Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials

Frederick DOUGLASS   |   W. U. HENSEL

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"THE FIRST GENUINE BATTLE FOR FREEDOM SINCE THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION HAD FAILED TO RID THE COUNTRY OF SLAVERY"

(DOUGLASS, Frederick) HENSEL, W.U. The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851. An Historical Sketch. Lancaster, PA: New Era, 1911. Tall octavo (8-1/2 by 11-1/4 inches), original ivory cloth, original printed paper spine label, uncut. $900.

First revised edition, second overall, issued same year as the first commemorative report published on the 60-year anniversary of the notorious 1851 fugitive slave uprising in Christiana—"the most violent episode in the struggle against the Fugitive Slave Act"—with Frederick Douglass hailing the uprising as "the battle for liberty at Christiana" and aiding the fugitives' escape to Canada, featuring extensive reportage on the uprising, the indictments of 35 blacks and five whites—"the largest number of treason indictments in U.S. history (as of 1984) for a single incident or crime"—and ultimately the treason trial that failed to convict any of the accused.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, passed only five years after Frederick Douglass' first autobiography, placed him in renewed and immediate peril despite documentation of his freedom. "Nothing had ever forced him to clarify his principles like the reality of the Fugitive Slave Law." He stood before a Boston crowd and urged "all Northern blacks to be 'resolved to die rather than go back.' If a slave catcher sought to take the slave back, shouted Douglass, he 'will be murdered in your streets.'" Douglass soon "got his own opportunity to directly aid fugitives escaping after violent resistance" following the infamous September 11, 1851 Christiana riot. On that day Gorsuch, a Maryland slave owner, went to the Pennsylvania farm of Parker, a former slave, to seize a group of fugitive slaves. Gorsuch and an armed group that included a U.S. Deputy Marshal were met by Parker and a crowd of neighboring blacks and a few whites who stood ready to defend the runaways. In the violent skirmish Gorsuch was killed. Parker, who knew "of Douglass' work in helping fugitives into Canada, quickly led two of the desperate slaves, named Pinckney and Johnson, on a two-day, 500-mile journey" to Douglass in western New York. There he quickly helped the three men cross to Canada. Douglass would recall: "'I received from Parker the revolver that fell from the hand of Gorsuch when he died… a memento of the battle for liberty at Christiana'… That gun remained a sacred talisman in the Douglass family" (Blight, Frederick Douglass, 241-44).

By year's end 41 men—36 blacks and five whites involved in the Christiana uprising—were indicted in Pennsylvania for treason: "a function of President Fillmore's desire to punish those who challenged the federal law." But when the first person to be tried, a white man, was found innocent, the remaining indictments were dropped. "These 41 indictments represent the largest number of treason indictments in U.S. history (as of 1984) for a single incident or crime. The Christiana riot itself was the most violent episode in the struggle against the Fugitive Slave Act" (Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 98). "It was the first genuine battle for freedom since the American Revolution had failed to rid the country of slavery" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 512).

Christiana "showed that African American men and women could organize themselves to actively resist any attempts to kidnap fugitive slaves or disturb their communities" (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia). This first revised edition, stated "second and revised edition" on the title page, was authored by William Uhler Hensel, a respected Pennsylvania attorney, publisher and state Attorney General. It was commissioned by the Lancaster County Historical Society and issued the same year as the first commemorative edition of the 60-year anniversary of Christiana and treason trial. Hensel presents an even-handed microcosm of "the great struggle of opposing ideas that culminated in the shock of the Civil War." He draws on official trial reports, as well as contemporary accounts "tinged with sectional prejudice" or flawed in their compliance with the Maryland Attorney General's Office. He also includes extensive "personal reminiscences" of key figures and neighbors of Parker. In addition, he draws on diaries, family records, interviews with descendants of Gorsuch, "and many other original sources of information." This extensively revised edition containing over 25 pages more than the first, with five more illustrations. As issued without dust jacket. See Blockson 2591; Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 95-102; Finkelman, "Treason Trial of Castner Hanway" in Belknap, ed. American Political Trials, 77-95; Sinha, Slave's Cause, 509-513.

Interior fine with only faint soiling to original cloth. A scarce about-fine copy.

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