In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, “whether permitted to live to witness the abolition of slavery or not, I felt assured that, as I demanded nothing that was not clearly in accordance with justice and humanity, some time or other, if remembered at all, I should stand vindicated in the eyes of my countrymen.”
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of a fateful compromise between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers. The law stipulated that “all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to the one who purchased or inherited them and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.” Therefore, in the year 1850, it was essentially illegal in the United States to provide aid to human beings escaping slavery, mutilation, branding, torture, extortion, rape, and other similar evils.
Today, in nations such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, human beings are fleeing in droves towards the relative safety and hope of the United States. Why are they risking everything to come here? According to the Council on Foreign Relations: “El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. El Salvador became the world’s most violent country not at war in 2015, when gang-related violence brought its homicide rate to 103 per hundred thousand….all three countries have significantly higher homicide rates than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama…Extortion is also rampant. A 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper La Prensa found that Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million, $200 million, and $61 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. Extortionists primarily target public transportation operators, small businesses, and residents of poor neighborhoods… attacks on people who do not pay contribute to the violence.”
The CFR goes on to state: “Migrants from all three countries cite violence, forced gang recruitment, and extortion, as well as poverty and lack of opportunity, as their reasons for leaving.” As many as 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are now living in the United States, more than double the estimated 1.5 million people in 2000. About 55 percent of them are undocumented.
As someone who appreciates United States history-and the Civil War in particular- it has always struck me how little is remembered about the slave kidnappers, plantation owners, Fugitive Slave Law enforcers, and politicians who endorsed pro- slavery legislation. For example, the memory of slave hunter Patty Cannon and her merciless gang has been nearly forgotten. John Breckinridge (1821-1875), Vice President of the U.S. and Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America is virtually unknown outside a few places in the south. Stephen Duncan (1787-1867), a doctor from Pennsylvania who became the wealthiest Southern cotton planter before the Civil War, with 14 plantations, and a founder of the Mississippi Colonization Society, would be lucky to have a street named after him in his hometown. Edwin Epps, 10 year owner of Solomon Northrup, author of “Twelve Years a Slave,” is a villain that time has all but erased. (Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis would serve as notable counterexamples. But how soon will their names also be lost to future generations that have no attachment to zealotry, militarism, and white supremacy?)
Compare this ignoble list to the most legendary abolitionists of the era; names such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Abraham Lincoln, William Loyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. These were all exceptional individuals who made a decision to willingly break the law. How has history appraised their actions? Have they not become moral giants? They are the ones whom our children learn about in school when they are discovering what it means to be conscientious, rational, and compassionate members of the human race.
It is true, today’s immigration and migrant abolitionists may sometimes find themselves needing to break prejudiced and capricious laws; but history, as with the great freedom fighters of the 19th century, will reward and sanction those who stood on the right side of justice.
George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor of philosophy He lives and works in Rochester, NY.