Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality

SLAVERY   |      |   James HAMLET   |   Lewis TAPPAN

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"A DISGRACE TO THE NATION, AN ACT OF EXTREME CRUELTY": FIRST EDITION OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE BILL: ITS HISTORY AND UNCONSTITUTIONALITY, 1850, DOCUMENTING ITS VIOLATIONS OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS AND SEIZURE OF JAMES HAMLET ONLY EIGHT DAYS AFTER ITS PASSAGE—"THE FIRST FUGITIVE SLAVE ARRESTED… UNDER THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT"

(HAMLET, James) (TAPPAN, Lewis). The Fugitive Slave Bill: Its History and Unconstitutionality: With an Account of the Seizure and Enslavement of James Hamlet, And His Subsequent Restoration to Liberty. New York: William Harned, 1850. Period-style half calf gilt, marbled boards; pp.(1-3), 4-36. $4200.

First edition of the 1850 law, issued soon after its passage, containing the “only printed record of Hamlet’s case,” documenting his arrest and trial, along with text of the bill, details of congressional votes, and coverage of a mass protest meeting of Black New Yorkers at the A.M.E. Zion Church, stating their resolve to meet force with force in defense of "our lives and liberty."

"James Hamlet was the first fugitive slave arrested and remanded under the Fugitive Slave Act of Sept. 18, 1850. He was seized just eight days after the law was passed… Hamlet claimed to be a free man because his mother had been free. His testimony was not allowed, however, under the act of 1850. After a brief hearing, he was returned to Baltimore… a subscription fund was quickly raised, and he was purchased from his master for $800. On October 5 Hamlet returned to New York where there was an integrated demonstration of four to five thousand people" (Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 85). The Fugitive Slave Act "is universally considered to be among the most unfair and illegitimate laws ever passed by Congress… [it] authorized private individuals to 'seize or arrest' alleged fugitives without any warrant or other judicial scrutiny" (Finkelman, Let It Be Placed Among the Abominations).To Frederick Douglass, it utterly "forged his political conscience… nothing had ever forced him to clarify his principles like the reality of the Fugitive Slave law." A month after its passage, he stood before a cheering crowd in Boston and "urged all Northern Blacks to be 'resolved rather to die than to go back.' If a slave catcher sought to take the slave back, shouted Douglass, he 'will be murdered in your streets'" (Blight, 241).

This seminal work "provides the only printed record of Hamlet's case. In most hearings before the fugitive slave commissioners there were no published accounts or opinions of the commissioners. Only through ephemeral materials, such as this pamphlet, can scholars find records of the cases of these summary proceedings… [it] contains a four-page discussion of the arrest, trial and rendition of Hamlet, followed by the text of the act, a 'Synopsis of the Bill,' an analysis of the voting on the law, and various speeches and protests against the law. The appendix contains the minutes and resolutions of a mass antislavery meeting… [and] a short statement on the 'Restoration of James Hamlet'" (Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 86). In his preface, Lewis Tappan declares the Act "a disgrace to the nation, an act of extreme cruelty." Tappan co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and was pivotal in the defense of Africans in the 1841 Amistad case. Both Tappan and his brother Arthur, leading white abolitionists, devoted much of their fortune and influence to fight slavery. At his death in 1873, he was hailed as "one of the pioneers in the movement for the abolition of slavery" (New York Times). Sabin 26125. Not in Blockson. Small institutional inkstamp above title page.

Text fine.

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