Boston's Reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law Through Voluntary Associations, Particularly the Boston Vigilance Committee

Alison Woitunski (BHS class of '04)

In 1850, United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, allowing Southern slave owners the right to recapture their escaped property despite any northern relocation.  As a result, Boston, a former haven for free blacks and a hotbed for abolitionist activity, was in turmoil.  An immediate response to this law arose by Bostonians in the form of voluntary anti-slavery associations that aimed to protect black fugitives from legal kidnappings.  Although these organizations were various in location and membership, one of the most influential and well-known associations that was created was The Boston Vigilance Committee.  It is this Vigilance Committee, who, through their detailed records, has allowed us a rare view of Boston’s reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law.

Blacks and whites, males and females were all involved in Bostons struggle against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law.  Although men were typically the leaders of most associations, women were also involved in the abolitionist cause, as evident by their prior formation of the Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 [1] .  In addition to this pre-Fugitive Slave Law association, women also offered their support and services to male dominated organizations created after 1850.

In the beginning of my research on this topic, I had only a vague idea of what such associations actually did.  What were their specific activities? What were they spending money on? What people were involved?  What race dominated in the abolition cause?  These were all questions that I had yet to find answers to.  It wasn’t until I encountered the invaluable Treasurer's Account of the Boston Vigilance Committee kept by Francis Jackson that I realized the complexity, organization and business-like operations of these abolitionist societies.  Black men such as Lewis Hayden and William C. Nell, and white men such as Austin Bearse and Theodore Parker along with many other deeply involved activists powered the Boston Vigilance Committee.  In addition to these well-known names, continuous and significant contributions were offered by Samuel May Jr., L. A. Grimes, L. E. Caswell, R. F. Wallcut, Samuel E. Sewall, and Mrs. Charles Williams [2] .

Primarily, the services of the Vigilance Committee included paying the passage fees for fugitives traveling to Canada and other areas, boarding/hiding fugitives, providing legal defense for fugitives, writing/distributing petitions and warning the public of the arrival of slave catchers.  The Committee was responsible for sending at least thirty-four groups of fugitives to Canada, two to England, and four to other parts of the United States.  In addition to these main services, the Committee also provided assistance in the form of clothing, fuel and furniture donations, small loans, and medical attention.  They also provided aid to fugitives that had previously been transferred to Canada.  The Vigilance Committee clearly had an extensive and complex system in place for the protection of fugitives in Boston [3] .

Although The Vigilance Committee assisted the Underground Railroad in its attempts to transport slaves as far north as Canada, oftentimes blacks that were considered safe from recapture were assisted by the Committee in finding homes, jobs and creating a stable life.  This is evident by the reoccurring names of blacks who received continuous services from the Committee over the course of four or more years. These men and women were not escaping to Canada; rather they were becoming a part of the tight knit black communities located in the West End and Beacon Hill. The inhabitants of these communities were involved with voluntary associations, such as the Vigilance Committee, in the hopes of assisting members of their fellow race in the quest for freedom [4]

Black Bostonians such as the aforementioned Lewis Hayden and Leonard A. Grimes, James Scott, James Martin, Samuel Flint, Howard Lewis, John Oliver, Elizabeth Peters, Philip Russell, Burrill Smith, Samuel Snowden, John Taylor, Andrew J. Burton, Frances E. Burton, Priscilla Hatton, James Williams, Sarah Ringold, Charles Williams, Wesley Bishop, James Hill, and John Moore were all present in the census of 1850 as residents of Boston, in particular the West End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods [5] . These individuals are also described in the records of Francis Jackson and Harold Schwartz’s Fugitive Slave Days in Boston as either contributors or receivers of benefits from the Boston Vigilance Committee [6] .

A surprising amount of Boston blacks were involved with the Vigilance Committee.  The records of the Committee prove that, contrary to popular belief, the Anti-Slavery Movement was not dominated by influential whites.  The Vigilance Committee is a perfect example of this with their racially diverse group of members.  In addition to the previously named, these Boston blacks were recorded in the records of the Vigilance Committee as continuous contributors and the Boston Athenaeum database of black Boston residents during the 1800s: Caroline Williams, Clara Vaught, Isabella S. Holmes, Charles Mahoney and Mary Parker.  This group also proves that women were a driving force in the Abolitionist Movement.

Other associations in Massachusetts were doing equally important work during the mid-1800s to protest the Fugitive Slave Law. The New England Freedom Association (NEFA) was founded on July 4th 1842 in hopes of raising money to aid fugitive slaves. Much like the Boston Vigilance Committee, the members of the NEFA turned to the people of Beacon Hill and the West End for support. An advertisement appearing in The Liberator, in January of 1845 stated that a meeting would be:

"…held in the Tremont Chapel… for the benefit of the New-England Freedom Association. Tickets, fifty cents-to be had at the following places, namely:-Henry Forman,…Patten Stewart, Endicott-street; Henry Watson and James L. Giles, Southack-street; Charles Mahony, Fruit-street place; John J. Smith, Wilson's Lane, Robert Wood, Fruit-street. The object of this Association is to afford relief to all destitute fugitives that come to Boston; and it is hoped that all the friends of humanity will be present." [7] .

Another advertisement appearing earlier in The Liberator reveals that the organization was struggling due to a lack of financial support:

"Fugitive slaves are constantly presenting themselves for assistance which we are at times unable to afford, in consequence of the lack of means. We…solicit…in the name of the panting fugitive, the countenance and support of all who 'remember those in bonds as bound with them.'" [8] .

These two advertisements are clear evidence of the New England Freedom Association's involvement in the fight against slavery. The members listed in the first advertisement are all names of blacks living in or around the Beacon Hill and West End neighborhoods. This all-black association had a strong hold on the African American communities of Boston.

Through discovering the racial and gender diversity of the Boston Vigilance Committee, I came to the conclusion that for the association to be as successful as it was, diversity was a necessity.  Black males and females contributed a love for their race and a deep-seeded desire for freedom that could not be replicated by any other race.  Whites were equally important to the struggle, because they had the means and access to things that the average black citizen did not.  Connections with sea captains such as Austin Bearse played an important role in the emancipation of many fugitives. Each group involved in the movement-whites, blacks, males and females-brought something different to the mix, resulting in the incredible success of the Committee.

In addition to their involvement with the black communities of Boston, the members of the Vigilance Committee were also responsible for various influential petitions presented to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, both before and after Congress’s passing of the Fugitive Slave Law.  An example of this early involvement in the abolitionist cause is the case of George Latimer in 1842.  A runaway slave from Norfolk, Virginia, Latimer came to Massachusetts by way of the Underground Railroad.  His owner, James B. Gray, eventually located the fugitive in Boston and had him arrested while he simultaneously planned for Latimer’s return to the south [7] .

Outraged by the idea of a black man being taken back to slavery after having successfully traveled to the free states, thousands of Bostonians, black and white, showcased their abolitionist beliefs through literary publications, protests and petitions.  Future Vigilance Committee supporters, Samuel E. Sewall, William Lloyd Garrison and others created a petition (see document) calling for:

"A law [to be] passed, forbidding all persons who hold office under the government of Massachusetts, from aiding in or abetting the arrest or detention of any person who may be claimed as a fugitive from slavery...If a man is claimed by another as his slave, escaped from bondage, were to be considered a criminal, he would be entitled by the seventh amendment above quoted, to a public trial, by an impartial jury.  If he were regarded as a mere piece of property above the value of twenty dollars, still, by the seventh amendment, the fact of ownership would require the judgment of a jury. It is not enough that he is ‘claimed’ under the second section of the fourth article, to strip him of almost every privilege." [8]

Despite the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law seven years later, this petition acquired more than 65,000 signatures and was widely supported by the public. [9]

In addition to the earlier petitions created by Committee members are the petitions formed after 1850.  In 1851, William C. Nell presented his petition to the House of Representatives, calling for funds to erect a statue in memory of Crispus Attucks.

"The petitioners ask the appropriation, on the ground that Crispus Attucks, a colored man, who was killed in the Boston Massacre, on the 5th of March, 1770, was the first martyr to the struggle which terminated in the separation of the American colonies from the mother country." [10]  

Although a monument was not erected to honor Crispus Attucks until thirty years later after the submission of William C. Nell’s petition, each petition nonetheless exhibits a profound involvement in the abolitionist and equal rights movements.

Through legal defense, medical aid, personal loans, petitions, literature, boarding, paying passage fees and numerous other services, the Boston Vigilance Committee was a powerhouse in the fight against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act.  The involvement and settlement of blacks in the West End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods created a tight-knit, abolitionist community, out of which came influential movement leaders such as Lewis Hayden.  By working on both macro and microscopic scales, the Boston Vigilance Committee left a lasting impression on the History of Boston and the entire United States.

[1] Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts . (American Antiquarian Society, 1935), 50.

[2] Francis Jackson, The Treasurers Accounts. (The Boston Vigilance Committee, 1850), 6-32.

[3] Jackson, 6-32.

[4], 5 January 2004, (5 January 2004)

[5] African American's in Boston's Beacon Hill & West End, 1848-1853.

[6] Harold Schwartz. "Fugitive Slave Days in Boston,"The New England Quarterly, 27 (1954): 193-211.

[7] Robert Wood, "Notice," The Liberator (Boston), 17 January 1845.

[8] William C. Nell, Henry Weeden, Thomas Cummings, James L. Giles, "New England Freedom Association," The Liberator (Boston), 12 December 1845.

[9] Asa J. Davis, "The George Latimer Case: A Benchmark in the Struggle for Freedom", Rutgers University (Jan. 2004), (5 Jan. 2004).

[11] Asa J. Davis.



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