Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Be Ready to Receive Them

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of a compromise designed to maintain the Union. In the end, it turned out to be one of Congress's most controversial acts and helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement. Part of what made it so abhorrent to abolitionists was that it made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves even in free states. Federal marshals were required arrest runaway slaves and those who aided them.

This undated, unsigned broadside in our collection hammers home the response in many communities. Posted as a warning to fugitive slaves, it informed the community of a slave hunter in the area. The rhetoric pits good against evil: "the slave-hunter is among us." The definite article "the" assigned the whole of the slave hunter's identity to his task--and he is "among us," suggesting an evil infiltration into the community.

But it is the last sentence that is the most chilling: "Be ready to receive them, whenever they come!" Who is "them?" The slave hunters or the fugitive slaves? And how exactly should they be received, with open arms or well armed? It could be read either way, and no doubt, the community members read it as they wished. Some would have seen this as a call to arms, others readied their basements to hide runaway slaves.

Come in and see for yourself by asking for Broadside 000294.

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