President Pierce Pardons a Free Black For Harboring Fugitive Slaves.
William Chaplin was a white abolitionist who led the Liberty Party in New York. That party was spawned by philanthropist Gerrit Smith, an associate of John Brown who financed many activities of the abolitionist movement. Chaplin was sent to Washington in 1846 to take the place of Charles Torrey, the chief...
William Chaplin was a white abolitionist who led the Liberty Party in New York. That party was spawned by philanthropist Gerrit Smith, an associate of John Brown who financed many activities of the abolitionist movement. Chaplin was sent to Washington in 1846 to take the place of Charles Torrey, the chief operative of the underground railroad in that city who died while in prison for assisting slaves to escape. Smith and his associates did not intend for Chaplin to be passive; they instead planned for him to lead by becoming a thorn in the side of the slaveholders. Chaplin himself proclaimed that “the existence of slavery has become precarious in this District,” and that abolitionist operations there constituted “an assault upon the slave system at a vulnerable point.” He hoped to “drive it from the Capital.”
In Washington, Chaplin made connections with abolitionists such as Joshua Giddings, and also worked actively with free blacks in the abolition cause. By 1948, Chaplin had built a network. On April 15, he and his operatives initiated a mass escape attempt. He obtained a ship, The Pearl, paid two white men, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, to captain the vessel and smuggle the slaves. Seventy-six slaves were packed on board the ship, a schooner docked at a remote wharf in Washington. When the boat glided into the night, one of the largest slave escape attempts in American history was underway. Unfortunately for the would-be fugitives, a posse in a steamboat caught up to The Pearl and arrested all souls on board. The escape attempt effectively demonstrated an interracial cooperation between white opponents of slavery, free blacks and the slaves themselves. The fact that such a large-scale attempt could be organized and almost succeed showed the vulnerability of, and sent shivers through, the slaveholding community. A southern congressman stated that the abolitionists were “attempting to abolish slavery in this District by inciting negroes to leave their masters.” Chaplin managed to avoid getting implicated, but the trial of Drayton and Sayres for slave-stealing polarized the pro- and anti-slavery communities. Smith and his colleagues paid for the defense, and after both men were convicted, organized an effort to pay their fine and free them. When Drayton intimated that he might turn state’s evidence rather than rot in jail waiting, Senator Charles Sumner arranged for President Fillmore to issue them pardons. To the South, the Pearl incident demonstrated the necessity of a strong fugitive slave law, a measure that would be extremely unpopular in the North.
On August 8, 1850, Washington sheriff John Goddard’s posse of six heavily armed men forcibly stopped a carriage in the middle of Georgia Avenue and a shoot-out ensued. Chaplin was driving the carriage that contained free black abolitionist, Warner Harris and two men attempting to escape from slavery: Garland White who belonged to Senator Robert Toombs and Allen who belonged to Senator Alexander H. Stephens, both of Georgia. Goddard stopped the carriage by ramming a fence rail through the wheel spokes, then firing shots into it. At least one of the fugitives returned fire before jumping from the carriage and running away. Chaplin was hauled from the carriage, beaten and arrested. Both blacks and one member of the posse were slightly wounded. Allen was returned to his owner, and Garland White turned himself in three days later. This incident brought back memories of The Pearl.
It was soon followed by another that indicates that Chaplin may well have been orchestrating a coordinated effort to embarrass slaveholding members of Congress by aiding their own slaves to escape even as Congress was debating the Compromise of 1850, which contained a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law. After Garland turned himself in, he revealed that Noah Hanson, a free black who was part of Chaplin’s network, was hiding two slaves of Congressman William Colcock of South Carolina under the kitchen floor of the home of his employer, Richard Cox. This was a daring thing for Hanson to do, as Cox was a southerner who later served as a colonel in the Confederate Army. On August 12, Hanson was arrested. The Compromise of 1850 was enacted a month later.
Chaplin was imprisoned but was released on $19,000 bail raised by Smith and his fellow abolitionists. He left the area when released in early 1851, forfeiting the bond, and never came to trial. In March 1851, Hanson was tried and convicted of assisting slaves to escape and was fined and imprisoned. The following year, Smith and Giddings tried to raise enough money to pay his fine and obtain his release, but failed. Smith was finally successful in 1854 of securing a pardon from President Franklin Pierce. We offer that very pardon. Document Signed, Washington, July 19, 1854. “…Whereas it appears that at the March term 1851 for the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia, Noah C. Hanson was convicted of harboring slaves and sentenced to pay a fine of one thousand and eighty dollars, one half to the use of the owner of said slaves, and to stand committed until said fine and costs be paid; and whereas it has been made satisfactorily to appear to me that the imprisonment the prisoner is now undergoing should be conditionally remitted. Now therefore, be it known that I, Franklin Pierce, President of the United States of America, in consideration of the premises, diverse other good and sufficient reasons me thereunto moving, have granted and do hereby grant unto him, the said Noah C. Hanson, a pardon and release from so much of said judgment and sentence as declares that he shall be committed a prisoner until said fine and costs be paid; and he is hereby released from imprisonment…” The document is countersigned by Secretary of State William Marcy. Frederick Douglass relates that “Hanson was no sooner let out of jail that he hastened to my house. A more grateful creature I never saw.”
What possessed the pro-slavery Pierce, who disliked abolitionists, to pardon a black man for harboring runaway slaves at the behest of Gerrit Smith, we can only wonder. Perhaps it was a sop to the North, coming less than two months after Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was considered pro-southern and was very unpopular in the North. We have conducted extensive research on this document, and corresponded with noted historians who are experts in the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist movement. Neither we nor these historians have ever seen or heard of another presidential pardon of a black person for engaging in such activities, making this a likely unique piece of American history.
The abolitionists in Washington made a direct impact on sectional politics. They dealt directly with anti-slavery congressmen and built cooperative ties to the black community. They caused southern politicians real alarm, leading them to miscalculate about the safety of slavery in the United States. Confronted by escape attempts organized by the abolitionists, southern leaders became convinced that they needed to take extreme measures to defend their institution. These measures proved counter-productive, sharpening regional differences and helping bring on the Civil War.
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