Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials

Frederick DOUGLASS   |   W. U. HENSEL

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Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials
Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials

"THE MOST VIOLENT EPISODE IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT": FIRST EDITION OF THE CHRISTIANA RIOT

(DOUGLASS, Frederick) HENSEL, W.U. The Christiana Riot and The Treason Trials of 1851. Prepared and Published for the Commemoration of these Events, September 9, 1911. Lancaster, PA: New Era Printing Company, 1911. Octavo, original pale red wrappers. Housed in a custom chemise and clamshell box. $1600.

First edition of Hensel's comprehensive report, including much newly documented information in print for the first time, detailing the famed 1861 Christiana riot and treason trials that challenged the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act when a slave owner was killed trying to seize fugitive slaves at the farm of an ex-slave and a crowd of mainly black neighbors fought to protect the fugitives, with Frederick Douglass hailing the uprising as "the battle for liberty at Christiana" and aiding the fugitives' escape to Canada. Published on the 50-year anniversary of Christiana with extensive new coverage of 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 trials that failed to convict any of the accused. With 12 full-page illustrations.

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—thirty-six 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). 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 authoritative work by William Uhler Hensel, a respected Pennsylvania attorney, publisher and state Attorney General, was commissioned by the Lancaster County Historical Society and issued to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Christiana and the treason trial. Hensel seeks 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, for the first time in print, 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," also in print for the first time. Featured are extensive sections titled, "The Treason Trials" and "Parker's Own Story." With frontispiece and eleven full-page illustrations. This copy is bound as the entirety of Papers Read Before the Lancaster Historical Society Vol. XV. No 8, which is on the front wrapper and first leaf; it is also found in offprint form, differing only in the front matter before the title page. See Blockson 2591; Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 95-102.

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