" Preachers of Sedition" Syracuse and Freedom, 1851-1861. By

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Preachers of Sedition”



John M. Rudy

A Thesis

Submitted to the Department of

History and Philosophy and the Graduate Council

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Arts


Shippensburg, Pennsylvania

December, 2010


Shippensburg. Pennsylvania
This thesis submitted by John M. Rudy has been approved as meeting the research requirements for the Master of Arts degree.

______________________ _____________________________

Date John Bloom

Chairperson of Thesis Committee and

Professor of History

______________________ _____________________________

Date Susan Rimby

Department Chair, Professor of History

______________________ _____________________________

Date Steven Burg

Professor of History

Introduction …………………… 9

Up Salt River”

“…Their voices will be loud against you till you die.” … 17
Daniel Webster and Syracuse, New York in 1851

ASIDE …………………… 51

Webster’s Second Jerry Address
He Calls Me by the Thunder…” …………………… 53

Jermain Loguen’s Jerry Rescue
ASIDE …………………… 99

The Death of William “Jerry” Henry
The Jerry Level” …………………… 101

Gerrit Smith and Troubled Commemoration
ASIDE …………………… 127

Breaking His Chains
“… And Rejoice with Trembling” …………………… 129

Samuel May and the Death of the Jerry Rescue
EPILOGUE …………………… 161

This old-time religion…” - Legacies and Memory

Works Consulted …………………… 169


Mimi Rudy, for giving me strength


Darothy DeAngelo, for giving me inspiration.


Up Salt River”

Catherine Harris had run for her life. The thirty-six year old woman, with her husband of seven years and three year old daughter, had pulled up stakes and fled northward, picking their way up the eastern seaboard of the United States to Albany, and then further inland towards refuge in Canada. Their journey had taken them by canal boat from Albany through Syracuse, New York. In the hold of that boat, amid oysters and clams, the family sojourned on toward safety farther down the placid waterway which trekked across New York. The Harris Family was fleeing neither master nor chains, neither whip nor overseer; the Harris Family was fleeing the law.1

Catherine Harris declared to a court convened inside of the Police Office in Syracuse that she was no slave. She had been born and raised in Philadelphia. Her small family had struck northward not as panting fugitives from slavery, but well outfitted travelers heading for a new life. “We had our two trunks, and basket,” she told the court, “our quilts were in the trunk which we took out at night.” The family had left behind a decent life in Philadelphia. “My husband was a mason,” she reported to the court, adding that, “besides he mends shoes.” Still, Catherine could read little, and was, “never so far from home before.” The land she found was unfriendly and foreign. Catherine felt, traveling through New York, “from what she had seen [she] didn't think there were any on the canal who were their [the Harris’], or colored people's friends'.” “She found,” she recalled, “no friends among any of them.” America had been altered in the course of two months. The Fugitive Slave Law, part of the landmark Compromise of 1850 championed by Daniel Webster, had instantly made tenuous the lives of blacks throughout the North, free and fugitive alike. The law provided for the recapture of slaves running from plantations throughout the South. The provisions of the legislation required no trial or real proof of an accused fugitive's status. Any black man or woman became a prospective target for enslavement in the American South, and the simple fact of living near the Mason-Dixon line became a direct threat to an African-American's life and liberty. 2

The Harris family was riding along one of the most famous thoroughfares in American history. The Erie Canal was known the world over as a wonder of the modern world. Just as noteworthy was its chief freight: Salina salt. Springs in Central New York near Onondaga Lake, named for the Indian tribe who lived along its shores when white settlers first arrived in the wilderness of New York, ran rich with salt.3 By the 1820s, salt had become big business for the Empire State. Hydraulic pumps siphoned water to giant solar vats to be boiled away. What remained was the sustaining mineral used across the world for storage and preservation. Salt, a natural desiccant, was crucial to the expansion of any peoples into the frontiers of exploration.4

The salt works at the heart of New York would be revolutionized by the construction of the Erie Canal. With an abundant supply of salt produced alongside a thriving waterway, trade in the preservative skyrocketed. In the year 1839 alone, only 19 years after the canal first opened to the solar salt fields of Salina and Syracuse, a total of 2,864,740 bushels of salt were produced in Central New York and shipped out via the Erie Canal to markets around the nation. The town of Salina alone had 86 salt manufactories within its borders. “Passing as the canal does,” one observer noted, “within the toss of a biscuit of some salt springs,” the low country surrounding the saline fountains of Salina had, “immense advantages… for a town.” What would later become Syracuse started as, “a few scattered and indifferent wooden houses… amid the stumps of the recently felled trees.” In spite of the lackluster appearance of Syracuse in 1820, one of the small village’s founders quipped that he would, “see it a city yet.” In time, Syracuse would grow as the canal pushed people and salt through the town.5

Friends in Albany helped book passage for the Harris family on a canal boat belonging to Hartwell C. Webster in mid-October of 1850. The famous canal had been quickly outmoded by railroads in the 1830s, and by 1850 was a much cheaper means of transportation for goods which were not time sensitive. Passengers and stable freight traversed the canal between Albany and Buffalo, shuttling goods and people between small canal depots and giant metropolises along the way. Along with the Harris family, the boat had a number of passengers, including three Irish families, an English family and two Dutch families. Three, “colored boys or young men,” were aboard as well, “one named George, John, and don't know the other,” Harris recounted before the police inquiry. Among the white passengers aboard were Jeremiah Cluney, a traveler on the canal, and Silas H. Cowells, a twenty year old oyster peddler from Albany. Cluney, Cowells and Webster thought the black family who traveled along the river were obviously fugitives from slavery. The men, “immediately devised a plan to trouble and terrify them.” The small impromptu gang simply wished to find amusement in their sport of chiding the fugitive family.6

On the second day of the family's journey, “Cowell and Cluney commenced talking, and said they had not much money now,” but as soon as they arrived at their destination they, “would have some money off the niggers.” The pair, “winked their eyes and looked at us,” the free-woman from Philadelphia recalled. The next morning, “Cluney came down and said no niggers could pass this canal without being taken, and that more would be taken.” The next day the pair repeated their threats against the family. For, “two or three day,” the Harris family endured the derision from their fellow passenger. Finally, Harris reported, “in presence of herself and husband in the hold of the boat,” the gang of troublemakers said that, “ that was the night we were to be taken... they said the kidnappers were to take us.”7

As the couple sat in the hold, a ruse was materializing above their heads. The Harris family heard cries of, “murder,” and, “Oh Lord.” A scuffle broke out above them. Catherine Harris, “ was much frightened.” The woman turned to William, and, “said to her husband, the slave-catchers are coming, and I am going overboard.” William replied that, “ he would follow her, or take his life in some other way.” Catherine, resolute in her desire not to feel slavery's chains on her wrists, took her three year old daughter in her arms and leapt through the window of the boat, into the chill October waters of the Erie Canal. “When I jumped over board I was expecting the kidnappers were doing their work,” Harris told the court, she would, “die rather than to be taken by the kidnappers.” Flailing in the canal, the mother and her three year old daughter were drowning. The mother was fished from the canal, out of her senses but alive; the child's body was never found, and no effort was made by the crew to recover the Harris' daughter.8

William Harris, after placing his wife below the deck and making sure she was safe, went back to the deck the following morning where Cluney, “threatened to cut his throat.” Catherine approached Captain Webster and protested at the threat against her husband, demanding of the Captain, “you ain't going to let the men kill my husband, are you?” The man replied that he would, “show you what shall be done, the sheriff will be here at 10 o'clock, and take his head off.” All the wife could reply was, “Lord have mercy on me,” and returned to her berth to tell her husband of the Captain's plans. William replied that he, “would sit and wait patiently his doom.” At 10 o'clock, Cluney came into the couple's berth, laughed and, “ hallowed,” and, “said the crew would be there presently and take [William's] head off.” William's resolve was strong. “Sooner than have that pleasure,” the slave resolved, “he would cut his own throat.” The boat was silent and Catherine looked away. As her eye went back to her husband, she, “saw the blood running down,” the black man's neck. Her husband had sliced across his own throat with a straight razor. She cried for help, but none came. Cowell and Cluney, the fellow travellers turned tormenters, said, “d—n the nigger, let him die; if they had had the cutting of it they would have done it right.” Captain Webster came into the cabin and scoffed at William's wound, declaring the man, “hadn't cut it to hurt... d—n him, he ain't going to die yet.” As William lay on the floor bleeding, “Cluney and others went to playing cards; and laughing.” “It was too bad,” the players chuckled over their games, “to be playing cards over a dead nigger.”9

Again and again, Harris begged through his blood and wounds to be let off the boat to see a doctor. His wife, likewise, pleaded for the white passengers to help him. The only reply she got, her husband dying on the floor of a oyster hold of a canal boat, was from one of the other female passengers: “she would be better off without than with such a nigger.” All the while Cluney and Cowells laughed and mocked the bleeding man. They passed through Utica, a city of nearly 18,000 people without letting the prostrate man off the boat to see a doctor. Harris asked the pair why they treated him so. The reply was terse; “Cowell said he was afraid of him.”10

Finally, they dumped William Harris unceremoniously on the canal’s towpath. Unsure what to do, the boat with his wife continuing down the canal, Harris staggered behind the boat for twenty miles begging to be let back aboard. The former slave, so close to freedom, walked nearly the entire way from Utica to Syracuse before collapsing just outside the city at Lodi, about a mile from the edge of town. A, “good Samaritan,” Captain Valentin R. Ogden of Syracuse, then picked him up and brought the wounded freeman to a doctor.11

The city which William Harris entered was wildly different than that founded in the 1820s. Charles Dickens would later describe the city as, “a most wonderful out-of-the-world place,” looking, “as if it had begun to be built yesterday, and were going to be imperfectly knocked together with a nail or two the day after to-morrow.” The small collection of shacks had undergone a vast transformation into a city, “in extent, and the magnitude and durability of its buildings.” The city rising above the wounded black man's head was immense and sprawling, growing into a metropolis much as his native Philadelphia had a century before. Standing in the streets, visitors glanced, “upward, and around, upon splendid hotels, and rows of massive buildings in all directions, and the lofty spires of churches glittering in the sun.” The streets teemed and, “thronged with people full of life and activity, the canal basins crowded with boats lading and unlading at the large and lofty stone warehouses upon the wharves.” Syracuse had been transformed, a change which, “seemed like one of enchantment.”12

Syracuse had been transformed by the enchantment of a salt river. The Erie Canal, an artificial river cutting clear across the state, brought Syracuse’s saline gold to the world and caused a boom of growth in what later became known as the Salt City. The Harris family’s journey on that salt river was not one of progress, however, but of utter defeat. “Salt River,” is also political slang for oblivion. To “Row up salt river,” is to sail into obscurity and destruction through defeat at the ballot box. But the Harris family had taken their own journey of destruction up Salt River. Their destruction was not wrought at the hands of voters dropping slips of paper with candidates names blithely into a hat at a polling station. Instead, the destruction of the Harris family came at the hands of other Americans. Fear and prejudice towed William Harris and his wife along the Erie Canal; the Fugitive Slave Act was the whip driving the mules.13

And the only escape from slavery which the Harris Family saw on that cold October day in 1850, standing on the deck of a canal boat heading up Salt River, was suicide and death. So foul was the thought of being locked into chains and driven south that dragging a razor across the neck and lying bleeding on a grimy boat deck was the best option. So abhorrent was the idea of unjustly being stolen away to a life of servitude that drowning an infant child in a murky fetid canal was the superior choice. So repugnant was the thought of giving up American freedom that death was the only option. The Harris Family, wounded and battered, floated into Syracuse at a moment of upheaval in America. This upheaval would destroy a nation and ultimately see thousands spill blood across the American landscape. But it would also ensure that men like William Harris would not be faced with the awful choice of Liberty or Death.


“…their voices will be loud against you till you die.”

Daniel Webster and Syracuse, New York in 1851

“Syracuse,” the New York Evening Post touted, was, “in Danger.” The city was quickly slipping into a fetid cesspool of destruction and drastic measures needed to be undertaken to salvage any hope of reviving the city. The Evening Post was simply passing on the words, “put forth by a citizen of Syracuse,” in a book published in mid-1850. The title alone, convoluted and serpentine, called Syracuse the, “Doomed City of the Valley,” and implied that it would, “eventually sink, as did Sodom and Gommorrah,” into a mired grave. The Greenville, South Carolina Mountaineer reprinted the story on August 9th, undoubtedly to the chagrin of the local populace. Syracuse was known throughout the nation, as was the majority of Upstate New York, for its complicity at best, and its active participation at worst, in the escape of slaves from southern plantations into Canada. The agitation over slavery was, by 1850, coming to a head. In the Mountaineer, the Post's article ran adjacent to another swiped from the Montgomery Atlas, touting that soon would form a, “deep and solid phalanx of a Southern Union.” Secession and dissolution of the government was hot on the minds of many throughout the south.14

But Syracuse's fate was not to sink, as many southerners might have hoped, into a pit of destruction on account of their abolition politics and willful ignorance of the fugitive slave provisions of the Constitution. Instead, the Evening Post expounded, the cause of Syracuse's demise was simply, “the quantity of Saline water taken from its base for the use of the salt manufactories [sic].” “The writer,” who, the Evening Post explained, had, “paid considerable attention to the philosophy of salt licks,” was simply announcing that, “the city of Syracuse is placed immediately above a vast salt deposit which is constantly dissolving by the action of water, so that at some time or other, it must sink below the earth.” The Evening Post was quick to rib both the author and the city, pointing out that, “the inhabitants, unless they make their escape in time, will get well pickled.”15

The gag article ran in papers across the country. In Bangor, Maine, the Evening Post's article ran just above another more serious notice. The nation had just seen the death of a sitting president and the elevation of his milquetoast vice-president, Millard Fillmore, to the highest office in the land. Fillmore did make the radical decision to oust the entirety of the late Zachary Tyler's cabinet. Fillmore was quick to place Daniel Webster, by this time one of the most famous statesmen living, into the post of Secretary of State. Webster, the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier conceded, was, “so eminent as a statesman and an orator, that his name and his fame are as familiar as household words.” Yet they continued on to reprint a relatively complete biography of the newly minted Secretary of State, copied from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Webster, as the people of Bangor read, “was born in Salisbury, N.H.,” in 1782 to a family of modest means. His father was a veteran of the French and Indian War, as well as the Revolution. The young man grew into a polished lawyer with an education undertaken at Dartmouth and in Boston. His first seat in national office came in 1812, when Webster, “was elected a representative in Congress from New Hampshire.” From then on Webster found himself firmly planted on the national stage as Senator and Congressman for both New Hampshire and Massachusetts for most of his life.16

By 1850, Webster was reaching his late sixties. This afforded his great power in his role on the floor of the United States Senate. When he spoke, the words had deep weight. “I wish to speak to-day,” he said in March of that year, “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster spoke in favor of a compromise over the issues of the day, chiefly the future of slavery in the United States. “The imprisoned winds are let loose,” he said, “the East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and disclose its profoundest depths.” But Webster spoke for what he saw as righteous ends. “I speak to-day,” he continued, “out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and the harmony which makes the blessings of this Union so rich, and so dear to us all.” The heart of the argument at hand, the, “imprisoned winds,” which so threatened the nation were the old saw of slavery, rearing its ugly head again. In this instance, the question revolved around the extension of Slavery into the territories gained during the Mexican Cession following the Mexican-American War.17

But Webster's speech on the floor of Congress that day — the aged senator's voice echoing with the weight of a man who had witnessed compromise after unceasing compromise on the subject of human bondage — was more than a simple legal argument. Webster struck at the moral core of the debate over slavery. Northern clergy and abolitionists, he contended, had simply, “taken hold of the religious sentiment of [their] part of the country, as they have, more or less, taken hold of the religious feelings of a considerable portion of mankind.” But the South, in spite of the biblical and moral arguments leveled against slavery for decades, “having been accustomed to this relation between the two races all their lives,” in consequence of tradition, had not found just cause for the destruction of the institution. “There are thousands of religious men,” Webster continued, “with consciences as tender as any of their brethren at the North, who do not see the unlawfulness of slavery.” Webster's opinion of the moral character of the Southern slaveholder was clear. “Candor obliges me to say,” he spoke, “that I believe they are just as conscientious, many of them, and the religious people, all of them, as they are at the North who hold different opinions.”18

But woe to the abolitionists of the North. “There are men,” Webster proclaimed with vitriol, “who, with clear perceptions, as they think, of their own duty, do not see how too eager a pursuit of one duty may involve them in the violation of others.” The Abolitionists of the north were simply, in Webster's estimation, “disposed to mount upon some particular duty, as upon a war-horse, and to drive furiously on and upon and over all other duties that may stand in the way.” Webster touted the obvious fallacy, held dear by Abolitionists, that, “what is right may be distinguished from what is wrong with the precision of an algebraic equation.”19

Webster would not, however, stand for secession. The idea was as disgusting as any to the aging statesman. “Instead of dwelling in those caverns of darkness,” Webster concluded, “instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day.” “Let us enjoy,” he spoke, with no sense of irony, “the fresh air of Liberty and Union; let us cherish those hopes which belong to us.”20

The reactions to the fruits of Webster's labors, the Compromise of 1850, echoed throughout the nation. Most odious to the abolitionist leaders across the north was the passage on the 18th of September, 1850, of the Fugitive Slave Act. The bill greatly altered the original Fugitive Slave provisions of the Constitution, in essence giving what had been a hollow requirement previously, a system by which it could be vigorously enforced. Federal Marshals were transformed into bounty hunters duty-bound to capture slaves at the flimsiest affidavit presented by a claimant. More outrageous to the abolitionist community was the requirement, in the bill's fifth section, that “all good citizens,” were, “commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” In spite of the moral attitude of a citizen, they were now required by the law to assist in the capture and return of fugitives from labor.

Reaction to the bill was swift. In Syracuse, the city's leading abolitionists gathered for what was purported to be, “one of the largest meetings ever held in central New York.” “The largest Hall in our city was crowded to its utmost capacity,” one newspaper account reported, “hundreds pressed for entrance and retired because they could not enter.” The sentiment of the convention was quite clear. Syracusans desired only that, “New York would ever remain free soil.” In a series of resolutions, passed with only a single dissenting vote in the packed hall, Syracuse laid plain its displeasure. “'The Fugitive Slave Law' recently enacted by the Congress of these United States,” the people cried with a single voice, “is a most flagrant outrage upon the inalienable rights of man, and a daring assault upon the Palladium of American liberties, our CONSTITUTION.” The bill had none less than a, “diabolical spirit and cruel ingenuity,” with which the intelligent men and women of the nation were called only to, “prepare themselves to oppose all attempts to enforce it.”21

Samuel Joseph May lived up to the resolutions almost immediately. The Syracuse Unitarian minister wrote to Frederick Douglass' North Star that he was unable to leave his home on account of his, “daily expectation of the arrival of three if not four fugitives from our Southern task-masters.” In writing these words, any of Syracuse's citizens would find themselves threatened with six months imprisonment and a hefty $1,000 fine. Syracuse's answer to congress and their course of action were all too clear. “We must trample this infamous law under foot, be the consequences what they may. Fines, imprisonment shall not deter me from doing what I can for the fugitive....” May and his fellow Syracusans were keen in their understanding of the source of the odious bill. “To none,” the collection of citizens proclaimed, “in all our country, should be attributed the passage of this most infamous law, so much as to Daniel Webster.” The blame fell squarely upon the statesman's shoulders, who, the resolutions contended, thereafter, “cannot be called the Defender of the Constitution, except in bitter irony.22

Webster, like Syracuse's abolition community, was fuming at the Fugitive Slave Act as well. But Webster's seething anger sprang more from the general rejection of the bill by citizens across the north, not only in Upstate New York but in the heart of abolitionism itself. Daniel Webster's Boston, the city of patriot blood and American compromise, was equally William Lloyd Garrison's Boston, the very heart of the American anti-slavery machine. Webster, suffering from illness in these the waning years of his life, had returned to his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts to rest from an annual illness he called his, “catarrh.” Doctors prescribed, “nothing but rest, patience, & herbal teas,” to help alleviate the thick mucous draining from his head. Still, Webster expected to be over the illness and back to Washington to help with the continued promotion of the agenda of the Fillmore administration.23

As the Secretary of State lay in bed, awaiting a visit from Amin Bey, an official emissary from Turkey, the reactions of Boston's citizens to the newly minted Fugitive Slave Law did not escape the statesman's ken. “The Abolitionists, & the quasi Abolitionists are furious,” Webster wrote to Millard Fillmore in October of 1850. Webster reported to the chief executive that, as far as Garrison and his crew were concerned, the, “only topic at present, is the Fugitive Slave law.” Furthermore, “their conduct in this respect,” in Webster's estimation, was, “wicked & abominable in the extreme.” What appalled Webster most, and the strongest image he wished Fillmore garner from his report, was the abject treason being sewn in the streets of the Athens of America. “Their presses only recommend resistance,” Webster decried, “by force, & to the death, in case of any arrest.”24

But Boston's local abolitionist press was doing far more than simply deriding the Fugitive Slave Act as amoral. They were chastising President Fillmore and Webster himself as wicked and foul creatures. Just days before Webster penned his letter to the President, Garrison's The Liberator compared the Secretary of State to Shakespeare's Richard the Third, placing the simple words in the politician's mouth that he was, very simply, “determined to prove a villain.” Continuing their quotation of Richard, Webster is aped to say, “Plots I have laid – inductions dangerous.” A week previous, the same paper had run a story sniping at Webster further, riffing on his quotation of Richard III in celebration at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. “In one short six months,” the paper stated coolly, Daniel Webster had done so much, “ to smother the progress of free principles, put chains upon the limbs of men, and strangle all those generous ideas of which he had once been the advocate and defender, merely to gratify a miserable ambition,” that no better character than Richard fit. Webster and Richard alike had a, “perverted and treacherous heart.”25

Webster's enraged tone writing to Fillmore rings with vitriol, responding equally to the personal attacks as to the political ones. The Abolitionist clergy and politicians were simply deluding themselves to think that trite questions such as, “Does the color of the skin affect the rights of the individual enveloped in it?” matter at all in the eyes of the law. These questions, incessantly ringing in the abolition press and voice, to Webster, are tawdry matters. “For practical, useful, conservative measures of Government,” these fanatics, “care [not].”26

By November, Webster was once again on his way back to Washington. So far, the Fugitive Slave Law had not been tested. Threats of violence in resistance to the law had not manifested themselves as action. “The excitement caused by the Fugitive Slave Bill,” Webster wrote to Fillmore, “is fast subsiding.” In Webster's estimation, there was simply, “now no probability of any resistance, if a fugitive should be arrested.” “There is an evident, & a vast change of public opinion in this quarter,” the Secretary of State noted. Still, Webster supported the positioning of troops nearby Boston, in case something might happen which overturned law and order. He even recognized the seeds of dissent within the city's populace, in spite of the fact that, “the agitators themselves appear[ed] to understand that,” it was the administration's intention, “to see the laws duly executed.” William and Ellen Craft, whose daring daylight escape from the South to Massachusetts had awed the abolition community of the North, had a bounty on their head. Even with warrants out for their arrest, Webster wrote, “the Fugitives keep concealed.” Webster mused to the President on the legality of bashing in doors to recover the fugitives, weighing in with the opinion that there was, “ a precedent, in favor of the affirmative of the proposition.”27

As December turned to January, the question of the Fugitive Slave Act and its moral implications simply would not die. Southern newspapers lit up with indignant rage at the actions of their northern countrymen. “A Convention in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, will be held in Syracuse, New York, on the 7th inst, trumpeted the Jackson Mississippian and State Gazette. In response to the Convention's assertion that, if left unchanged, the Fugitive Slave Act would, “see the American Union deluged in blood,” the Mississippian wrote that the vitriol simply, “exhibits the hyena-spirit which prevails among a large class at the North.” The Mississippian's characterization of the announcement was not far off. “It may not be that we can save our country from the ruin that impends,” the committee of organizers wrote, “but we are bound to make on effort.” The Fugitive Slave Law was simply odious and, at its a core, “made it plain, that liberty and slavery cannot subsist together.”28

The response to the call of Syracuse's abolition community to hold a state convention in the salt city was well received. On Tuesday, January 7th, Wednesday, January 8th and Thursday, January 9th, the leading lights of the abolition community gathered in Syracuse to make their voices heard. “On the first day of the convention,” one southern paper recounted, “the infamous blabber-lipped negro, Fred. Douglass, amidst immense cheering and applause,” rose to the podium. Douglass, escaped slave and renowned newspaper editor of Rochester, was elected by the crowd as the President of the convention. He spoke in tones which infuriated the South. “This Convention ought to say to slaveholders that they are in danger of bodily harm if they come here, and attempt to carry men off into bondage,” Douglass urged his fellow abolitionists. “I say to any fugitive,” he continued, “that nothing short of the blood of the slaveholder who shall attempt to carry him off, ought to satisfy him.” For Douglass, speaking to the crowd assembled in Syracuse, the course of action was clear. To defeat the Fugitive Slave Law was as simple as, “to make it unsafe for a slaveholder or his agent, or a United States officer to undertake to kidnap any man or woman among us.” To do anything less, according to Douglass, was tempting fate. “If in Syracuse you allow one to be taken off,” the former slave warned, “another will soon follow.” The answer, however, was simple. “I do believe that two or three dead slaveholders will make this law a dead letter.”29

Southern newspapers derided the convention. The Daily National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C., was quick to note that, “the City Hall was not more than half filled.” Quoting from the Albany State Register, the Intelligencer continued that, “the signal failure of this grand demonstration of the Abolitionists against the Fugitive slave law, we regard as the most cheering indication that has yet occurred.” The Savannah Morning News, after recounting the thousands in money pledged at the Convention in Syracuse to the abolition cause, concluded that the sheer mass of money was a sign that, “the war is now waging in the North between friends and foes of the Constitution.” Furthermore, the Morning News quipped, “the South has a deep stake in the issue.” But the Cincinnati Gazette, perched on the banks of the Ohio opposite slaveholding Kentucky, relished the outcomes of the January Fugitive Slave Law convention the most. “This gathering,” the paper reported, “had a ‘bust up termination.’” “It seems,” the report continued, “that Garret Smith [sic], Fred. Douglass… and other congenial spirits could not harmonize.” The image in the Southern press was of distinct and destructive discord within the meeting. They crowed of the, “final bustification,” of the abolition movement.30

The Southern press was not entirely incorrect. Discord had reigned at the Syracuse Anti-Fugitive Slave Law convention in January of 1851. The convention was organized to address the state of New York, and the nation, with a set of resolutions as well as a unifying prose message. Frederick Douglass’ speech was only the first of a litany of addresses and pontifications on the subject of liberty and slavery. Many echoed Douglass’ sentiment that, “there was something in the heart of the community here at the North, which said, when a slave-catcher fell by the hand of a fugitive, ‘served him right!’” On the evening of the convention’s first day, the hall grew silent as Gerrit Smith rose to address the convention on behalf of the Business Committee. Smith, “read a very long, though interesting address, from the Convention to the people of the State. It was one of his best efforts, and bears the unmistakable marks of his great mind.”31

Smith proclaimed to the assemblage that, “the doctrine, that wrong may be done, if commanded by Civil Government, is utterly fallacious.” This concept, in Smith’s estimation, “found no favor with the young Hebrews [Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego], who preferred the fiery furnace to obeying a sinful command of the Government.” “Nor,” Smith continued, “did it find any favor with [Daniel], who had rather be cast into the lion's den than comply with a wicked requirement of the Government.” Smith’s stance was firm. “We are summoned, in the name of patriotism, to obey this law,” he announced, “but this law, being treason to God and man, we cannot serve our country by obeying it.”32

Smith concluded by addressing, “the colored people of the State of New-York: and, in speaking to them… the colored people of all the Northern States also.” He urged his, “brethren,” to help in the overthrow of, “the bloody and satanic system of American slavery.” Whites alone could not, “dispense with it.” “Much less,” Smith intoned, “can we afford to have you an obstacle in our way.” Smith chastised the freedmen of New York, crying out, “Would to God, brethren, that you were inspired with self-respect! Then would others be inspired with respect for you.” The reason, in Smith’s estimation, that, “selfish and prostituted persons, as Daniel Webster,” held no sympathy for the black men of the north was simply because they failed to undertake, “brave, self-denying, and heroic endeavors… to throw off their oppressions.” Smith knew in his heart that if, “the colored people of the North display bravery, and self-sacrifice, and heroism, in their own behalf, and in behalf of their brethren in bonds,” then, “even Daniel Webster and [Democrat] Lewis Cass, now negro-murderers, will then be negro-admirers.”33

The Syracuse Daily Journal the following day assured its readers that the address would, “doubtless,” be adopted as the sentiment of the whole convention. But as Gerrit Smith closed his remarks, the tension in the hall leapt precipitously. William L. Chaplin, himself recently bailed out of prison for helping fugitives escape Maryland, tried to ease the situation by remarking that, “he thought that twenty or thirty meetings in different parts of the State like this one, would do more to kill off slavery than any other means that could be adopted.” His humor failed. Frederick Douglas turned the topic of conversation immediately back to Smith’s words. Douglass, “objected to it because of the introduction of topics foreign to the object of the calling of the Convention,” the protest of the Fugitive Slave Law. For the next three days the convention would wind round and round Smith’s words. Douglass the next day would remind Smith that, “This was not a Liberty Party Convention, nor did Liberty Party sentiment generally prevail in it.” The convention was, instead, a gathering of all parties, sectional and national alike. As resolution after resolution was raised, each based upon Smith’s address, the tension in the room escalated.34

Finally, on the third evening of the convention, with so many of the attendees fed up with Gerrit Smith’s sweeping statements, Charles B. Sedgwick, a native of Onondaga County who would go on to join the United States Congress during the Civil War, rose to present a counter-address. Sedgwick, “made a lengthy speech in opposition to the Fugitive law and counseling such opposition from each individual as that individual thought the most effectual.” Immediately, Samuel May leapt up to move that the, “speech of Mr. S. be written out, and published as embodying the sentiment of the Convention.” “Here began trouble, the Syracuse Daily Journal later reported, “and from that time to the adjournment… every body was excited and everything was in confusion.” It appeared even that there was, “a chance for the Convention to break up in a row.” The Chair of the meeting declared a formerly tabled motion neutering all religious language from Smith’s remarks to be passed. “This,” as the Daily Journal wrote, “disposed of the address, as it destroyed its argument.” Without vote, the Chair declared that Sedgwick’s speech now embodied, “the sentiments of the Convention.” Chaos reigned for three hours as egos clashed. The meeting adjourned just before midnight.35

Smith was incensed at the wholesale slaughter of his ideas. As crowds began filing from the hall, he seized the podium. He quickly brought to order a new Convention, a counter-convention comprising, “three or four hundred persons,” who, “remained in the Hall.” Frederick Douglass was declared president. Smith addressed the remaining crowd, holding that, “the New Convention was not responsible for the proceedings of the one which had just adjourned. God would not smile on the closing proceedings of that Convention.” It was an, “abandonment of God's cause not to adopt the address which had been objected to.” Quickly, “the address of the Business Committee of the old Convention was unanimously adopted, and after a prayer, at 1 o'clock, the Convention adjourned sine die.” Smith would publish his address and resolutions for circulation as a pamphlet to the state and nation as the sentiment of abolitionism, a sentiment that was distinctly radical.36

The radical stance of Abolitionists across the north did not go unnoticed. Daniel Webster, from his post at the head of the State Department in Washington, was keenly aware of the sentiment brewing across the northeast. In a letter declining an invitation to speak in Westchester, NY, just outside of New York City, in late January of 1851, Webster spilt his rage at the abolitionists out onto paper. “The purpose of overturning the government,” Webster wrote, “shows itself more clearly in resolutions agreed to in voluntary assemblies of individuals, denouncing the laws of the land, and declaring a fixed intent to disobey them.” Just weeks before the Syracuse Anti-Fugitive Slave Law convention had resolved to not simply, “pour out upon the Fugitive Slave Law the fullest measure of our contempt and hate and execration,” but to,” resist it actively, as well as passively, and by all such means, as shall, in our esteem, promise the most effectual resistance.” But Webster likened these meetings to calls for disunion, and characterized them as, “distinctly treasonable.”37 “If any law of the land be resisted, by force of arms or force of numbers,” Webster wrote, “in all cases, this is levying war against the government.” But small meetings were only being, “defended, encouraged, and commended,” in Webster’s estimation, by, “a considerable portion of the public press,” and, “what is still worse, the pulpit.” Webster saw the dialogue on the Fugitive Slave Law as simply pitting, “the laws of society,” against, “the institution of religion and the authority of the Divine Revelation,” smearing both with dishonor and contempt. 38

The resistance to law, for Webster, was the most dangerous type of crime. “It is evident,” he continued, “that, if this spirit be not checked, it will endanger the government; if it spread far and wide, it will overthrow the government.” Webster issued a rallying cry through his pen. “Citizens of the State of New York!” he wrote, “the voices of your own illustrious dead cry to you from the ground.” Webster raised the dead of the Revolution, “they who are in their graves,” to speak for him. And Webster’s words, spoken through their mute mouths, must be heeded as firmly as, “you respect their names and memories, as you love liberty, as you value your own happiness, as you regard the hopes of your children.” Webster’s message was simple: “hold on with unflinching firmness to the Constitution and to the union of the States.” The patriots of the Revolution cried out to New York, “as if with lips still living… in tones of indignation, to reject all such ideas as that disobedience to the laws is the path of patriotism, or treason to your country duty to God.” 39

In Syracuse, Webster’s necromancy went unheeded. Throughout the spring Anti-Fugitive Slave Law and Abolition Conventions became more and more fervent. Open resistance to the laws of the United States became the watchword of many in the community. Syracuse became more infamous for her citizen’s actions. In Louisville, Kentucky, the populace read about Rev. Samuel May’s declaration that, “It was better to break up the Union than that slavery should continue.” The indignity that, “in the name of humanity,” a citizen of Syracuse would pray that, “his country would not stand, if it could not stand but upon the necks of three millions of people.” The Louisville Journal proclaimed that, “such language as this, if uttered upon American Soil, should by legal enactment be made treason.” The paper went on to declare such sentiments as, “war upon the constitutional rights of fifteen of the thirty members of this confederacy.” If such voices were not put out like that of, “Arnold, who as a penalty, suffered a traitor’s doom,” then surely, “our requiem as a nation will soon be chanted by all the despotic governments in the world.”40

Such images of Syracuse’s treason were offset in the abolitionist presses by scenes of her citizens’ compassion. At one Anti-Slavery Convention in the city, the Pennsylvania Freeman reported in March, the compassion expressed for the slave shone out as a, “warning to those demented politicians who think to smother the voice of humanity by Proclamations, or silence it by the cannon and the sword.” As the guest speaker from Great Britain, George Donisthorpe Thompson, finished his address, “five fugitives, just arrived from the slave land, were put upon the stand.” The freedom seekers had just arrived in Syracuse. “There they stood, fresh from the manacles, just out from the hell of Slavery, in the first meeting of freemen they ever witnessed.” Syracuse poured out its kindness. Many in the assemblage were moved to tears, but, “the compressed lip, the eye of fire, and the death-like silence, told that here the spirit of Liberty was fully roused.” Samuel May, denounced in the press for wishing fire and brimstone on the nation, cried out, “Men, matrons, and maidens of Syracuse! You see these victims of tyranny before you…. Shall these fugitives be taken from Syracuse? I call on you to answer.” The room filled with a resounding cry of, “NAY!” The, “voice of the multitude, like a peal of thunder… made the very walls quiver.” The Syracuse Standard lamented that Webster and Fillmore could not have, “looked in then, and seen in full play the latent energies of that love of freedom which lies so deep in every human breast. Within fifteen minutes, a call to, “furnish these fugitives with employment,” had been fulfilled and the five refugees were, “comfortably provided for.” “If Mr. Fillmore comes, or sends his Marshal,” the paper chided, acknowledging that to harbor a fugitive was a crime, “they will probably find the kettle on; and everything hot and comfortable for them.41

By the late spring of 1851, the smoldering fire lit under the abolitionists of the north had erupted into a wildfire. In February in Boston, Massachusetts, black abolitionist leaders wrested Shadrack Minkins from the hands of Federal Marshals. Minkins had been captured in the coffee house in which he worked, a double insult as coffee houses were among the birthplaces of American liberty as the American Revolution fomented. As he was taken to the courthouse, the streets erupted with men and women, black and white, who burst into the Boston court house and spirited Minkins away to Montreal, Canada. President Fillmore was, to the extent he was wont to be, incensed. He handed down an edict that those who had assisted Minkins be brought to justice. Syracuse’s Democratic Daily Star reported that, “the Conservative press without an exception condemn it as it deserves to be.” The Shadrack case was none but, “one of the foulest stains upon the character of the city of Boston, ever inflicted by the fanatics who make their head-quarters within her limits.” The Star chastised the abolition community, bemoaning the fact that, “outrages like that recently committed in Boston, can be perpetrated with impunity in the heart of a civilized community.” “If the Fugitive Slave Law may be resisted with impunity,” the Star proclaimed, “Anarchy will then reign with undisputed sway throughout the length and breadth of the Republic.” Syracuse’s citizens were urged not to, “convert this glorious country into a pandemonium, unparalleled for misery and crime, by any country on the face of the earth.”42

In a letter to the Citizens of Lowell, Massachusetts in May of 1852, President Fillmore expressed his hopes for the matters facing the nation. “I feel that my first duty is due to the country,” the President wrote, “I trust the storm which threatened to overwhelm the Government, and array section against section, and brother against brother, in treasonable and fratricidal strife, has passed away.” But, he admitted to the men and women of the New England manufacturing town, “the waters are still agitated, and it will take some time for the elements to subside.” Fillmore hoped that his next endeavour would help to calm the troubled waters of the nation. “I have… just accepted an invitation to attend the celebration of the opening of the New York & Erie Railroad,” Fillmore wrote, extending his apologies to Lowell for not being able to visit their town that summer. Fillmore’s trip to Buffalo to inaugurate the New York and Erie Railroad would take him straight through some of the most turbulent political territory in the nation. The President, a native of Moravia, New York, in the heart of the “burned-over district” of the state flooded by religious revival throughout the nineteenth century, structured his visit as a simple goodwill tour, wherein he and his cabinet could back the nation away from the precipice of national suicide.43

In early May, Syracuse hosted the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The meeting was originally to be held in New York City, but the group was denied. “Not a meeting-house, not a hall, can be obtained in that city for this purpose,” William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed later. Syracuse swiftly offered up its podium for the affair, which commenced on May 7th. The leading lights of the abolition movement flocked to Syracuse to denounce slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law and Daniel Webster. The City of New York, likewise, could not avoid assault. “We here at the North,” William Lloyd Garrison spoke sarcastically to the assembly, “are no longer to have any thought, any opinion, any freedom of speech, or the right peaceably to assemble together to discuss the great cause of liberty; at least, it seems not in the great city of New York.” But, the society was determined to make the best of the situation. Now that we are driven out from New York,” Garrison continued, “we are compelled to make our appeal to the interior.” “Thank God,” Garrison proclaimed, “large as is the city of New York, it is not the State of New York! Thank God, wealthy and mighty as is the city of New York, it is powerless as against the Empire State.” Garrison issued a call to the citizens assembled in the Syracuse City Hall, asking loudly over the din of the crowd, “Now, people of Western New York and Syracuse, what do you say?... Shall we say just what we think on the subject of liberty and slavery? Will you defend the right of speech?” Garrison was met with hearty applause. Garrison shared his utmost conviction that, “the people of the North never will surrender the right of free speech.”44

The following three days of the convention were typical, punctuated by the indistinctive pronouncements on Slavery’s evil, resolutions on the destructive nature of the Fillmore administration for its course on the Fugitive Slave Law and promises of resistance when necessary. Garrison’s band found a relatively receptive audience, even in those citizens who did not typically ally with the abolitionists. “There is,” one observer noted, “among the masses in southern, central, and western New York, the farmers and mechanics, the operatives, and indeed all the non political interests of the country, a feeling of opposition to those measures of the last Congress with which Mr. Fillmore and Mr. Webster are so much identified.” This hostility could only prove, “fatal to any aspirations of these gentlemen for future honors from New York.” For New York there existed a, “deep and settled moral and religious sentiment of the interior in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, and to any and every concession to slavery. Proponents of slavery were warned not to simply believe that, “the small fraction of the community represented in abolition conventions,” did not embody, “the whole of the spirit,” of Central New York.45

As Syracuse’s guests began filing from the city and heading home, New York State was preparing to play host to the President’s party. The President’s tour was the talk of the nation, and sat at center stage in the American consciousness as Fillmore, Webster and their entourage traveled across the Empire State. The Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette reported that their, “New York, Albany and Buffalo exchanges are filled with accounts of the ‘progress; of the President and Cabinet from Washington, on their way to celebrate the opening of the great Erie Railroad.” The caravan first was welcomed briefly at Baltimore and Philadelphia, before wending along the Lehigh Valley Railroad to Amboy, New Jersey, just opposite the Arthur Kill from Staten Island. Here, the President and his cadre boarded the steamer Erie to be whisked to New York City. As the President’s ship made its way across New York harbor, cannon fire echoed from the surrounding hills. “The guns from Fort Hamilton, Bedloe’s Island46, and Castle William, saluted in succession, and a vast crowd of citizens and Military received the guests at Castle Garden,” papers around the nation reported. Ships in the harbor, likewise, let loose their cannons in salute of the president’s arrival. After brief speeches by the President, Attorney General John J. Crittenden and Secretary of State Webster, “a procession was then formed by a vast concourse of societies and citizens generally.” The parade wended through the streets of New York City, sporting fraternal organizations and, “12 regiments of troops, presenting one of the most splendid pageants ever witnessed in New York.”47

Accounts of the festivities welcoming Fillmore and Webster to New York, however, were at the whim of the political leanings of their authors. While conservative Whigs and Democrats heralded the President as patriotic symbol of the republic, Henry C. Wright, prominent contributor to Garrison’s Liberator, wrote of Fillmore as “THE KIDNAPPER.” Wright, just four days after leaving the convention at Syracuse, found himself standing on the Battery at the south end of Manhattan waiting for the President’s ship to land. Wright’s curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he was compelled, “to stay and see how the piety and patriotism of that city would receive one of the greatest criminals of the age.” Wright wrote that he cared not for seeing, “the miserable wretch himself, but how the politicians and church-members of New York would receive the man whose soul is steeped in the blood of innocent men, women and children.” The crowd which met Fillmore, according to Wright, numbered in the thousands, pouring out, “from the lanes and alleys, the cellars and garrets and drunkeries of the city.” This raucous crowd, intermingled with the high society of New York, crowded the Battery to welcome, “the Commander-in-Chief of American slave-hunters.” But as the boat docked, the crowd stood dumbstruck. “Not one shout from the multitude greeted his landing,” Wright recounted, “the people looked on with indifference, so far as the great marauder upon humanity was concerned.” Anger seethed in Wright. “I felt, as Fillmore and Webster approached, as I do at the approach of some loathsome, disgusting reptiles…. Fillmore and Webster are among the world’s most ruthless kidnappers; they are of the most polluted and disgusting criminals of this or of any age.” Wright echoed the sentiments of the convention he had just departed in Syracuse as he continued to berate Fillmore and Webster. “They spring like skulking beasts,” Wright wrote, “upon the weak, the defenceless, the helpless and the innocent.” The scene was too much for the abolitionist. Disgusted with Webster and Fillmore, Wright, “turned in disgust from the scene where such wretches are held in honor.”48

For his part, Secretary of State Webster had misgivings about the trip across New York. He wrote to his friend and confidante Richard M. Blatchford before the excursion began that he had, “not wished to join this jaunt on the Erie Railroad, because I have much work on hand, which I wish to get through before the hot weather.” However, Webster had to acquiesce to the demands of the President, the highest power in the land. “There was a wish,” he continued, “ I believe warm and sincere, that I should be of the party.” Webster continued this thought to Blatchford a few days later, concluding of the trip that he saw, “four elements of distress in it: 1.Heat. 2. Crowds. 3. Limestone-water. 4. The necessity of speech-making.” “This last is not the least,” Webster extolled, “for I have exhausted my opinions and my thoughts, my illustrations, and my imaginations; all that remains in my mind is as ‘dry as a remainder biscuit, after a voyage.’” In spite of his confidante’s well wishes, Webster still felt, “a caving in at the prospect before me.” Still, all the orator needed to do was refrain from making a blunder. “If I should not be remarkably foolish, nor remarkably unlucky,” the Secretary of State quipped, “I shall not spoil all the past.”49

The day following their arrival in New York, Fillmore and his party went by train to the western terminus of the Erie Railroad at Dunkirk, New York, along Lake Erie. In spite of it being early May, the weather was still relatively cold across the Northeast. Webster had reported to a friend before leaving the capitol that four of six consecutive nights in the week leading up to the departure from Washington had produced frost. On the night of May 15th, Webster’s son Fletcher, who worked as a personal aide and at one point earlier in his career as Chief Clerk of the State Department, took violently ill. Webster recounted that at, “half-past one ,” Fletcher had been attacked, “by a violent inflammation of the throat.” “He woke me in much distress,” Webster continued, “and said he could not breathe. In fifteen or twenty minutes we had a physician, who let blood freely, gave a powerful emetic, applied mustard-plasters, etc., etc.” Fletcher taking ill forced Webster to abandon the Presidential party. As Fillmore left for Buffalo, Webster remained behind to nurse his 32-year-old son back to health. For the remainder of the tour back across New York State, Webster would constantly be playing catch-up to Fillmore’s entourage.50

President Fillmore’s tour of New York was relatively benign. At Buffalo, the President spoke to a crowd made up of his neighbors. Fillmore had made a name for himself as a lawyer in nearby East Aurora, and did not let the fact pass lightly. “I came among you,” Fillmore addressed the city, “not many years ago, a friendless boy.” Fillmore milked the crowd’s emotions and fondness for their President. “And I hope to be permitted to return to you, and spend my days with you, and at last to sleep in yonder grave yard and mingle my dust with yours.” Fillmore did attempt to speak to the issues of the day. At Buffalo, Fillmore referred to the Compromise of 1850 in sidelong glances, in spite of the fact he was joined on the dais by Stephen Douglas of Illinois, one of the bill’s younger architects and a rising star in the U.S. Senate. “As partizans we may differ,” Fillmore extolled, “questions as to the manner in which the government shall be administered may divide us.” But it was Fillmore’s belief that, “when treason stalks abroad at the South and rears its snaky head at the North, all rally to its support.” “There is no liberty- no security without law,” the President pointedly declared. Fillmore, however, saw the greatest irreverence to law in the desire of a, “portion of our people… to rush headlong to the conquest of Cuba.” Cuban ambition, and not abolitionists, was the note Fillmore hit hard and repeatedly throughout his tour. 51 Still, at Rochester, upon his conclusion, the President was showing signs of wear. “I am hoarse; I can say no more; but one word before I conclude.” “One of the distinguished men of my cabinet is detained at Buffalo,” the beleaguered Fillmore explained, “you will, however, see him soon.” Fillmore urged on the crowd: “You may hear him, too, and I congratulate you on the prospect.”52

As Fillmore left his adopted home of Buffalo, Daniel Webster entered the city, greeted with accolades from the local Whig and Democratic establishment. “The Mayor,” of Buffalo, the citizens of Raleigh, North Carolina eagerly read, “and leading citizens of all parties tendered him a dinner, to testify their sense of his public services to the country.” Webster graciously accepted, but with the simple caveat that he hoped Buffalo would, “as far as may be, dispense with ceremonious forms.” Webster toured the city and nearby Niagara Falls. On the evening of Wednesday, the 21st of May, the Secretary of State found himself on the stump again. Where he had asked Buffalo’s leading political lights to quell any ceremony, Webster himself would fill the hall with pomp and circumstance through his belabored speech. Webster painted with florid language a description of the State of New York. He belabored the founding of the United States. He argued with himself over the disposition of the public lands in the territories and their division. The lands of the west, Webster held, were the means by which America could remain debt free. But his long and luscious speech makes no mention of slavery. Standing just a few days before at the crest of the cataract of the American Falls, which Webster explained as simply but profoundly, “the wonder of the world,” the Secretary of State could undoubtedly see into Canada. Just a few miles across that gaping maw carved by thousands of years of rushing water was the safe haven of the American slave: Canada West.53 In St. Catharines, Canada West, little more than ten miles from where Webster stood in awe at a sight, “attractive to all the world,” the escaped property of the south were making new homes and lives for themselves.54

Webster would not disappoint the citizens of Buffalo the following day. If Fillmore’s speech to Buffalo was naught but dishwater, Webster would deliver a stinging ointment in his public address of May the 22nd. “Gentlemen,” Webster spoke to a throng of onlookers in a driving rain, “There is but one question- one question in the country now.” Webster, driving toward the point that Fillmore refused to touch, proclaimed that, “it is obvious to every body- we all know it, that the great question in the country is slavery. We must meet it- we must consider it- we must deal with it fairly, honestly, justly….” Over the course of the last months, Webster was well aware that he had, “been libelled a thousand times, and because these libels have been perpetrated a thousand times,” he could only, “expect to be libelled again.” In Webster’s eyes, as he explained it to his soaked supporters in Buffalo, the Constitution’s mandate to return all fugitives from labor was an absolute, immobile writ. Yet still, he cried out, “we are told by forty conventions, that if a slave comes here he is a free man.” But this was simply, to Webster, “a non sequitur. The Constitution says he is not a free man, and shall be returned to his master.” “Now, gentlemen,” the Secretary of State continued, challenging the crowd, “this is the Constitution of the United States. Do we propose to execute it?”55

If the Compromise of 1850 was a haven of order and constitutional mandate, then Webster saw the Abolitionists of New York as the polar opposite: a rabble hell-bent on the utter destruction of the union of states. “Tell me,” Webster challenged his audience, “tell me if any resolution was adopted by the convention at Syracuse favorable to the carrying out of the Constitution.” He answered his own question with a resounding cry of, “Not one!” The Abolitionists, Webster charged, were simple anarchists, who, “deny, altogether, that the provisions of the Constitution ought to be carried into effect.” These men and women, meeting at, “antislavery conventions in Ohio, Massachusetts, and at Syracuse, in the State of New York,” were to Webster the greatest threat to the nation for, put simply by Webster, “they pledge their sacred honor to violate the Constitution ; they pledge their sacred honor to commit treason against the laws of their country!” “There is not a man of them,” Webster strained to be heard over the roar of the downpour, “that would not trample the rights of their political brethren in the dust.” In closing, Webster exhorted Buffalo’s citizens to, “Live and be happy. Live like patriots, live like Americans.”56

Webster continued in the footsteps of the President, espousing similar sentiments at Rochester. At Canandaigua, Webster was already drained. “I get along slowly,” he confided in a letter to his friend Richard Blatchford, “as well as poorly.”  Webster was quick to qualify his statement. “I do not mean poorly in health,” the aging statesman continued, “for my health is much improved, but I get poorly through the meeting of such crowds of people.” Weariness of the speaking circuit had hit Webster hard. Still, he explained to his confidante, “I seem to have no option.” Fillmore had made it a point to stop, “everywhere,” making speech after speech across Upstate New York. “It would be thought churlish if I were to do less,” Webster complained. His next destination was Auburn, and, “thence to Syracuse, that laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason.”57

Young William Stoddard was a deep fan of the conventions and political events of Syracuse. As Daniel Webster crept toward the Syracuse, or as Stoddard called it, “Conventionville,” the sixteen year old shop clerk waited with bated breath. The young man had already shown a deep interest in the political question of the day. “I had,” Stoddard later recalled, “a number of acquaintances among the colored people and the more prominent Abolitionists.” Stoddard had witnessed many of the most important speeches in Syracuse, “and such colored orators as Fred Douglas, an escaped slave from Maryland, were [his] especial favorites.” Stoddard took quickly to the world of oratory and philosophy. He worked by day at Stoddard and Babcock, the bookshop and publishing house owned by his family, as, “general clerk, salesman, messenger, and all-the-books reader.” Witnessing the political climate morph and change around him, and in spite of the fact that, “it was almost like incipient treason to utter what one felt or thought upon the slavery question,” Stoddard personally labeled himself a, “Whig Abolitionist.” Still, Stoddard snidely wrote years later in his memoir, there would be no trouble if nothing was, “done or said to irritate the slaveholders or to interfere with their sacred right to own black men and women, half black, quarter black and sixteenth black, or white which might be called black.” Now, Daniel Webster, architect of the Compromise measures of 1850, “offensively foremost among these… the obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law,” was coming to Syracuse, “to imprudently set and light a slow match and to prepare for a destructive explosion.” “I read all that the newspapers had to say,” Stoddard recalled, “and they said enough to set me on fire.” Boiling with anger though he was over the compromise measures, the young man still had an insatiable, “determination to have a close look at the Great Expounder.”58

Webster, as with every other stop on his New York tour, had been preceded by President Fillmore’s party of travelers five days before. The President’s impression on Syracuse was lackluster. Samuel Holmes, a citizen of Syracuse, recalled later that the intentions of the party were quite clear. Fillmore’s visit to New York was far from a simple celebration of a canal opening. “By an arranged plan to further checkmate the growing anti-slavery sentiment of the North,” Holmes recalled, “and in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, President Fillmore, John J. Crittenden, United States Attorney General, and [William] A. Graham, Secretary of the Navy, came to Syracuse.” The Presidential party was, “given a public dinner at the Syracuse House,” on the southeast corner of Clinton Square, its balconies overlooking the still waters of the Erie Canal. “After dinner,” Holmes continued, “speeches were made and, with special reference to the Fugitive Slave Law, and one remark made by Mr. Graham we distinctly remember.” Holmes years later recalled the strictest of challenges from the North Carolinian Secretary of the Navy: “If you people of the North do not like the laws of the United States, you can go to Canada or some other country that suits you better.” Graham did not say these words exactly, but they sum up succinctly his sentiments. The Secretary of the Navy urged his, “fellow citizens,” to, “cast aside all local fanatical feelings.” “Destroy this government, let there be civil war, the shedding of brother’s blood by brother’s hands,” Graham warned, “there is no telling to whaty depths we may be reduced by the failure of this experiment.” Still, the secretary rejoiced at the reception of Syracuse, noting that, “the deep seated affection for the Union of the States is bounded by no limits North or South.”59

There were Democratic and Whig friends of the administration within the Salt City, in spite of the large mass of abolition sentiment that roiled in the city’s streets. These allies of Fillmore, Webster and the Fugitive Slave Law began readying the city for the arrival of the distinguished Secretary of State. With just a day’s notice, the city’s conservative kitchens busily spat forth a prodigious meal. Webster would be treated to both oyster and mock turtle soups. Webster would dine on boiled ham, chicken, pork, corned beef and “Leg lamb [with] caper sauce.” Then would follow a course of roast beef, pig, pork, veal, chicken, lamb and turkey. This illustrious spread, however, only served as appetizer for the meal’s entrees. Webster would have his choice of twenty separate dishes, including, “Snipe, a la Financier,” “Lamb’s fries, with pork,” “Rice and ham, Creole style,” and the appetizing, “Calves’ head, en tortue.” The baker’s ovens and sweet confectioners of Syracuse were not to be outdone. The city’s confectioners turned out seven different pastries and twelve other sweet treats for dessert, including, “Boiled peach pudding,” and “Wine jelly.” The dinner, one local newspaper account concluded, was sure to be, “sumptuous and elegant.” Webster, the consummate proponent of democracy and republicanism, a man of the people, would eat that night like royalty.60

But before he could partake of Syracuse’s bounty, the Secretary of State would address a crowd assembled. “Due preparations were made for his reception,” the young William Stoddard would later record, “and the open space in front of the City Hall was made ready for the speech which was to come.” Webster would speak from a balcony on Frazee Hall, hanging above the citizens of Syracuse gathered in Market Square. “An ample platform was provided,” Stoddared continued, for “the local great men who were to sit behind him and start the rounds of applause.” But Webster’s speech was orchestrated as a pageant. “Just in front of the platform was a wooden arrangement for the necessary brass band, for he was to have music as well as applause.”61

At 3pm on May 26th, 1851, Daniel Webster stepped forth on the balcony overlooking a crowd of Syracuse’s citizens, friends and foes, and began reciting an ultimatum. An armed guard stood at Webster’s feet, “the Syracuse Citizens Corps,” standing, “at parade rest in front of the speaker's stand.” There Webster stood, “amid all the cheering any man need have asked for.” Stoddard recalled that he, “was indeed a noble presence, all that his pictures had taught me to expect, and when he slowly turned and looked around upon the crowd he appeared to be a very impersonation of political dignity.” Parish Johnson, another young onlooker in the crowd, wrote that Webster’s, “large body was clad in a blue swallow-tailed coat with brass buttons.” Staring down from the balcony was, “a vast head with a dark, impressive face, deep cavernous eyes, which occasionally flashed like the embers of smouldering [sic] fire, was presented to the people.” Immediately after the speech, the Syracuse Liberty Party Paper reported that, “we saw an ordinary looking, poor, decrepid old man, whose limbs could scarce support him.” Webster appeared to the abolitionist press as a shell of their expectations. His eyes, “had more of the meaningless glare of a dead man’s, and the wide cavities in which they set more marked with the shade of the corpse than of life, and beauty, and intelligence.” Another witness wrote to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator that Webster’s, “worst enemy could have wished him to make no more depressing exhibition of himself, nor desired for him a more mortifying reception.” As Webster mounted the platform, three anemic cheers rose from the crowd, which, “would have left a painful sense of his isolation from the sympathies of his audience,” led into interminable, “cold silence,” from the gathered crowd.62

Stoddard remembered that Webster, “wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and then his deep, mellow, sonorous voice rolled out, as it may have done when in the United States Senate.” “‘Fel-low Cit-i-zens of Syr-a-cuse and On-on-daga County,’ he began, with impressive deliberation, and the stillness became breathless.” Stoddard, Johnson and the rest stood dumbstruck. Syracuse, “gazed with awe and listened with bated breath.”63

Webster’s remarks were measured, if somewhat spontaneous. The aged statesman grasped the iron railing of the balcony tightly. “On the great questions of the day,” Webster exclaimed, “I have no secrets. I have nothing to conceal and nothing to boast of.” The Secretary of State knew the nature of his audience, he knew the vitriol in the minds of his hearers. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he continued, “ I know very well, that on the agitating questions of the present day, I have not the happiness to concur with all the people of Syracuse, or the county of Onondaga, or other parts of the State of New York.” Webster proclaimed: “I lay no claim to your approval of my views, and I ask no favorable reception of them.” Abolitionism was a dangerous affair, in Webster’s estimation, causing its believers to, “disregard the line of their own duties, and adventure upon fields which are utterly forbidden.” Abolitionists, “have done nothing but mischief; they have riveted the chains of every slave in the Southern States— they have made their masters jealous and fearful —and postponed far and far the period of their redemption.” Webster stood in the den of lions and chided their slavering maws. “They loudly denounce Mr. Webster,” the statesman cried, “I believe he has been denounced here. Is this not Syracuse?” Laughter rose from the audience. “They denounce Webster as the fit associate of Benedict Arnold….”64

Webster did not contend that the Fugitive Slave Law was “perfect.” “I proposed some amendments to it,” the former Senator assured the crowd, “but was called from the Senate before it was adjusted.” But even without his proposals, the law must stand. “The law is a Constitutional one, passed in perfect conformity to the requirements of the Constitution. What then?” Webster queried, “Is it not to be obeyed?”65

“But what do we hear?” Webster cried, reaching the stride of his remarks. “We hear of persons assembling in Massachusetts and New York, who set themselves above the Constitution.” Syracuse, Webster quickly added, and Onondaga County surrounding it, had raised its voice in opposition to the law. “And have they not pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to defeat its execution?” But to Webster, the pledge was in vain. Syracuse’s abolitionists were simply pledging themselves to, “the violation of the law- for the committal of treason to the country.” Webster seethed with rage. “No! No! It is time to put an end to this imposition upon good citizens, good men, and good women,” proclaimed Webster, “It is treason, treason, TREASON, and nothing else.”66

Then came Webster’s promise to Syracuse. “They say the law will not be executed,” Webster mused, “let them take care for those are pretty bold assertions.” Webster’s voice frothed from his mouth, proclaiming that the Fugitive Slave Law, “will be executed in its spirit and to its letter.” The abolitionists would meet heavy resistance wherever they trod, “depend upon it.” The law, Webster was sure, would, “be executed in all the great cities – here in Syracuse, - in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise.” “Then we shall see,” Webster chided, “ what becomes of their lives and their sacred honor.”67

The crowd was stunned. Stoddard recalled that Webster, “said it slowly, solemnly, with tremendous emphasis, but his words were greeted by silence only, for something like an electric shock went through the crowd.” The Liberty Party Paper reported that Webster’s, “whole frame seemed quaking and trembling with that idea, standing obviously on the brink of the grave.” Webster’s speech continued, but Syracuse halted with those words. “It will be executed in all the great cities – here in Syracuse, - in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise.” Webster, “had no idea that he had been making a pronunciation of war,” Stoddard recalled, “which hundreds of his hearers were mentally accepting.” With a few more words, Webster closed, and left the balcony. The brass band at his feet struck up with patriotic music. “The average American,” Stoddard later mused, “ is an unhandy man to threaten and we all felt that the great orator had left a threat behind him which it might be well for us to remember.” Webster left Syracuse and the city girded itself for an oncoming storm.68

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