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Citizens Take a Stand

Racine County War Meeting Announcement

Racine County War Meeting Announcement

Notwithstanding the dangers involved, the names are known of 3200 persons in the North and East who were engaged in this work, among whom are listed the following from Racine County:

James O. Bartlett, William L. Utley, A.P. Dutton, William H. Waterman, S.B. Peck, George S. Wright, Charles Bunce, Elder Fitch, General Reed, Dr. Secor, Dr. E.G. Dyer of Burlington, Captain Steele and Mr. Peffer and there are certainly others.

These men are known as those who could be trusted with information concerning the operation of the “road,” and who could be depended upon to do all in their power to help along a fugitive slave. Few people knew at the time they were so engaged…. Their names now constitute a roll of honor for their children an for the city and county of Racine.”

Racine County Militant, E.W. Leach, 1915

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

In an attempt to keep peace in the Union, a group of laws referred to as the Compromise of 1850 was adopted by Congress. Out of all the bills in the Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial:

  • Requiring citizens to assist in the return and capture of fugitive slaves
  • Denying a fugitive’s right to a trial by jury
  • Jailing or fining those involved in helping a fugitive

Former slaves who had been settled in the north had to make the hard decision whether to stay in the Union or flee to Canada. This law was referred to as “the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population” by Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive living in New York. This Act further angered the abolitionists in our area, as witnessed by the calling of a State Convention in 1851 to address the matter.

In Racine County, resistance against the law came to a head with the arrest of Joshua Glover in 1854. The resolution below stating that the “fugitive slave law can not be enforced in Wisconsin” and the legal fallout from the Glover rescue brought national attention to Wisconsin, making it the only state to legally refuse to recognize this law. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner recognizing Wisconsin’s stand wrote, “God grant that Wisconsin may not fail to protect her own rights and the rights of her citizens in the exigency now before her.” (The Court and the Constitution, Archibald Cox, 1987)

“…the people have calmly and resolutely shown that the damning act of human perfidy and wickedness, the fugitive slave law, is not the law of Wisconsin—that a higher and better rule of conduct governs us here…. The fugitive slave law can not be enforced in Wisconsin…. The people will not suffer it; they understand too well that charter of rights which is the birthright of every man, whatever be the color of his skin”

Daily Morning Advocate, March 13, 1854