Washington County case inspired nation's first fugitive slave law
February 8, 2014 11:38 PM
By Joe Smydo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John Davis simply wanted his freedom, but the Maryland slave who ended up in Washington County became a lightning rod in the nation's intensifying debate over slavery.
His largely forgotten odyssey pitted early abolitionists against prideful slaveholders, put governors at odds, spurred vigilante justice and prompted the nation's first fugitive-slave law, a 1793 statute that itself contributed to rising sectional tension.
"This is the beginning of what would be 70 years of conflict over the status of slaves brought into free states," said Paul Finkelman, professor at Albany Law School in New York and visiting professor of law at Louisiana State University.
Pennsylvania began gradual abolition in 1780, while Virginia clung to slavery into the Civil War -- conflicting mindsets that unsettled state boundaries brought into sharp relief.
Decades before West Virginia became a state, both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed and populated the area that became Washington County. Davis and his owner, who hailed from Maryland, also settled in this disputed territory separating North and South.
Agents for Virginia and Pennsylvania agreed on a boundary in 1779, though surveyors did not fix the line until 1785. Pennsylvania's gradual abolition laws -- the 1780 statute was followed by a 1782 version for Washington and Westmoreland counties and a 1788 statewide update -- required owners to register or forfeit slaves and said most bondsmen thereafter brought into the state would be freed automatically.
Davis' owner, whose name is unknown, neither registered nor freed him. Instead, he took Davis to Virginia in 1788 and hired him out.
At the time, two Virginians defended the slaveholder's actions. William Mimachan and Benjamin Biggs sent a letter to Virginia Gov. Beverley Randolph, saying Davis' owner settled in what he thought would be part of Virginia and, when the new boundary put him in Pennsylvania, left "to avoid the confiscation of his property." It is unclear why Mimachan and Biggs got involved in the matter.
But members of a new group, the Washington Society for the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully Held in Bondage, said Davis' owner flouted Pennsylvania law. Taking matters into their own hands, they spirited Davis back to Washington.
The group members' views reflected the nascent state of the local anti-slavery movement. While some owned slaves themselves, they opposed the kidnapping or enslavement of blacks such as Davis who were born free or had earned freedom by other means.
The society included John Hoge, a founder of Washington; Absalom Baird, a Revolutionary War doctor and patriarch of one of the town's early leading families; and David Bradford, who in 1794 became a leading figure in the frontier Whiskey Rebellion.
At the behest of the man who had been renting John Davis, three slave catchers -- Francis McGuire, Baldwin Parsons and Absalom Wells -- arrived in Washington and took him back to Virginia. A Washington County court indicted the three for kidnapping, but Virginia authorities refused to extradite the men for trial.
Each state believed the other's citizens had done wrong. In their 1791 letter, Mimachan and Biggs said the slave catchers had been indicted for a "laudable attempt to rescue the property of their fellow citizens."
At the time of the Revolution -- decades before the expansion of cotton production refreshed the demand for slaves -- some observers believed that slavery was incompatible with the new nation's values and would die out. However, Mr. Finkelman said the Davis case reveals the strength of Virginia's commitment to slavery even during the early republican period.
"They're basically saying, black people didn't have any rights," said Mr. Finkelman, who has written about the case in the Journal of Southern History and in his book, "Slavery and the Founders."
Steven Lubet, professor and director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Strategy at Northwestern University School of Law, said the number of fugitive slaves was too small -- about 1,000 a year reached the North, and the slave population at one point totaled 4 million -- to have a serious economic impact on the South.
"This was more an affront to dignity than it was an actual problem," said Mr. Lubet, whose book, "Fugitive Justice," examines fugitive slave cases from the 1850s.
The Washington Society sought help from its state affiliate, which asked Gov. Thomas Mifflin to secure Davis' freedom and return the slave catchers to Pennsylvania for trial. Mifflin wrote to Randolph and to President George Washington.
Randolph declined to intervene after his attorney general said the slave catchers hadn't committed much of a crime by Virginia standards and that the U.S. Constitution spelled out no extradition procedure.
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John Davis' alleged kidnappers evidently never stood trial, though Washington County Sheriff David Williamson managed to arrest Wells in 1790 or 1791.
Washington did take some action: He forwarded Edmund Randolph's opinion and other documents to Congress, which began working on a new law for the extradition of accused criminals and recovery of fugitive slaves.
A failed law
The legislative debate, which lasted more than a year, was tinged with irony.
Southern congressmen, today remembered for their insistence on states' rights as the nation plunged toward Civil War, urged a strong federal hand on the recovery of fugitive slaves, Mr. Finkelman and Mr. Lubet said.
And the final version of the bill, Mr. Finkelman said, was the opposite of what Mifflin and the Pennsylvania abolitionists wanted. The measure, which Washington signed into law 221 years ago this Wednesday, made liberal provisions for the recovery of fugitive slaves. But it neither protected free blacks nor made it easier to extradite their would-be kidnappers.
Under the law, slaveholders who seized a runaway could take their quarry home only after getting permission from a judge. However, the slaveholder might have to supply only minimal evidence that the black person in question really was a fugitive slave, Mr. Finkelman said.
In final debate on the bill, Mr. Finkelman said, Congress eliminated a provision that would have offered special protections to blacks who were born in the states where slave catchers claimed to have found them hiding out. This fueled some Pennsylvanians' concern that the new law would promote kidnapping of free blacks.
The law pleased virtually no one.
With southerners demanding still stronger measures, Mr. Lubet said, northern states enacted "personal liberty laws" that provided alleged runaways with jury trials and other protections left out of the federal statute. Despite southern complaints, Mr. Finkelman said, the record shows that northern states did return slaves when their fugitive status could be verified.
When the Supreme Court in 1842 ruled personal liberty laws unconstitutional, saying states could not supplement the 1793 federal measure, some states prohibited their judges from hearing fugitive slave cases at all. This put slave catchers in a quandary because federal judges, who also were authorized to hear the cases, were few and far between at the time.
Among other provisions, Congress' Compromise of 1850 outlawed the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and included a new fugitive slave law, which devoted additional federal resources to recovery of fugitive slaves. The law created the nation's first federal law enforcement bureaucracy, Mr. Finkelman said.
It also contained other provisions troubling to northerners. "The law required all good citizens to assist federal marshals upon request," Mr. Lubet said.
Southerners weren't satisfied with the new measure, either; what they considered to be northern obstinacy on fugitive slaves -- through the Underground Railroad and attacks on slave catchers, for example -- remained one of the South's complaints in the run-up to secession.
"John Davis kind of gets lost in the shuffle," Mr. Finkelman said.
Members of the Washington Society never won his return to Pennsylvania, and he is believed to have died in bondage. In his book, Mr. Lubet credits Davis with stirring sectional antagonism that eventually helped to free millions of other slaves.
Joe Smydo: email@example.com or 412-263-1548.