Case of Passmore Williamson

SLAVERY   |   Passmore WILLIAMSON   |   Arthur CANNON

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Item#: 125467 price:$2,200.00

Case of Passmore Williamson
Case of Passmore Williamson

"YOU ARE IN A FREE STATE, AND HAVE ONLY TO GO ASHORE TO BE FREE": VERY SCARCE FIRST EDITION OF CASE OF PASSMORE WILLIAMSON, 1856, A LANDMARK WORK THAT ASSERTED A "NEW CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT" CONCERNING FUGITIVE SLAVES AND SET THE STAGE FOR THE NEXT YEAR'S DRED SCOTT DECISION

(SLAVERY) WILLIAMSON, Passmore. Case of Passmore Williamson. Report of the Proceedings on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Issued by the Hon. John K. Kane, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, In the Case of the United States of America Ex. Rel. John H. Wheeler vs. Passmore Williamson, Including the Several Opinions Delivered; And The Arguments of Counsel, Reported by Arthur Cannon, Esq., Phonographer. Philadelphia: Uriah Hunt & Son, 1856. Octavo, modern half calf-gilt, marbled boards; pp. 191. $2200.

First edition of "the most complete record available" of the controversial Pennsylvania case on fugitive slaves, a core work establishing a precedent "in federal and state courts… and important cause célèbre for the antislavery movement," crucial in asserting a clear path for the following year's Dred Scott decision and provoking a "legal crisis… that led to the Civil War."

"During the fugitive slave controversy, the abolitionist underground kicked into high gear." This momentous shift was propelled by Federal District Judge John K. Kane in the Passmore Williamson case involving the rights of fugitive slave Jane Johnson. "In July 1855 Col. John H. Wheeler, the U.S. minister plenipotentiary designate to Nicaragua, traveled to Philadelphia with his slave Jane and her two sons." When she "managed to get word out of her desire for freedom," Black abolitionist William Still, famed for his 1872 work, Underground Railroad, heard of her plight and alerted white abolitionist Passmore Williamson. They arranged to meet at the Philadelphia wharf and Williamson, who arrived first, immediately told Jane "she was entitled to her freedom and released her from Wheeler's grasp." As she fled with her two sons, "a heated exchange and scuffle occurred between Still, Williamson and Wheeler, who was held down by two of the five Black dockworkers present" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 527-28).

This triggered a series of major court cases when Williamson was presented with a writ of habeas corpus by Judge Kane, and indictments were issued charging Williamson and the Black dockworkers for riot, assault and robbery for the theft of slave property in transit. Although Williamson stated Jane and her sons were never in his custody, Kane charged him with contempt and sentenced him to jail. As Frederick Douglass joined with others in attacking Kane's "tyrannical position" and Williamson petitioned for the contempt charge to be dropped, Jane, who adopted the surname of Johnson, played yet another key role. In an affidavit sworn in Massachusetts, she affirmed that she had never been in Williamson's custody, stating: "Nobody forced me away… I always wished to be free and meant to be free when I came North" (Sinha, 529).

Although Jane was likely considered free under Pennsylvania law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court "refused to interfere with Williamson's incarceration" after Judge Kane rejected Jane's affidavit (Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 40-41). In effect, Kane's defense of slave-owner rights "created a new constitutional right—'transit for property and person'—based on a Constitution written to 'establish a more perfect union.'" Williamson was imprisoned for nearly six months and became a martyr for the abolitionist cause, but "more important… was the precedent set in the federal and state courts by this case." Judge Kane's insistence "that Wheeler had a right to bring his slaves into Pennsylvania and capture them there if they escaped… despite state law explicitly prohibiting it," opened the way for the "high-water mark of this position… in the Dred Scott case (1857), a year after Kane's opinion" (Finkelman, Imperfect Union, 260-64; emphasis added). The case of Passmore Williamson and Jane Johnson was "an important cause célèbre for the antislavery movement… [an] example of—and contributor to—the legal crisis and the crisis in federalism that led to the Civil War" (Finkelman, Slavery, 41). First edition: recorded by court reporter Arthur Cannon: "contains the most complete record available of the proceedings before Judge Kane in the federal district court and the proceedings in this case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court… of particular interest is the dissent of Justice John C. Knox," which is not present in the Pennsylvania Reports. "In addition to the two published opinions of Judge Kane, it also includes Kane's opinions and remarks from various hearings not published in Federal Cases" (Finkelman, Slavery, 41-2). Blockson 2557. Cohen 13767. Dumond, 116. Small numerical marginal notation to first text leaf.

Text fresh with tiny gutter-edge pinholes from original stitching, occasional light toning. A very good copy.

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