James Hamlet Williamsburg resident first victim of the Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers.

This was one of the most controversial elements of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy”. It required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law” for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.
Williamsburg resident James Hamlet became the first kidnapping victim after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. He was working as a porter in Manhattan when Maryland businessman Gustavas Brown saw him and claimed that he was a runaway from his mother’s home in Maryland. Hamlet, who lived here on 3rd Street with his wife and three children, was arrested and sent to Baltimore.

Maryland resident Mary Brown exercised the law that historian James McPherson described as having given the federal government more power than any law yet sanctioned by congress – the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Brown authorized a federal official to claim one James Hamlet and return him to her Baltimore home. Despite the differences in her testimony, and Hamlet’s pleadings and protests of being born a free man, the federal authorities – obligated due to Congress’ legislation – robbed a husband of his wife, two children and freedom.

Hamlet’s testimony was not permitted by the Fugitive Slave Law: a law that abolitionist Lewis Tappan believed was but “an experiment on the part of the Slave Power to see how much the Free States will bear.”

James Hamlet was forced into the Baltimore Slave Market owned by Hope H. Slatter, a man described by slave-trader expert Frederic Bancroft as being a model for successful slave marketing. After establishing his worth as a slave, Slatter sold Hamlet. Surprisingly, his local community of Williamsburgh, in the borough of Brooklyn bought him – having raised the necessary funds of eight hundred dollars. One hundred dollars alone came from one member of the local church.

A week later, he returned home to Brooklyn. Pamphlets telling his story were printed and circulated, and the incident was used as a rallying cry against the Fugitive Slave Law and slavery in general.

Abolitionists hearing of these events then sent a call out for the citizens of the Free States to ignore the law and let the fugitive into one’s home as if it were an asylum. As abolitionist William Harned declared, “the heart of every anti-slavery individual will deeply sympathize with the panting fugitive.”

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