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The Captive's Quest for Freedom
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Book description

This magisterial study, ten years in the making by one of the field's most distinguished historians, will be the first to explore the impact fugitive slaves had on the politics of the critical decade leading up to the Civil War. Through the close reading of diverse sources ranging from government documents to personal accounts, Richard J. M. Blackett traces the decisions of slaves to escape, the actions of those who assisted them, the many ways black communities responded to the capture of fugitive slaves, and how local laws either buttressed or undermined enforcement of the federal law. Every effort to enforce the law in northern communities produced levels of subversion that generated national debate so much so that, on the eve of secession, many in the South, looking back on the decade, could argue that the law had been effectively subverted by those individuals and states who assisted fleeing slaves.


'Ranging from the halls of Congress to slave and free black communities and from Missouri to New England, Richard J. M. Blackett has produced the most comprehensive account of the workings of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and opposition to it. The individual stories are compelling, the research impressive, and the insights about the variety of forms of resistance make this a major contribution to our understanding of the road to civil war.'

Eric Foner - Columbia University, New York and author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

I don’t use the word 'magisterial' lightly, but it is exactly the right description for Richard J. M. Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. There is no better, deeper, or more comprehensive discussion of the struggle of fugitive slaves in the antebellum era.'

Steven Lubet - author of Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial and The 'Colored Hero' of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery

'The Captive’s Quest for Freedom is the most important, thorough, and revealing study ever written of fugitive slaves in American history. The book is timely; it demonstrates in depth the nature and meaning of America's first great refugee crisis and the explosive politics that followed in its wake. May the whole of our reading public finally understand the significance of the Fugitive Slave Act in 'our history and our heritage'. It resonates still as a watch warning in our own time.'

David W. Blight - Yale University and author of the forthcoming Frederick Douglass: American Prophet

'Richard J. M. Blackett’s epic new history of the Fugitive Slave Law is both a brilliant analysis of the politics of disunion, and a compelling argument for the centrality of African American resistance to the great national unraveling of the 1850s. At the heart of the book, though, are the human beings whose decision to escape slavery prompted slaveholders to demand the Law in the first place, and whose determination to keep risking everything even after its passage pushed the United States towards a terrible and necessary reckoning.'

Nicholas Guyatt - University of Cambridge and author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation

'In most historical accounts, the 1850 [Fugitive Slave Law] provoked a wave of panic in free black communities across the North. Hundreds of African-Americans fled their homes for the safety of Canada. But Richard Blackett’s extraordinary new book, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, tells a more complicated story. … In these chapters political history gives way to social history as Blackett skillfully reconstructs dozens of stories of slaves escaping to the North. Some of these escapes and rescues are well known, but they take on renewed salience in Blackett’s account because of the wider setting he establishes. More impressive is the deep and meticulous research that has enabled him to piece together the remarkable stories of previously unknown cases.'

James Oakes Source: The New York Review of Books

'The Captive’s Quest for Freedom convincingly demonstrates how a small, vocal, determined and above all persistent group of people - including those at the bottom of the social, political and economic ladder - can, given the right set of circumstances, have an impact far beyond what their numbers or status may predict.'

Scott Hancock Source: Reviews in History

‘This remarkable book exemplifies the best work of a skilled, hard-working, and indefatigable historian who spent decades hunting down facts and stories, thinking them through, and weaving them into a powerful narrative.'

Paul Finkelman Source: The Journal of American History

‘… [The] Captive’s Quest is well worth our attention, bringing to light an enduring legacy of lawful racial exclusion and persecution and those who would flee and fight in resistance.’

Kathryn Benjamin Golden Source: The Journal of African American History

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  • 1 - The Fugitive Slave Law
    pp 3-41


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