"Secession's Moving Foundation": Fugitive Slave Rendition and the Politics of American Slavery

Over the last two decades, historians have reexamined the Underground Railroad and its relationship to the national debate over slavery. Scholars have demonstrated that enslaved people seized freedom by the thousands each year, found community in cities and towns across the North, and became leaders in the antislavery movement. Meanwhile, new scholarship on free African Americans’ fight for citizenship rights has upended previous notions of who claimed citizenship—and what that claim entailed—in the early United States. To date, little work has considered the relationship between the fugitive slave issue and the simultaneous struggle for Black legal rights, and how each was connected to the national political conflict over slavery that culminated in secession and war. 
My dissertation, “Running toward Abolition: Fugitive Slaves, Legal Rights, and the Coming of the Civil War,” bridges this gap by examining the history of the political fight over the legal rights of African Americans accused of being fugitive slaves. Fugitive slaves and free African Americans were both in legally precarious positions, but at the same time tremendously threatening to slaveholders. Their stories appear in local court records, abolition society meeting minutes, and published narratives, all sites that place them at a distance from the halls of Congress where powerful slaveholders fought desperately to protect their legal right to property in human beings.

“Running toward Abolition” will examine how marginalized African Americans—free and enslaved—built a fight for legal protections that threatened slaveholders, a dominant class in early American politics. In this movement, African American activists and their allies in and out of politics claimed that Northern states’ ability to grant and protect the legal rights of free Black people within their borders was fundamental to their sovereignty in the federal system. Slaveholders, on the other hand, claimed that any recognition of Black legal rights in the United States threatened the comprehensive property right that they believed was necessary to their system of bondage. The irreconcilability of these two legal positions contributed in major, understudied ways to the coming of the Civil War.