As a teacher, the Black convention movement in the 1850s has helped me to broaden my story of the origins of the Civil War, especially the pitfalls to avoid when it comes to focusing too heavily on the controversy over slavery in the territories. The demand of antislavery activists for accused fugitives to be guaranteed a jury trial was an implicit recognition of Black citizenship. In addition, delegates to Black conventions throughout the decade pushed for more than mere due process rights in the face of attempts to enforce southern law in northern states. Just as there was a militant obstruction of the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law on northern soil, Black leaders were militant in their call for fuller measures of equality. They helped to develop the concept of birthright citizenship, a later hallmark of the Fourteenth Amendment, and passionately promoted the understanding that African Americans had a fundamental right to the equal protection of their natural rights by the government. There was nothing the white South feared more.
My students and I benefitted greatly from engaging with historian Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021). It is a must read for any teacher trying to bring the long history of civil rights into the classroom. Masur’s chapters on Ohio worked well in the classroom in conjunction with documents from Black conventions in the 1850s in Ohio that can be found on the Colored Conventions Project website. With my students I focused on the following gathering of Black abolitionists: 1849 Columbus, 1850 Columbus, 1851 Columbus, 1852 Cincinnati, and 1858 Cincinnati.
Selections from Manisha Sinha’s comprehensive account of the abolitionist movement, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), provided much needed context for the students. I learned a great deal from legal scholar James W. Fox’s superb lengthy article, “The Constitution of Black Abolitionism.” Fox’s underappreciated scholarship fills a large hole in the discussion of antislavery constitutionalism. Historian H. Robert Baker’s article, “The Fugitive Slave Clause and the Antebellum Constitution,” Law and History Review 30 (no. 4, 2012) helped my students understand the operation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Paul Finkelman’s article, “The Strange Career of Race Discrimination in Antebellum Ohio,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 55 (no. 2, 2004) was very helpful. See also Paul Finkelman, “Prelude to the Fourteenth Amendment: Black Legal Rights in the Antebellum North,” Rutgers Law Review 17 (no. 1, 1985-1986).
Eric Foner’s Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), provided my students with an engaging overview of clandestine efforts in the antebellum period to escape from slavery. Selections from R. J. M. Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), Steven Lubet’s Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), and H. Robert Baker’s The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006) were also utilized.
In preparing to teach the class over the summer, I benefited from reading Van Gosse’s The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), along with Christopher James Bonner’s, Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). For a number of years now, James Oakes’ scholarship has informed my thinking about a host of topics, including issues of race and citizenship, antislavery politics, and the antislavery constitutionalism. Teachers should read Oakes’ The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021) along with The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). Oakes’ groundbreaking scholarship builds upon arguments first introduced by William Wiecek in his classic work, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760–1848 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).
This article originally appeared in March 2023.
Erik J. Chaput, Ph.D., teaches at Western Reserve Academy in Ohio and in the School of Continuing Education at Providence College. He received his doctorate in early American History from Syracuse University. He is the author of The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (2013) and has edited multiple letter collections with historian Russell J. DeSimone on the Dorr Rebellion Project website. This is his fourth teaching article for Commonplace. His previous articles, including a piece on the 1864 Black Convention in Syracuse, can be found in the archive section.