The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Essay: Aiding the Antislavery Movement, 1856-1859

After the national election of 1856, SBA accepted an offer from the American Anti-Slavery Society to work as its chief agent in New York State. Since its founding in 1833, the society had perfected the use of lecturers and agents to educate the public in a particular region about the system of slavery, the slave power in national politics, and the current strategies of abolitionists to resist both. After her first tour of duty in the winter of 1856 and 1857, SBA worked for a part of each year for the society until the start of the Civil War.
By 1856 abolitionists no longer stood alone in opposition to slavery and the slave power; indeed the future of slavery was a central question of the year's election, the first in which the Republican party ran a candidate. The party's candidate, John C. Frémont, denounced further extension of slavery, upheld congressional authority to decide the future of slavery in the territories, and advocated the admission of Kansas as a free, not slave, state. Frémont was defeated by James Buchanan.
In 1858 and 1859 SBA helped to campaign in New York for a personal liberty law, or law to protect the rights of fugitive slaves in the state. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave exclusive jurisdiction in the matter to federal authorities, required little proof of the slaveowner's claims, and refused to admit testimony from the slave. Daring rescues of runaway slaves throughout the 1850s served both to save the lives and liberties of individual fugitives and to protest congressional capitulation to southern demands. Outrage that federal law served owners' needs intensified when the Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott decision on 6 March 1857. African Americans, the Court ruled, whether slave or free, were not American citizens and lacked federal rights. State personal liberty laws aimed to counter, perhaps subvert, the federal law by stipulating the rights that fugitives enjoyed and threatening slave hunters and kidnappers with stiff punishment.
Still at the extremes of antislavery sentiment, the American Anti-Slavery Society spoke favorably about the advent of an antislavery political party and worked for passage of remedial legislation to help fugitives, but its lecturers and agents argued that to break the South's hold on the federal government, the North should withdraw from the Union. It was that strong message that SBA and her co-workers took on the road for the society.