1851 150 Years Ago

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On February 15, in Boston, a black coffeehouse waiter named Shadrach Minkins was seized by federal marshals at the behest of John DeBree of Norfolk, Virginia, who claimed him as his property. The waiter, also known as Frederick Wilkins, had fled Virginia months earlier, and until recently Boston’s relaxed attitude toward fugitives had protected him against arrest. But the new Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, had given slave owners a much more powerful legal weapon by placing enforcement in the hands of federal officials.

Richard Henry Dana, the author, sailor, and lawyer, and Robert Morris, the nation’s second black attorney, volunteered to represent Wilkins. They asked Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to free the prisoner on the grounds that he had been seized without good cause. Despite a personal abhorrence of slavery, Shaw—who a year earlier had written the court’s decision permitting segregated schools—declined to interfere. As the hearing was about to end, however, some 50 black Bostonians stormed the courtroom (after Morris had opened the door for them, according to some witnesses), surrounded Wilkins, and carried him off. He was soon reported to be safe in Montreal.

President Millard Fillmore issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of “all persons, who shall have made themselves aiders and abettors in this flagitious offence.” Morris and several others were tried and found guilty, only to be freed on a technicality. In November, Morris was retried and acquitted. At this point the federal government despaired of finding an impartial jury. No one was ever convicted for assisting Wilkins.

While the Wilkins rescue encouraged black fugitives, and potential fugitives, by showing that they had sympathizers in the North, it also reinforced the belief of white Southerners that they had been swindled with an unenforceable law in the Compromise of 1850. By serving the cause of freedom, this and other fugitive-slave rescues took the nation one step farther down the road to eventual dissolution.