Christiana Riot (Slaughter, 1991)

Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), ix.
Armed resistance at Christiana to a federal marshal with a warrant issued under the new Fugitive Slave Law presented a challenge of immense political significance. In the eyes of pro-slavery Southerners, and ultimately of federal prosecutors, treason was the crime committed here, and the traitor was a white man named Castner Hanway, who allegedly directed the black mob in its attack on the federal posse. If the laws of the nation could be resisted with impunity, if citizens were free to “levy war” against the government as embodied in its legislative enactments and law-enforcement officials, then the very survival of the Union was at stake. Nothing less than conviction and execution of white abolitionist “leaders” would satisfy the honor of Edward Gorsuch’s family, the State of Maryland, and Southerners who identified with the slain slave owner who died what they saw as a hero’s death defending their rights under the law. Nothing less than acquittal of all the rioters on all counts would appease the most radical abolitionist, who appealed to a higher law and a superior justice than that found in the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

So the lines were drawn in a fashion that pushed the Christiana riot and the government’s response to center stage in the national political drama. No other fugitive slave case…had the same political significance at the time. Whatever the comparative importance of these other cases in law, whatever effect they had on firing the abolitionist movement and drawing the lines of conflict over the fugitive slave issue, no other fugitive episode struck the raw nerve of Southern honor so painfully or had the same impact on public opinion throughout the nation.
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