The Law That Saved Solomon Northup, And Others

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12 years a slaveThe amazing, and fortuitous, rescue of Solomon Northup was made possible by a New York statute that was signed into law, and became effective, on May 14, 1840.

Following the 1808 ban on importation of slaves into the U.S., enacted by Congress, the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves became a larger problem. The ban reduced the “supply” of slaves, and with “demand” unchanged, prices rose, along with the potential profit for kidnappers. In 1817, in a description of a kidnapping case, the City Hall Recorder noted that, after 1808: “the practice of kidnapping was commenced, and has been carried to an alarming height.”

New York State had a law, dating back in 1813, which made it a crime to “forcibly confine or inveigle or kidnap” a free person of color. In 1817, a law called “an act concerning slaves and servants” made a change such that it was illegal to kidnap any person of color, not just those who were free. (Kidnapping, it seems, was not restricted to free blacks, but also was perpetrated on slaves.) The new law also reduced the maximum punishment for kidnapping, from fourteen years to ten.

birdseye_clippedDespite the (still) harsh penalty called for, kidnappers continued to operate. On February 12, 1840, the Assembly received a petition “of citizens of this State” which called for “the passage of a law authorising [sic] the Governor to send for persons kidnapped and sold as slaves, at the expense of the State.” The petition was referred to a select committee, headed by Assemblyman Victory Birdseye, for consideration.

Birdseye (whose unusual first name was a family tradition arising from an incident when a clergyman, distracted by shouts of “victory, victory” announcing the capture of Quebec during the French and Indian War, inadvertently used that word when baptizing a child) was a lawyer and politician from Pompey, New York. His committee went to work, and, on May 2, 1840, newspapers announced that, in the Assembly, “Mr. Birdseye presented a long written report from a select committee to which was referred petitions for a provision by law for the rescue and return…of such persons as may be kidnapped and sold into slavery.” (The report, available online via Cornell’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery collection, is not all that long: seven pages.)

The report was referred to another select committee after a short debate (a Mr. Brower had made an objection, but the committee referral was made, by a vote of 45 to 34). The report (Assembly Report No. 341, dated May 1, 1840) noted that the petitioners claimed that due to “the high prices which have of late prevailed in the southern States for slaves,” that “many free coloured persons have been kidnapped and carried away from this State and sold into slavery in the South, and are now held in slavery.” The petition cited no particular cases of New Yorkers being kidnapped, though the committee’s investigation did identify several such victims: “the information they [the committee] have received have satisfied them that such cases have occurred.”

Cases of kidnapping were of concern to all citizens of the state, because “free coloured citizens…occupy places and discharge duties, important to the interests and essential to the comfort and convenience of society.” Any laws that “invite, tolerate or acquiesce in oppressions” of free blacks impacted everyone.

The committee noted that state law provided for “sending a special agent at the expense of the State” to bring back fugitives from justice, “but we make no such provision for the rescue and return of the unfortunate person on whom this crime has been inflicted.”

Using language eerily prophetic of what would befall Solomon Northup less than a year later, the committee noted that victims: “brought under the dominion of persons accustomed to the unscrupulous exercise of the most arbitrary means to subdue persons in their condition, …are scourged and otherwise punished, until they are deterred from disclosing their claims to freedom, then transferred to the slave markets of the south, cut off from all means of communicating with friends, and reduced to a life of degrading and hopeless bondage.”

A victim could not rely on southern laws to effect his release. “A person held as a slave, and claiming to be free, can only recover his freedom by law, through a difficult and expensive course of legal proceeding….A suit for his freedom can only be brought by some white man, who shall sue as his guardian or next friend.” Even then, the laws “afford him only a precarious chance for escape.”

Birdseye, et al. proposed legislation that they hoped would “meet with the favorable consideration of all sides of the house.” The very title of their bill “An act more effectually [emphasis added] to protect the free citizens of this State from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery” implied that the existing law against kidnapping had proven ineffective.

The bill’s language (which was included in an appendix to Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave) provided that, once the Governor had received information convincing him that a New York citizen was being held as a slave in another state or a U.S. territory, it was his duty to “take such measures as he shall deem necessary to procure such person to be restored to his liberty and returned to this State.” The Governor could appoint agents for accomplishing this and was to “furnish the said agent with such credentials and instructions.” Agents were to “collect the proper proof to establish the right of such person to his freedom, and shall perform such journeys, take such measures, institute and procure to be prosecuted such legal proceedings…as shall be necessary to procure such person to be restored to his liberty and returned.” (In Northup’s case, the impressive paperwork gathered by his agent of rescue, Henry B. Northup, is included at the back of his narrative.)

The bill, which was read for the third time during an evening session of the Assembly on May 12, was not without opposition. On the floor the next day, two members spoke against it, but when the question was called, it passed 57 to 48. The bill proceeded to the State Senate, where it was reported for the consideration of the Senate on May 14, and was passed that same day.

seward_youngIt was then delivered by the Whig-controlled legislature to Governor William H. Seward, who signed it immediately. It became effective at once, after the certification by Secretary of State, John C Spencer, that the Governor had approved it. The new law was one of the accomplishments the Whigs boasted of in a message addressed to the people of New York later that month.

Though it became law in 1840, no examples of it being used prior to 1852 have surfaced. That is when Henry B. Northup obtained the approval of Governor Washington Hunt to proceed to Louisiana and find Solomon Northup. His mission was, of course, successful. Among those who were pleased, we may count Victory Birdseye (the “founder of the feast,” so to speak), who died about eight months after the rescue. “Never did his benevolent countenance beam with a higher joy–never did words escape his lips that partook so much of self-gratulation,” said an obituary, “as when…he learnt that, in virtue of that law, Mr. Solomon Northrup had been brought back to freedom and his family.”

Northup was not the only kidnap victim saved by the agent law. It was employed several times in the late 1850s (for, despite the publicity received by Northup’s case, kidnapping had marched on). Though their periods of enslavement were not as long as the twelve years endured by Northup, the rescued citizens were no doubt just as appreciative of Birdseye’s service to humanity.

Illustrations: Above, a historical marker remembering Solomon Northup’s kidnapping in Saratoga Springs; middle, a portrait of NYS Assemblyman Victory Birdseye (courtesy Birdseye descendant Nina Winston); and below, NYS Governor William H. Seward.



2 thoughts on “The Law That Saved Solomon Northup, And Others

  1. jAMES s. kAPLAN

    Excellent article. Fascinating. If they only knew their efforts would result in an academy award winning film more than 150 years later..

  2. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #49: History Funds, Fun, & Writing Tips - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart

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