On September 11, 1851, an organized group near the small town of Christiana, PA, successfully fended off an effort by a Maryland slave owner to capture freedom seekers, killing the slaver in the process. The event, known as the Christiana Resistance or Riot, sparked a political firestorm that drew in Thaddeus Stevens.
The event had its origins a year earlier when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the worst laws ever enacted in the United States. The law made it so easy to capture fugitive slaves that it spurred a reverse Underground Railroad and Black people lived in fear of being kidnapped. This caused the formation of self-protection groups like the one in Christiana, PA, created by William Parker.
Thaddeus Stevens, who was in Congress in 1850, was fiercely opposed to the law, particularly the part requiring bystanders to assist slave owners. “This is asking more than my constituents will ever grant,” Stevens said. “The slaveholder may pursue his slave among them with his own foreign myrmidons [minions], unmolested, except by their frowning scorn. But no law that tyranny can pass will ever induce them to join the hue and cry after the trembling wretch who has escaped from unjust bondage.”
Stevens’s appeal did not prevent the law from being passed, but many northern congressmen were so embarrassed by the bill that they were absent during the final vote. This prompted Stevens to quip that the speaker of the House should “send a page to notify northern members the Fugitive Slave bill has been disposed of and they may now come back into the hall.”
His comments about his constituents’ reaction to the law proved to be prophetic. The four freedom seekers arrived at the Parker house in Christiana with the slaveholder Edward Gorsuch and his posse in hot pursuit. After the invaders were repulsed in the early morning hours, Parker’s wife blew a horn, and dozens of neighbors came running to their aid, including three Quakers.
Gorsuch tried to recruit the white Quakers, who refused to help him. Even though the situation was looking dire, Gorsuch would not retreat. “My property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell,” he said, and he got his wish. Gorsuch was shot and killed, and his son was wounded. Parker and others fled to Canada.
The federal government’s reaction was swift and severe. Thirty-eight Blacks were arrested along with the three Quakers and charged with treason. Ironically, the trial was held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in November 1851.
Stevens was one of the lawyers defending the accused, and from the start, he mocked the case against them. “Three harmless, non-resistance Quakers and eight-and-thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes, armed with corn-cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms, and mounted on a sorrel hag, levied war against the United States,” Stevens said. “Blessed be God that our union has survived the shock.”
All the defendants were acquitted because, as Stevens said, they were not engaged in treason, that is, making war against the United States. While it was a great victory for Stevens, it seemingly doomed his political career with the local Whig party refusing to nominate him for a third term as congressman.
But by the mid-1850s, Stevens was back in the political fray, helping to organize the new Republican party in Pennsylvania. He was then returned to Congress in 1859 and went on to be the most powerful congressman during and after the Civil War, helping to destroy slavery and becoming the father of the 14th Amendment, the single most important amendment to the Constitution requiring equal treatment under the law and extending civil liberties to the state level.
More information about Thaddeus Stevens, the Great Commoner, can be found at the Thaddeus Stevens Society’s website: https://www.thaddeusstevenssociety.com/
Ross Hetrick is president and founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. Hetrick was a business reporter for 18 years in Baltimore and owned Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg from 1996 to 2004.