Runaway Slaves: An Intimate History of Slave Resistance
In the course of human events, it sometimes becomes necessary for one people, regardless of color, gender or age, to dissolve the bonds which have connected them to another and to assume the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which nature and nature’s God entitle them. Bondage, unlike liberty, was not natural; therefore, each year until the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865 an untold number of enslaved men, women and children declared themselves independent.
In 11 meticulously researched chapters, authors of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, present compelling data about fugitives without respect for geographical boundaries. The authors, prominent historians and recipients of the Lincoln Prize for Runaway Slaves, make it abundantly clear that plantation slavery was not the idyllic homestead that historian Ulrich B. Phillips described in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Life and Labor in the Old South (1929). Had Phillips been closer to the mark, the estimated 50,000 runaways a year by 1860 would have remained “content” in their “place” and denied Franklin and Schweninger the cornucopia of information to undergird the first full-length study of runaway slaves in the United States.
Runaway Slaves is an intimate history of resistance by slaves who sought liberty from arduous labor, interference with their lives, cruel punishments and bondage. It is also a history of slave owners, “who no matter how diligent, punitive, or lenient; no matter how imaginative, ingenious, or attentive… remained unable to halt the stream of slaves that left their plantations and farms.”
Slaveholders failed to stop this massive outflow of freedom seekers who, for the most part, failed to liberate themselves permanently, yet neither slave owners nor slaves ever ceased trying. Why? Franklin and Schweninger provide answers by examining the slaves’ response to day-to-day routines, conditions of life and chances for freedom. On the obverse side, the authors examine the motives and reactions of owners who, ostensibly, did not understand why their slaves absconded.
There were jobs to be had and money to be made in hunting, housing and selling fugitives, whether symbolic or real. Free Blacks, without proper identification papers, and slaves found more than 20 miles away from their domiciles without written permission were considered fugitives. Any White person could detain and deliver fugitives to a justice of the peace and receive a reward for doing so.
Few readers of Runaway Slaves, especially chapters focusing upon the devastating breakup of families and the chilling hunt to retrieve runaways, will come away from the text with the idea that paternalism was alive and well. To be sure, there are a few scattered examples of negotiated exchanges between the owners and the owned, but the overwhelming evidence runs counter to the notion held by some historians that slaves belonged to and functioned placidly within symbiotic families headed by Whites. This finding, which is not unusual among some historians, requires a word about the resources used in this massive empirical study. Public notices about runaways, along with legal petitions served, are the dominant sources. The authors created a Runaway Slave Data Base (RSDB) containing more than 2,000 advertisements from five states between 1790-1816 and 1838-1860. The RSDB shows that the greater majority of runaways were young Black males between 13 and 29 years of age who were either unmarried or if married, had no children.
The RSDB makes it possible for Runaway Slaves to tell a different story from those found in published works by well-known fugitives including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Tubman. Rather than autobiographical accounts opening a window to illuminate slave culture and consciousness, Franklin and Schweninger concentrate upon the amorphous mass of fugitives and document their behavior through the systematic examination of runaway advertisements and broadsides.
The final page of Runaway Slaves is a poignant summarization of the quest for freedom from a slave’s point of view. In an 1840 letter from Canada, Joseph Taper, who had liberated himself and his
“Since I have been in the Queens dominions I have been well contented, Yes well contented for Sure, man is as God intended he should be. That is, all are born free & equal. This is a wholesome law, not like the Southern laws which puts [the Black] man . . . on [the] level with brutes.”
— Dr. Wilma King is the Strickland Professor of African American History and Culture at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
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