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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: December 2019

6 - Above Ground

from Part III - 1850–1860


The chapter focuses on the renewed campaign by Southerners to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the Free Soil Region, from which few fugitives had hitherto been recovered. The law’s passage triggered a storm of indignation across the region as communities gathered in public meetings and pronounced the law void and of no force. Nevertheless, the law emboldened slaveholders to pursue fugitives from enslavement who had taken refuge in abolitionist strongholds in the Upper North. In response, Underground activists took pains to publicize their activities and promised to protect fugitives who settled within the United States. As slave catchers ventured into the region, a series of spectacular public rescues garnered national attention. These large-scale acts of outright defiance revealed the determination of the region’s residents to defend the “free soil” of their communities by violence if necessary. Free Soil residents gathered in interracial crowds numbering in the thousands to confront slave catchers, humiliate those cooperating with the law, and punish those who performed the violence of mastery within their communities.