[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com.]
We welcome a guest post today from Stanley Harrold, author of Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War, which is now available in a new paperback edition. During the 1840s and 1850s, a dangerous ferment afflicted the North-South border region, pitting the slave states of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri against the free states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Aspects of this struggle—the underground railroad, enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, mob actions, and sectional politics—are well known as parts of other stories. In Border War, Harrold explores the border struggle itself, the dramatic incidents that it comprised, and its role in the complex dynamics leading to the Civil War.
In the following guest post, Harrold reveals similarities in the struggles over legal status of enslaved people seeking freedom in the mid-1800s and some immigrants to the U.S. today.
Slave escapes from the South to the North and Canada happened frequently during the decades prior to the Civil War. Such escapes had a major role in causing the war. From the 1830s through the 1850s, people (North and South, black and white) called the escapees fugitive slaves or runaway slaves. Of the two terms, I prefer the former. Runaway seems demeaning. It suggests triviality or that the slaves deserted masters who deserved loyalty. Some who study the slave escape networks known collectively as the underground railroad go further. They object to using the term slaves and prefer enslaved people. They call slaves who left their masters to head north freedom seekers.
During the pre-Civil War decades, people did not use the term freedom seekers. The closest that I have found in antebellum sources is freedom-hunters. Radical antislavery journalist Joshua Leavitt of Boston used this term in 1841, as he contrasted the escapees with slave-hunters who sought to capture and re-enslave them. What is important for both freedom seekers and freedom-hunters is their emphasis on slave action in gaining freedom. By escaping north, they forced the slavery issue on the nation.
Illegal immigrant, like freedom seeker, is a term that did not exist in the Civil War era. Yet, better than freedom seeker, when applied to fugitive slaves, illegal immigrant facilitates understanding of the relationship between the pre–Civil War black struggle for freedom and the current struggle over the status of many Hispanic immigrants to this country.
Fugitive slaves were the illegal immigrants of their time, despite the fact that the U.S. did not restrict foreign immigration until 1875. keep reading →