enemies a hoist. But in such case the prisoner will need to take the hint at once and bestir himself; and so should his friends improve the opportunity for a general rush.

“A lasso might possibly be applied to a slave-catcher for once with good effect. Hold on to your weapons, and never be persuaded to leave them, part with them, or have them far away from you. Stand by one another, and by your friends, while a drop of blood remains; and be hanged, if you must, but tell no tales out of school. Make no confession.”

This closes John Brown’s advice to the fugitives, as written out. Then comes the

“AGREEMENT.

“As citizens of the United States of America, trusting in a Just and Merciful God, whose spirit and all-powerful aid we humbly implore, we will ever be true to the Flag of our beloved Country, always acting under it. We whose names are hereunto affixed do constitute ourselves a branch of the United States League of Gileadites. That we will provide ourselves at once with suitable implements, and will aid those who do not possess the means, if any such are disposed to join us. We invite every colored person whose heart is engaged for the performance of our business, whether male or female, old or young. The duty of the aged, infirm, and young members of the League shall be to give instant notice to all members in case of an attack upon any of our people.

“We agree to have no officers except a Treasurer and Secretary pro tem., until after some trial of courage and talent of ablebodied members shall enable us to elect officers from those who shall have rendered the most important services. Nothing but wisdom and undaunted courage, efficiency, and general good conduct shall in any way influence us in electing our officers.”

Following this are the names of forty-four men and women, all in the handwriting of John Brown, who seems to have presided over the meeting as well as to have been its master spirit.

A code of laws which we found in the MS., and which we omit, followed this agreement. During the week following the rendition of Anthony Burns the writer was passing through Springfield, and learned that the colored people of the place were in a state of great excitement, owing to the report that the slave-hunters were there and intended to arrest some of the fugitives and return them to the South. As night drew near, the excitement among the blacks became more intense; and a feeling of de[s]pair and revenge seemed depicted upon the countenances of the colored people, which feeling was shared by many of the whites, who deeply sympathized with the intended victims. With a friend, we visited the locality where most of the colored people resided, a little after eight o’clock in the evening, and when the excitement was at its h[e]ight. The clear moonlight enabled us to see the black sentinels stationed at the corners of the streets and alleys approaching the dusky neighborhood, in the midst of which stood a large two-story house, occupied exclusively by colored families. After submitting to an examination that satisfied the outposts that we were of the right stripe, we were permitted to pass, and one of their number was sent in advance of us to prevent our being disturbed. By special invitation, we were conducted to the “hot room,” as it was called, of the large building. On entering, we found this to be a room of about thirty by forty feet square, in the center of which stood an old-fashioned cook-stove, the top of which seemed filled with boilers, and all steaming away, completely filling the place with a dense fog. Two lamps, with dingy chimneys, and the light from the fire, which shone brightly through the broken doors of the stove, lighted up the room. Eight athletic black women, looking for all the world as if they had just returned from a Virginia cornfield, weary and hungry, stood around the room.

Each of these Amazons was armed with a tin dipper, apparently new, which had no doubt been purchased for the occasion. A woman of exceedingly large proportions - tall, long-armed, with a deep scar down the side of her face, and with a half grin, half smile - was the commander-in-chief of the “hot room.” This woman stood by the stove, dipper in hand, and occasionally taking the top from the large wash-boiler, which we learned was filled with boiling water, soap, and ashes.

In case of an attack, this boiler was to be the “King of Pain.” As we saw the perspiration streaming down the faces of these women, we ventured a few questions. “Do you expect an attack?” we asked. “Dunno, honey; but we’s ready ef dey comes,” was the reply from the aunty near the stove. “Were you ever in slavery?” we continued. “Wes; ain’t bin from dar but little while.” “What state?” “Bread and born in ole Virginny, down on de Pertomuc.” “Have you any of your relations in Virginia now?” “Yes; got six chilens down dar somewhar, an’ two hudbunds - all sole to de speclaturs afore I run away.” “Did you come off alone?” “No; my las ole man bring me way.” “You don’t mean to be taken back by the slavecatchers, in peace?” “No; I’ll die fuss.” “How will you manage if they attempt to come into this room?” “We’ll all fling hot water on ‘em, and scall dar very harts out.” “Can you all throw water without injuring each other?” “Oh, yes, honey; we’s bin practicin all day.” And here the whole company joined in a hearty laugh, which made the old building ring.

The intense heart drove us from the room. As we descended the steps and passed guards, we remarked to one of them: “The women seem to be prepared for battle.” “Yes,” he replied; “dem wimmens got de debil in em to-night, an’ no mistake. Dey’ll make dat a hot hell in dar fur somebody, ef de slavecatchers comes here to-night; dat dey will.” And here the guards broke forth in a hearty laugh, which was caught up and joined in by the women in the house, which showed very clearly that these blacks felt themselves masters of the situation. Returning to the depot to take the train for Boston, we found there some ten or fifteen blacks, all armed to the teeth and swearing vengeance upon the heads of any who should attempt to take them.

True, the slave-catchers had been there. But the authorities, foreseeing a serious outbreak, advised them to leave the city; and, feeling alarmed for their personal safety, these disturbers of the peace had left in the evening train for New York. No fugitive slave was ever afterward disturbed at Springfield.

Source: Boyd B. Stutler Scrapbook, Vol. 4, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives.


Chapter Three: The Abolitionist Calling

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History