Michigan and the Motivation for Abolition
During the mid-nineteenth century, Michigan was described as one of the “nation’s foremost antislavery centers (92, Rubenstein & Ziewacz). What earned Michigan this credential? A major cause of the abolitionist movement gaining and maintaining momentum in Michigan was the Underground Railroad. This secret transportation system, rather than physically using the railroad as a means for facilitating the escape of slaves, used “railroad jargon” to represent the different stops a fugitive slave would make, from their point of origin (usually Kentucky or Missouri), to their final destination. There were two main lines across the state, one being the Central Michigan Line and the second being the Southern Line (89, Rubenstein & Ziewacz).
Did the slave owners from whom the slaves had fled from, give up without a fight? Well, in many cases, the owners followed their fugitive slaves to Michigan in an attempt to retrieve them. An example that illustrates this, was Robert Cromwell who had escaped from his Missouri owner in 1840. For seven years, Cromwell had an established business as a barber in Flint and Detroit. His owner in coming to Michigan, bribed a Sheriff to bring Cromwell to a courthouse where he could recapture him. His plan backfired though, as the District Judge, a noted abolitionist, refused the demands of the Missourian. Further, two abolitionist leaders played a part in the slave owner serving six months in jail after being charged with kidnapping (92, Rubenstein & Ziewacz). I think that this is an important case, as it served as a deterrence to other slave owners, giving them reason not to come to Michigan. Further, I think it is relevant as it highlights Michigan’s record of reform.
In further evidence of Michigan’s “stand out” action in support of abolition, the state even went as far as to disregard the Compromise of 1850, which, passed by Congress consisted of a Fugitive Slave Act. This Act was established in an effort to stop the Underground Railroad by ordering each state to return runaway slaves to their owners. Michigan however, even amidst rumblings of a civil war, did not comply and even went so far as to pass a legislature in 1855 that required “local prosecutors to defend escaped slaves (92, Rubenstein & Ziewacz). Yes, Michigan without a doubt fought hard for abolition and gained much notoriety. What though, was the real reason behind Michigan’s fervor?
Perhaps in contemplation of this question, we can think about the residents of Michigan at the time. Many settlers, originating from such places such as New York and New England could be described as confident and thrifty; they were eager to make success for themselves and didn’t want to compete with slave labor or rely on the South for providing them with slaves. You could say, they were independent in spirit. The idea of a slave labor force was not one that appealed to these settlers (Development PowerPoint and Video on Early Settlers).
In extension of the reasons for fighting for abolition, maybe Michigan wanted to create a distinction from the South and assert a sense of superiority. After all, the American Civil War was on the horizon. It also occurred to me that the influential abolitionists living in Michigan held weight and leverage over residents and that these individuals influenced people’s actions. Did this mean then, that residents of Michigan were accepting of other races? No, supporters of abolition still supported segregation as illustrated by the fact that the law stated that “blacks were neither state citizens nor possessors of any human rights” (88, Rubenstein & Ziewacz). Yes, Michigan, although a reform minded state, still believed during this time period that some races were superior to others.
In conclusion, I think that although some must have had pure intentions, many had ulterior motives when it came to abolition. They made attempts to solve the issue of slave labor, a “symptom” of the discrimination and mistreatment of black people, but the cause of the issue – people’s attitudes, prejudices and ignorances were left untouched. These ingrained feelings and attitudes that resulted in the segregation of black people, continued into the future, long after slavery was abolished. Yes, in this time period, although Michigan had made some strides when it came to social reform, they still had a long way to go.
Rubenstein, Bruce A., Ziewacz, Lawrence E. Michigan A History of the Great Lakes State. WILEY Blackwell, 2014.