The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851_ An Historical Sketch
THE CHRISTIANA RIOT
THE TREASON TRIALS
AN HISTORICAL SKETCH
W. U. HENSEL
Prepared and Published for the Commemoration
of these Events, September 9, 1911
The New Era Printing Company
The preparation of this sketch and contribution to ourlocal history had been long contemplated by the Editor andCompiler. Born near the locality where the events occurredwhich are its subject, he has been for more than half a centuryintimately related with their associations. He has regardfor the integrity of motive which alike animated bothparties to the conflict. It was a miniature of the greatstruggle of opposing ideas that culminated in the shock ofCivil War, and was only settled by that stern arbiter. Herejoices that what seemed to be an irrepressible conflict betweenLaw and Liberty at last ended in Peace. To help toperpetuate that condition between long-estranged neighborsand kin, this offering is made to the work of the LancasterCounty Historical Society.
While it has been written and published for that Society,no responsibility for anything it contains or for its promulgationattaches to any one except the author. Where opinionsare expressed—and they have been generally avoided asfar as possible in disputed matters—he alone is responsible.Where facts are stated, except upon authority expresslynamed, he accepts the risk of refutation. In all cases he hastried to ascertain and to tell the exact truth. He worked inno other spirit and for no other purpose; and wherein he hasfailed his is all the blame.
W. U. H.
August 12, 1911.
THE CHRISTIANA RIOT.
I propose to write the history of the so-called “ChristianaRiot” and “Treason Trials” of 1851, as they occurred—withoutpartiality, prejudice or apology, for or against anyof those who participated in them. As is inevitable in allsuch collisions, there were, on either side of the bordertroubles of that period, men of high principle and rightmotive and also rowdies and adventurers, disposed to resortto ruthless violence for purposes of sordid gain. There wereslave-masters who sincerely believed in the righteousness ofan institution of ancient origin, while even the more sagaciousof their class recognized it as at variance with thedivine law and the trend of Christian civilization, and inevitablydoomed to extinction. There were on this side ofthe line many who, believing themselves humanitarians, weremere mischievous agitators, lawless in deed and treasonablein design, reckless of those rights of property which are assacred in regard of the law as the rights of man. There were,too, in the North wicked slave catchers and kidnappers whosebrutalities aroused the just resentment of the communitiesin which they operated, even when they kept within thelimits of strict and technical legal rights.
It was of course impossible, as Mr. Lincoln pointed out,for the republic to endure forever half slave and half free—torun a geographical marker through a great and complicatedmoral, economic and political issue—especially in[Pg 2]view of the far flung border line and the rapidly increasingdevelopment of communication and transmission.
If, however, all the great statesmen, economists andchurchmen who had struggled with the slavery questionsince the formation of the Union were unable to solve it,without the awful carnage of a tremendous and long lastingcivil war, can it be the cause of special wonder that a handfulof Marylanders in lawful search of their escaped property,and a larger group of free and fugitive negroes, withthe “embattled farmers” who sympathized with them,should have made the hills of this peaceful Chester Valleyecho with gun shots and stained its soil with blood, whenMan and Master met in final and fatal contest for what eachhad been taught was his right?
Numerous attempts have been made to publish reports ofthis incident which would serve the purposes of permanenthistory; and, while they have all been helpful, none has beencomplete. On his return to Maryland after his failure toconvict Hanway and the others of treason, Attorney GeneralRobert J. Brent, of Maryland, made an elaborate officialreport to Governor E. Louis Lowe, who in turn submittedit, with extended comments of his own, to the General Assemblyof Maryland, January 7, 1852. From the standpointof the lawyer and the chief executive of a slave state,both are able deliverances. Aroused by their version of theaffair, and especially by their comments on the treason trial,and impatient over the delay in publishing the official reportof it, W. Arthur Jackson, junior counsel for the defendant,printed a pamphlet review of it, which shows much ability,has great value and has become very rare. The official phonographicreport of the trial, by James J. Robbins, of thePhiladelphia bar (King & Baird, 1852), is of course acopious fountain of exact information—as well as an interestingexhibit of the “reportorial” efficiency of that day.From all of these I have felt at liberty to draw largely.
[Pg 3]“A True Story of the Christiana Riot,” by David R.Forbes, 1898, tinged with sectional prejudice, has muchmatter that was well worthy of preservation, and the newfacts it contains, if verified, I have freely used. All of thegeneral political histories of the period refer to the Christianatragedy as having significance in the intense agitationof the issue raised by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Fred.Douglass’ stories of his life and time; William Still’s“Underground Railroad,” and Dr. R. C. Smedley’s “Historyof the Underground Railroad” have also been subjectsof my levy for aid. To them, however, have been addedthe personal reminiscences of Dr. J. W. Houston, ThomasWhitson, Esq., Ambrose Pownall, Charles Dingee, GilbertBushong, Peter Woods, William P. Brinton, Cyrus Brintonand many other residents of the neighborhood in which theriot occurred and from which the prisoners in the trials forlife were taken. Access has been had to the diaries andfamily records of the Pownall, Hanway, Lewis and Gorsuchfamilies; and many other original sources of information,including the local and metropolitan newspapers of that day,whose enterprise and impartiality were somewhat variable.Some of them published full reports of the trial.
For the first time, however, I think, the subject has beenstudied with some care and consideration for the facts asdisclosed and from the point of view occupied at the home ofthe Gorsuches. The family of Dr. F. G. Mitchell, whosewife is a daughter of Dickinson Gorsuch, and who now ownsthe property then of her grandfather, Edward Gorsuch,from which the slaves fled, have been especially gracious andhelpful, withal fair and generous in their attitude toward anevent which brought brutal death to one ancestor and longsuffering to another.
J. Wesley Knight, long resident of the neighborhood ofMonkton and Glencoe, Maryland, and who was under theroof of the Gorsuch homestead when the slaves escaped, has[Pg 4]given me much accurate information as to their previouscondition of servitude.
If their contribution to the history of the encounter andthe events preceding it presents the relation of the Southernersto it in a far more favorable light than has hithertoattended its narration, no fair-minded student of history canobject to the whole truth, even at this late day. That the Gorsuchrunaways were not heroic and scarcely even picturesquecharacters; and that their owners were humane andChristian people, and not the brutal slave traders and crueltaskmasters who figured in much of the anti-slavery fiction,can no longer be doubted. But if the Lancaster CountyHistorical Society exists for any purpose it is illustrated inits apt motto: “History herself as seen in her own workshop.”Every such shop must show some chips and filings;and occasionally the more these abound the better will bethe craftsman’s product. I cannot hope—and I certainlydo not desire—this should be the “last word” about the“Christiana Riot”; but the occasion of its Sixtieth Anniversaryand the Commemoration seemed to call for a historicalreview up to date; and the story of its few survivorshad to be caught before it was lost.
It may be confidently predicted that when our long-looked-forlocal Stronghand in imaginative literature shall seek fora theme near at home, he will find it in the dramatic storyof the “Christiana Riot”; or when some gifted LancasterCounty Son of Song shall arise and strike the tremblingharp strings, the scene of his epic will follow the windingOctoraro and lie along the track of the Fugitive Slave.
The Law of the Land.
The Early Compromises of the Constitution—Pennsylvania’s MoveToward Abolition—The Act of 1826—The Prigg Case—BorderTroubles—The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—Wrongs of EscapedSlaves and Rights of Their Owners.
It is entirely unnecessary for the purposes of this particularstory to enlarge upon, or to review at length, the longdebate, the innumerable compromises, the many makeshiftsand the unending controversies which attended the discussionof the slavery question from the agitation and adoptionof the Federal Constitution to the enactment of the FugitiveSlave Law of 1850—and which then left it utterly unsettled.It is, however, important that a few plain landmarks of thelaw be kept in sight to guide one who would fitly study thegeneral history of the times and fairly estimate the significanceof the local events to be narrated.
The Union of the States was only effected by the adoptionof Art. IV; the general purpose of which was to require eachState to give full faith and credit to the public acts andrecords of other States. The exact language of its section3 was:
“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, underthe Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequenceof any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged fromsuch Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claimof the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
No union could have been effected without this agreement.Whether that federation was a contract from which anyparty to it could retire, for a violation of it by other partiesthereto, need not be discussed here. The affirmative of that[Pg 6]proposition was not the creed of any particular party orsection. It was originally maintained by New EnglandFederalists; it was later defended by Southern Democrats;it was at last decided adversely in battle and by the sword.While there is now general acquiescence in the result, thefinal decision was not the prevailing doctrine of the peopleof the United States in 1851.
Under the Constitution the Right to Reclaim the fugitiveslave was no more unmistakable than the Duty to Returnhim. The Law of the Land gave to each State the right toregulate its own domestic institutions; and that right wasexpressly recognized and guaranteed even by the Republicanparty and by Abraham Lincoln long after the outbreak ofthe Civil War. The slavery questions upon which politicalparties differed up to 1851 were not disputes as to the rightsof slave owners and slaves in Slave States; nor as to therights of slave owners against their escaped slaves in FreeStates, but as to the extension of slavery and the status ofthe institution in the National territories.
The prevailing popular misapprehension on this subjectmay be easily pardoned when it is observed that so eminentan authority as Oswald Garrison Villard, in his recent excellentbiography of John Brown, says the Fugitive Slave Lawof 1850 “made legal in the North the rendition of negroeswho had found their way to Free States.” That propositionwas recognized by all political parties from 1793 to 1863.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was passed in strict conformitywith the Constitution of the United States; and itimpressed upon the executive authorities of the several Statesthe duty of arrest, and upon their magistrates the obligationto hear and commit the fugitives for return. That actwas generally recognized as just in its essence and object.As late as 1850 even the Free Soil party assented to thelegal principle it involved. In execution, however, its processeswere greatly abused; unlawful seizures, unwarranted[Pg 7]reclamations and ruthless kidnappings were common occurrencesin the lower parts of the Border States along the lineof Slavery and Freedom. Pennsylvania, after respectfulhearing of the Maryland Commissioners and due considerationfor their suggestions, enacted the Act of 1826, whichmade the State Courts the arbiters of claims to fugitives;forbade