“Where the spiders are”: Law, Economy, and the North at the Coming of the Civil War

“Where the spiders are”: Law, Economy, and the North at the Coming of the Civil War

At this year’s meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Philadelphia, participants heard from leading slavery historians at a panel titled “Kidnapping, Capital, and Slavery: Rethinking the North in the Civil War Era.” This panel explored how the kidnapping of free African Americans from Northern free states affected law and politics, intertwined with the life of cities like New York, and influenced the opinions of white Northern voters as the Civil War approached. Richard Blackett, of Vanderbilt University, served as chair.

Caleb McDaniel (Rice University) began the panel by noting that reparations have become a topic of discussion in the lead up to the 2020 election, particularly by Democratic candidates, but that some journalists and pundits believe feasibility and implementation are concerns. He mentioned an article in the New York Times four weeks ago by David Brooks, which was a surprisingly sympathetic response to the famous Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic, both titled, “The Case for Reparations.” This reminded McDaniel of an 1878 article in the New York Times which asked the same question, “What would happen if restitution for freed slaves was required?” There had been debate over compensating slaveholders after the Civil War, which had then been prohibited. Then, McDaniel turns to the subject of his forthcoming book, Sweet Taste of Liberty, the “true story” of Henrietta Wood, born in 1818 Kentucky. She was sold around age fourteen, then again at twenty, living for a time in New Orleans before being taken to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she obtained freedom papers in 1848. In 1853, Wood was tricked by her employer into entering a carriage that crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. There she was kidnapped by a local deputy named Zebulon Ward, who sold her into slavery. Wood lived in Mississippi briefly, before being taken to Texas to prevent her being emancipated. In 1869, she returned to Cincinnati, where she filed suit for kidnapping and lost wages. The case went to federal court in 1878 and the jury decided in Wood’s favor. This led to the Times article, which stated, “we would close the chapter,” but Henrietta Wood reopened it. This story, McDaniel told us, is important because of its place in the larger context: it is representative of the experiences of formerly enslaved people, in terms of their legal battle for recognition, recompense, and ultimately, citizenship.

To provide context for Wood’s story, McDaniel also mentioned the case of Solomon Northup, whose memoir (12 Years a Slave) was published in 1853. Abolitionists petitioned for restitution for Northup, which helps place his case in a larger struggle for reparations. McDaniel noted that Wood’s case takes place in the borderlands of the Ohio River Valley, where kidnapping was a present danger—she was born on the southern side of the Ohio River, a geographic closeness that resulted in a constant threat of kidnapping. In 1829, another case, of a man named Samson, who sued for kidnapping and false imprisonment, was brought to court, and decided in 1830 in his favor. The cotton trade, suggested McDaniel, was an inducement for kidnapping, due to the profits possible. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which carried a light burden of proof on the part of slaveholders, also provided opportunity for sheriff’s agents to conspire with kidnappers. McDaniel also mentioned the case of David Young, who escaped to Ohio in 1850, was recaptured and sold, and who eventually became a state legislator. “Revolutions can go backwards,” however, as McDaniel reminded us, and the retreat during Reconstruction affects the significance of Wood’s legal victory, as well as raising the question of whether it was a triumph, versus what she had endured. McDaniel concluded that no one questioned the plausibility of Wood’s story; the surprise was that her suit succeeded.

Jonathan Wells (University of Michigan) next spoke, centering his discussion on the New York kidnapping club, which took actions to return runaway slaves and kidnapped free(d) persons into slavery. The extent of kidnapping in New York was obscured, but anger over kidnappings in the North affected the debate over slavery, and this places African Americans in the center of arguments over Civil War causation. Wells cautioned the need to separate illegal kidnapping from legal (if immoral) recovery of runaways. The courts in the North had to balance the “invasion of free state borders” and support of Southern slavery with their legal requirements. In 1832, sixteen slaves in Virginia stole a boat and headed for New York City. The slaveowner appealed to New York’s government and police, which could claim nearly anyone as the potential runaways. This started the New York kidnapping club. In the summer of 1832, children started disappearing at the rate of more than one per week. One seven-year-old, Henry, was taken from his school in Manhattan. There was no proof of his being a fugitive, but the court recorder, Riker, had him remanded. Henry was eventually released. Henry’s story shows that anyone could be targeted, that slave catchers and kidnappers were always lurking, and that recovery of fugitives was made easier due to complicity in the New York courts. This created turmoil in New York and raised a “Northern fury.” Voters had seen slavery as a Southern problem until its slaveowners invaded the north to recover slaves. Mobility across the border had become easier, as no wall would prevent the desire to move for better conditions for one’s self and family. This resulted in placing black citizenship rights at the center of the sectional conflict.

Maria Montalvo (Newcomb College Institute) spoke on the case of Isaac Wright in New Orleans. This case centered on the selling of a free man by someone who knew he was free. An estate administrator, working for Wright’s former owner, brought suit due to this action in bad faith and sought reimbursement. The lawsuit was between two men who used to own Wright, Wright was neither plaintiff nor defendant, but his story nevertheless speaks to how courts treated formerly enslaved people. The case allows historians to recover experiences where it is difficult to do so due to the limits of sources, to use what is available to expand the image. Wright’s free family originated in Virginia and moved to Pennsylvania for more opportunities. Wright’s mother signed a contract for him to become an apprentice, and he moved to New York for some time. In 1838, while working on a steamboat, the substitute captain imprisoned Wright and had him sold. They were given false backgrounds and tortured into presenting it as truth.

To sum up the discussion, Adam Rothman (Georgetown University) offered comments and evinced the need to “go where the spiders are” in order to disentangle the elements of the discussion, and not to simply “reproduce abolitionist discourse.” Rothman suggested that we should distinguish between kidnapping as an experience, a crime, and a rhetorical device; and that the three papers show the importance of agents of the state in the kidnapping and enslavement of free people of color. A question from the audience noted that Southern law created a legal fiction to enable freedom suits. While laws were passed to limit restitution, the kinds of cases brought to court were broadened from wrongful imprisonment to lost wages.

The work presented by this panel adds to our understanding of the ways in which the law worked both in support of and against slavery. Both sides of the fight created legal tools—sometimes fictive—in order to press their aims. In addition, it suggests the need to further engage with the role of capitalism both in the development of slavery and work against it. The multiple ways in which incidents described as “kidnapping” were understood and used is also of interest. Overall, the panel fits neatly with other recent scholarship on the question of the role of the economy and legal system in the coming of the Civil War.

Katie Lowe

Katie Lowe is a student in an interdisciplinary master's degree program at Towson University in Maryland. Her interests lie in the intersection of history, geography, and political science, especially with regard to nineteenth century America. She is currently working on a project focusing on urban spaces, the environment, and public health. She hopes to pursue a PhD in history and an MD in the future.

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