in , ,

White mobs rioted in Washington in 1848 to defend slaveholders’ rights after 76 Black enslaved people staged an unsuccessful mass escape on a boat

The summer of 2020 was not the first time America saw protests and violence over the treatment of African Americans.

4 Paragraphs From An 1848 Newspaper Account Of The Capture Of The Pearl.
An account on April 19, 1848, of the Pearl’s capture appearing in The Daily Union newspaper of Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress

Long before the demonstrations over Black Lives Matter, long before the marches of the civil rights era, strife over racism convulsed the nation’s capital. But those riots in Washington, D.C., were led by proslavery mobs.

In the spring of 1848, conspirators orchestrated one of the largest escapes from slavery in U.S. history. In doing so, they sparked a crisis that entangled advocates for slavery’s abolition, white supremacists, the press and even the president.

Daniel Bell, a free Black man in Washington, wanted to liberate his enslaved wife, children and grandchildren. Citing a promise of freedom from their onetime owner, he tried but failed to do so through the courts. So he started planning an escape. A lawyer he consulted knew of others eager to flee lives of bondage. He and Bell decided to help them all.

They approached Daniel Drayton. A sea captain, he had carried small groups of fugitives to freedom. For $100, he agreed to hire a ship for this larger scheme. Drayton, in turn, paid $100 to fellow captain Edward Sayres to charter his schooner, the Pearl.

On the night of April 15, the Pearl left Washington. Seventy-six Black men, women and children, having quietly left area farms, hid beneath the deck. Drayton and Sayres steered the ship down the Potomac River. They were bound for Philadelphia, where slavery was illegal.

The fugitives did not get far. Owners soon noticed their absence and formed a posse to find them. The posse, aboard a steamboat, overtook and commandeered the Pearl as it entered Chesapeake Bay on April 17. The next day, the fugitives and their white abettors were marched through Washington and thrown in the city jail.

Riots in the capital

Furious at the conspirators’ challenge to the social order, Washington’s white population wanted to punish someone. With Drayton and Sayres awaiting trial behind bars, white supremacists turned against the abolitionist press.

Opponents of slavery published several newspapers promoting their cause. In Washington, Gamaliel Bailey Jr. had founded the National Era in 1847. Bailey and his paper opposed escape attempts but supported ending the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.

The nights of April 18 and 19, thousands gathered outside the National Era’s offices. They gave speeches and spread a false rumor about journalists’ involvement in the Pearl escape. The protesters’ leaders reportedly included U.S. government clerks.

Soon the protesters turned violent. They threw rocks at the building the first night and intended to destroy it the second. Both nights, though, they dispersed when confronted by local police.

Gamaliel Bailey, Whose Newspaper Offices In Washington, D.c., Were Attacked By Proslavery Mobs.
Abolitionist newspaper publisher Gamaliel Bailey Jr., whose presses were attacked by proslavery mobs.
Mathew Brady, photographer/The Massachusetts Historical Society/Wikipedia

Presidential intervention

The crisis had begun with slavery. Of the more than 3 million Black Americans in 1848, nearly 90% were held in bondage. They lived and worked on Southern farms owned by the same white men who claimed them as property. Each year, thousands of them fled in search of freedom.

James K. Polk, the nation’s president, both defended slavery and enriched himself by it. He owned more than 50 workers on his Mississippi cotton plantation. While editing his letters, the final volume of them just published, I often read his complaints about escapes from there. Like other slave owners, he relied on relatives and paid agents to capture, return and physically punish the fugitives.

A Portrait Of President James K. Polk In Fancy Dress.
President James K. Polk, who helped calm the rioters.
N. Currier, lithograph/Library of Congress

After the Pearl escape, Polk shared the rioters’ belief in white supremacy and their indignation at resistance to enslavement. He also shared their hostility toward abolitionists and pro-reform newspapers, blaming those in his diary for the whole incident: “The outrage committed by stealing or seducing the slaves … had produced the excitement & the threatened violence on the abolition press.”

Yet, by April 20, the president was worried about the violence in Washington. Federal employees’ involvement especially troubled him. He ordered them to “abstain from participation in all scenes of riot or violence” and threatened those who disobeyed with prosecution.

Polk also directed the U.S. deputy marshal, Thomas Woodward, to cooperate with local law enforcement in suppressing the riots. As Polk told an adviser, he intended to “exercise every constitutional power … with which the President was cloathe’d” to restore peace.

It worked. When the mob reassembled at the National Era the night of the 20th, it was successfully countered by city and federal officers. About 200 rioters moved on to Bailey’s home, threatening to tar and feather him. But he managed to talk them down, even earning applause for his speech from the formerly hostile crowd.

The violence was over.

A Poster, Issued After The Pearl'S Capture, Warning Citizens Of Washington, D.c., Not To Riot.
Following the Pearl’s capture, this poster was made by the government of Washington, D.C., warning white citizens, who feared a slave revolt, not to riot or commit acts of violence.
Library of Congress/Wikipedia

Losers and winners

Captains Drayton and Sayres suffered for their efforts. Convicted of illegally transporting slaves, they remained incarcerated until President Millard Fillmore pardoned them in 1852.

Even worse off were the people they had helped escape. Abolitionists bought a very few their liberty, but nearly all returned to slavery. Many were sold farther south, more distant than ever from their dream of freedom.

The National Era, aside from broken windows, emerged unscathed. City and federal authorities, by ending the riots, had protected the press’s freedom to print unpopular views. The rioters, too, came out just fine. Not one was charged with a crime.

Polk, perhaps, benefited the most. He avoided major bloodshed on his watch and earned praise for cooperating with local police.

Yet he never questioned the rioters’ complaints or the racist society they defended.

[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]

Tags: #White #mobs #rioted #Washington #defend #slaveholders #rights #Black #enslaved #people #staged #unsuccessful #mass #escape #boat

Written by Michael David Cohen, Research Professor of Government, American University

This article by Michael David Cohen, Research Professor of Government, American University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

What do you think?

Avatar Of Open Access Legend

Written by Open Access

Content AuthorYears Of Membership

Comments

Leave a Reply

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings

Loading…

0
Sexuality And The Shifting Nature Of Remainer And Leaver Worldviews

Sexuality and the Shifting Nature of Remainer And Leaver Worldviews

File 20210319 19 1Ge35N0

Britain’s betting on buses – but how far will boosting services reduce carbon emissions?