And the Credit for Defeating Slavery in America Goes to… Criminals!


If you’re like me, you learned in school that the slaves of the old American South were freed by Abraham Lincoln, or at least by the central government of the United States. I believed that for a long time, and was not only surprised, but troubled, when I learned otherwise.

But as I dug through the facts about slavery in the South, I found the same pattern that I’ve seen over and over when I examined historical turns for the better: that the true benefactors were opposed and punished.

The people who did the actual work to end slavery were regarded as criminals by every level of the United States government, from Congress and the Supreme Court, down to the local sheriff. The laws of the United States enforced slavery, and powerfully so. Anyone who broke those laws was hunted and punished, exactly the same as ordinary criminals are now.

The Criminals, North and South

There is enough information on the criminals of the North to describe them fairly well. There is relatively little information available on the criminals of the South. For example, look at this map of the Underground Railroad, a people-smuggling network:


Notice that nearly all of the smuggling routes shown are in the North. All the slaves who reached them, however, had to get there via routes in the South. There was a vast network of Southerners who guided slaves northward. As of today, very little information is available about these people, which is unfortunate.

Every person involved with the Underground Railroad was a criminal. For example, one section of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 reads as follows:

Any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney… from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor… or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor… or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person… shall… be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months… and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost.

(At that time, a thousand dollars would buy a comfortable house.)

A Small Rogues Gallery

Here are a few of the criminals who ended slavery:

Thomas Garrett, born into a prosperous family in Pennsylvania, was a station master on the last stop of the Underground Railroad in Delaware. In 1846, he and a friend named John Hunn were tried and found guilty of helping a family of slaves escape. Because he organized the escape, Garrett was fined $5,400. (Between the two of them, they were involved at least in six trials.)

Garrett smuggled or helped to smuggle 2,700 slaves to freedom, so you can see what kind of damage these people wrought on the economies of slave labor. And here’s another aspect of this illegal smuggling trade: throughout the Civil War, Garrett’s house was guarded by the grateful free Negroes of Wilmington.

Levi Coffin, from a respectable family in North Carolina, became an abolitionist at seven years of age, after asking a slave in a chain gang why he was bound. The man replied that it was to prevent him from escaping and returning to his wife and children.

In his early twenties, Coffin and his cousin started a Sunday School to teach slaves to read the Bible. The plan was soon crushed by slaveholders, who forced them to close the school.

A few years later, Coffin married his long-time friend Catherine White, and they moved to Indiana, where he became a local business leader and was able to supply money, food, clothing, and transportation for smuggling operations.

Coffin’s life was frequently threatened by slave-hunters, who often invaded his home—something that was permitted by law. And, he was expelled from his church.

Calvin Fairbank was born into a religious family in Pike, New York, in 1816. He began to oppose slavery after befriending two escaped slaves at a Methodist meeting. By the time he was 21 years old, he was smuggling slaves across the Ohio River on a lumber raft. Soon he was delivering runaway slaves to Levi Coffin for further transportation to safer locations.

Fairbank became a minister in 1842. A short time later, following the complex rescue of a slave family, someone ratted him out to the government. Both Fairbank and his accomplice, a teacher from Vermont named Delia Webster, were arrested. Webster served less than two months of her sentence, but Fairbank received a 15-year term and no leniency.

Nonetheless, Lewis Hayden, the slave who Fairbank had freed, raised enough money to pay off his former master, and Fairbank obtained a pardon after four years in prison.

Two years later, Fairbank helped a slave named Tamar escape from Kentucky to Indiana. With the help from the governor of Indiana, marshals from Kentucky abducted Fairbank and took him back to their state for trial. He was sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary, where he was singled out for exceptionally harsh treatment, including flogging and overwork.

Finally, in 1864 (and after suffering through twelve years of harsh imprisonment), he was pardoned by an acting governor. Prison, however, had broken Fairbank’s health. Although he was able to hold jobs with missionary and benevolent societies, he was never again able to support his family.

The people of Syracuse. Reverend Luther Lee, pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, New York, wrote this about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted anything of me, my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough in Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning.

Local officials in the North sometimes refused to enforce Federal laws on slavery. In fact, the secession resolution of Georgia complains specifically about this:

For above twenty years the non-slave-holding States generally have wholly refused to deliver up to us persons charged with crimes affecting slave property. They shield and give sanctuary to all criminals who seek to deprive us of this property.

The people of Milwaukee—5,000 of them—stormed the Milwaukee jail in 1854 and released an escaped slave named Joshua Glover. They then sent him onward to Canada. A man named Sherman Booth, who instigated the rescue, was pursued by government officials for years and either jailed or fined a number of times.

These actions, and thousands more like them, are what really killed slavery in America. Politicians came in later to formalize it and to soak up the credit.

“Yeah, but they weren’t real criminals.”

If you are tempted to say this about the people we’ve mentioned above, take a moment to think about this statement, because it places you firmly in the camp of the wild-eyed radicals.

What you’re saying is that all of us have the right to ignore laws made by “democracy.” You’re saying that you, personally, have every right to place your judgment above the state’s.

I happen to agree with you—as does the entire length of the Judeo-Christian tradition—but by saying that, you are spitting on Democracy™ and demeaning your heroic politicians.

Everything governmental, official, and legal said that the men and women we’ve mentioned were criminals. Not only that, but they suffered as criminals—some by way of prisons and fines, and all of them, continually, by having the sword of the state hanging over their heads.

Mr. Lincoln and the FedGuv Legend

I suppose that I shouldn’t conclude a piece like this without addressing Mr. Lincoln and the legend of the noble Northern government. I will do this briefly.

While Lincoln wasn’t particularly a supporter of slavery, he wasn’t a serious opponent of it either. His famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was merely a war tactic. It only “freed” slaves in the South, and it even excluded five slave states (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Tennessee). Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, said this about it:

We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.

As for the US government in general, it was very slow in dealing with slavery. Other countries abolished slavery and/or the slave trade in these years:

Denmark and Norway, 1803    
Haiti, 1804
Mexico, 1810
Spain, 1811
Argentina, 1813
Uruguay, 1814
The Netherlands, 1814
Greece, 1822

Chile, 1823
Bolivia, 1831
Great Britain, 1834
France, 1841
Russia, 1841
The Ottoman Empire, 1847
Columbia, 1851
Venezuela, 1854


The fact is that slavery was torn apart by thousands of individuals who were criminalized, hunted, and punished by Washington, DC, and most of the state governments. (Congress even criminalized Northern officials who didn’t help slave hunters.) The story I learned in school was a falsehood, constructed around cherry-picked facts.

Truth be told, nearly all significant moves in new, positive directions are opposed by the powers that be… wherever and whenever they may be.

“All that is really great and inspiring,” said Albert Einstein, “is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” And institutions—of which governments are the largest and most aggressive—exist by controlling (and thus limiting) the exercise of individual will.

Paul Rosenberg

This article was originally published by Casey Research.