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Do Not Send Back the Fugitive: An Address Delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1850



National Anti-Slavery Standard, 24 October 1850 and Liberator, 18 October 1850. Other
texts in Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, 15 October 1850; Boston Herald, 15 October
1850; North Star, 24 October 1850.

Douglass’s speech at Faneuil Hall on 14 October 1850 was given a little less
than a month after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law. Ten days before
the 14 October meeting, Boston blacks, frightened and angered, held a protest
meeting at which they urgently requested a show of support from their fellow
Bostonians. The express purpose of the Faneuil Hall meeting was to rally the
citizens of Boston against the law. Josiah Quincy issued the call, and on 14
October nearly five thousand people rallied at Faneuil Hall. Thousands surged
into the building long before the appointed meeting hour, but since the hall
was not large enough to accommodate everyone, hundreds were denied admittance.
A large number of those present were black. Douglass observed that
"[t]he spirit of the occasion equalled the numbers.” Impressed by the collective
emotional power of the meeting, he insisted that he had “never seen a
meeting more unanimous and strong. . . . To understand what that meeting


was, seeing and hearing were indispensable. The congregated thousands must
be visited, the universal buzz and confused clamor, common to such masses,
and the sudden hush and fixed attention of such a multitude to one central
point, must be seen to be appreciated." The meeting was called to order by
Francis Jackson and chaired by Charles Francis Adams. Adams, Wendell
Phillips, James A. Briggs, Theodore Parker, Charles Lenox Remond,
William B. Spooner, and the Reverend Nathaniel Colver spoke. After riding
all day and coming "on urgent solicitation,” Douglass was, as he himself said
in the North Star, “tired, excited, and unprepared.” Greeted with what the
Liberator described as “repeated rounds of applause and much cheering,"
Douglass spoke nearly an hour. “He was frequently interrupted by bursts of
applause, and altogether his speech was a very eloquent affair, and told with
great effect upon his audience." Toward the end of the meeting, Douglass
again spoke. Several resolutions were submitted and adopted, and a Committee
of Vigilance and Safety was formed. The meeting, which had begun at
7:00 P.M., ended at 11:00 P.M. “I am happy to state,” Douglass encouragingly
told his readers in the North Star, “that the public meeting held here last
night, has done much towards quieting the colored people, and towards removing
the apprehension and dread by which they were at first oppressed."
Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 202-04.

Mr. Chairman and friends, I appear here this evening on the behalf of a
horror-stricken and suffering people, and I was not aware, until a few
moments ago, what part of the question I should discuss this evening, but I
shall now endeavor to make a few observations on the condition of the
slave, more than the condition of the Slave Bill, it originally being my
intention to have devoted my attention to that. I will, however, not shrink
from the task. I come not here for the purpose of denouncing Slavery
generally, but I come to appeal to you as men, humane men, of refinement
of feeling, in behalf of the suffering and down-trodden people. You are
aware that a law has recently been enacted by the Congress of the United
States, and that law signed by the President of the United States, by which,
any man in the South or elsewhere in any part of our country, who shall
make oath that he has lost a man of a given description, may pursue that
man in any part of the United States, and if captured convey him back to
bondage.1The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was signed on 18 September by President Millard Fillmore(1800-74). The law authorized commissioners appointed by the United States Circuit Courts to grant certificates for the return of slaves, made United States marshals liable to a $1,000 fine if they failed to enforce the law, and held marshals liable for the full amount of a slave's value if a slave in their custody should escape. Proof of ownership along with a description of the fugitive was construed as evidence of escape and allowed the claimant either to seize a slave or to obtain an arrest warrant. Those who attempted to prevent the apprehension of a fugitive were also liable to fine and imprisonment, and marshals were empowered, when a rescue attempt seemed likely, to use as much manpower as necessary to return a slave to his owner. Federal commissioners who successfully remanded a fugitive received $5 more than their usual fee. Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (1968; New York, 1972), 23-25.


This law, as has been already known, has carried consternation and
despair to many families in the Northern States, and even in this city has its
dire effects been witnessed—aye, this very day. I have travelled within the
last two days about 500 miles, for the purpose of attending this meeting,
and during that time, I may say that l have met hundreds of my terror-
stricken brethren, spread all along through this boasted land of liberty to the
boundaries of Canada, all caused by the passage of this infamous Fugitive
Slave Bill. And I am creditably informed that many in this city still feel
greatly insecure; and numbers who have lately arrived have been obliged,
through the want of means to support themselves here, to take their departure
for the Canadas, there to spend a dreary winter, and perhaps a life.
They are afraid that the man-hunters of the South will be here in the city of
Boston,—here under the shadow of old Bunker Hill Monument, to reclaim
them and carry them back to Slavery.

They know well, Mr. Chairman, what Slavery is, and dread to return to
it, with a horror more piercing than the fear of death itself. For the highest
crime that the slave can commit is an attempt on his part to escape from his
master. This every slave well understands; and he knows that if he returns
to bondage, he returns not merely to Slavery, not merely to labor for his
master, but to gratify a deep-seated, malignant and deadly revenge. He
who has once tasted the sweets of freedom, that man can never more be
made a profitable slave, and his master will have a harder task to keep him
than he would to whip him. (Cheers and laughter.)Here NASS, 24 October 1850, reads: “(Here Mr. Douglass related several incidents concerning the escape of slaves, and the difficulties they encountered in their perilous undertaking, and asked the audience whether a man who had once reached the desired goal of liberty after passing through these scenes, was not worthy of being protected by the citizens, from being carried back by his old master. These remarks were received with much applause and his question answered with an unanimous No! No!)" 〈They therefore pursue
the slaves in order to make examples of them; and the slave knows that, if
returned, he will have to submit to excruciating torture. (Sensation)

Hence, these tears; hence this dark train going out from the land, as if
fleeing from death. Many of them are without the means to live, and are
going almost naked to a severer climate, and to face colder winters, than


they had ever dreamed of. Those who remain, he said, imploringly ask you
what you will do to protect them from the pursuing bloodhounds.

If fortitude, determination, and downright heroism, entitle one to liberty,
then are most of the fugitives in the North entitled to freedom.
(Cheers.) The annals of no nation exhibit greater acts of individual heroism
and courage than are to be found in the history of the fugitives from
Southern oppression.

The speaker then proceeded to describe instances of suffering in escaping
from slavery. In one instance mentioned, a fugitive secreted himself in
a tree during the day, and fled at night. He asked if they would consent that
these fugitives should be taken back. He was greeted with a deafening and
universal “No!” He instanced also the case of a female fugitive, now in
New Bedford, who hid herself in the hold of a vessel. They smoked the
vessel, as was the custom, and the woman lay there in the hold, almost
suffocated, but she resolved to die rather than come forth. (Cheers)

She had been, he said, a fugitive several times before, and had been
recaptured. At one time, to punish her, her master took her out, tied her up,
and stripping her to the waist, laid on the lash until the warm blood dropped
at her feet; he then washed her back in brine, and nailed her by the right ear
to a fence rail, and in her agony, she tore off the outer rim of her ear. He
asked the audience if they would let the slavehunters carry that woman
back. A universal “No!” was the reply.〉2From Lib., 18 October 1850.

We are now, he said, as a people with nothing to protect us and truly at
the mercy of the slaveholder, and there is not sufficient power in the
Commonwealth, legally, to prevent a man from being torn from his home-
stead and conveyed into Slavery. The master would come here with the
authenticated record which would constitute conclusive evidence of his
Slavery and escape, and not even the testimony of the mother who bore
him, of his wife or children singly or combined, could shake in the slightest
degree the conclusive character of the record.

While in Rochester, at my residence, a short time since, I was very
agreeably surprised and alarmed on learning that a party of these man-
hunters had really come to that place for the purpose of conveying my
body, yes, carrying these flesh and bones back to the master from which [I]
had escaped.3In his autobiography, Douglass recalled: “From rumors that reached me my house was guarded by my friends several nights, when kidnappers, had they come, would have got anything but a cool reception, for there would have been ‘blows to take as well as blows to give.'" Douglass, Life and Times, 312. And here let me state, ladies and gentlemen, that I stand


before you a freeman, not in consequence of a law adopted by this Republic,
but in consequence of the payment of $750 in British Gold to the ones
who claimed my body. Yes, Mr. Chairman, and they gave me a bill of sale
also, which to this day I think I have in my possession. It was this bill of sale
that caused my fears, as I thought that there might possibly be some flaw, or
misreckoning in the bill. Learning therefore, that I was to receive a visit
from these gentlemen, I prepared to give them as gentlemanly a reception
as could be given under the circumstances. I accordingly closed my doors,
secured my articles of value, and proceeded to my loft, or garret, resolved
at all events to receive them, and be introduced singly as they filed through
my trap door. Here NASS, 24 October 1850, reads: “I however waited with these firm determinations for a considerable length of time, when finding the gentlemen not making their appearance I came down. I have been led to believe since that time that these gentlemen probably expecting a foretaste of that which was to follow in the bill of arrangements, abruptly left me, not well satisfied with the curious proceedings. ****
We cannot bring ourselves to believe that the old Bay State is to become a hunting-ground for slaves, nor can we believe that Massachusetts men will lend their aid to this monstrous inhumanity until sad experience shall have demonstrated the fact.
Mr. Douglass occupied about an hour in his address, which was clear, concise, and easy to be understood by all, and was highly applauded."
〈[A]nd if they had made their appearance, he should, he
said, have endeavored to greet them with a hospitality befitting the place
and occasion! (Cheers) Many of his neighbors had adopted the opinion,
that when men divest themselves of every feeling of humanity, and act as
bloodhounds, they should be treated as such.

Mr. Douglass then went into a telling discussion of the right to run
away, and defended the position under it from the charge of meanness, for
its secrecy. They would come off in broad day light if they could, but their
masters would not let them. (Laughter.) He was once a slave himself; and
although he had some religious scruples against running away in early life,
he had at last come to the conclusion, that inasmuch as his master had just
as many hands to get an honest living with as he had, he did him no injury
by walking off; and that, as he had the same number of legs of his own,
when he walked away on his legs, he did not walk away on his master’s.
(Laughter and applause.)

In conclusion, he said that if the people of the United States were
determined to carry this law into execution, the colored people could not
prevent it. They were at their mercy. How can half a million poor and
oppressed people oppose a law backed up, if it be backed up, by
18,000,000 of whites? Theirs should not be the language of violence or
defiance. We, therefore, he said, proclaim no united resistance to this law.


But after the fullest deliberation, we one and all,—without the slightest
hope of making successful resistance,—are resolved rather to die than to go
back. (Tremendous cheering, and cries of “That’s the talk! Repeat it
again!") If you are, he said, prepared to see the streets of Boston flowing
with innocent blood, if you are prepared to see sufferings such as perhaps
no country ever before witnessed, just give in your adhesion to the fugitive
slave bill—you, who live on the street where the blood first spouted in
defence of freedom; and the slave-hunter will be here to bear the chained
slave back, or he will be murdered in your streets.

Mr. Douglass appealed to the citizens present to afford relief and
protection to the runaways from bondage, and held it to be a “self-evident
truth,” that no legislation can for one moment alienate man’s right to his
own body, and that every slave is justified in running away from slavery,
and never returning. (Prolonged cheering.)

Douglass occupied about an hour. He was frequently interrupted by
bursts of applause, and altogether his speech was a very eloquent affair,
and told with great effect upon his audience.〉*From Lib., 18 October 1850.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


October 14, 1850


Yale University Press 1982



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