History in 200 Words; A Case Study (Pt. 2)

Published:June 23, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

In Pt. 1, we moaned about the difficulty of making fine historical distinctions in the space of a mere 200 words and then used, as an example, a distinction that—let’s face it—wasn’t particularly fine at all. The “multitudinous” Moncure Conway did not, in fact, storm a Boston jail in 1854 or otherwise “participate” in activities that led to the death of a U.S. marshal. He “observed” some of these events (as we put it in the corrected Virginia Vignette) and was allied with the abolitionist imperatives of those who initiated them.

Okay, fine.

But we received another objection to our word choice that takes us into murkier territory. First, some background: In late July 1862, Conway, a Virginia-born abolitionist, gathered together thirty-one of his father’s slaves, all of whom had escaped to Washington, D.C., and “smuggled” them to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The freed blacks settled along the Little Miami River, and Conway checked in on them periodically over the years. Dunmore and Eliza Gwinn, who had been house slaves for the Conway family and who had run a cake-and-candy store in Georgetown, helped to found the First Anti-Slavery Baptist Church, now First Baptist, in Yellow Springs. One hundred fifty years later, the church remains in the family.

It’s an amazing story. But is it fair to say that Conway “smuggled” the slaves when, according to his own autobiography, he marched them through the open air of Baltimore in full view of the law? The word smuggling, after all, suggests something illicit and undercover.

This is where things get murky.

Were Conway’s actions illegal? According to his autobiography, there was no clear answer to this question even then. Before setting out, he had approached U.S. senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts for advice on the matter. He was told that, although his father was a Confederate, there was no way for him to claim title to his father’s slaves and thereby free them. (The Emancipation Proclamation was still five months away.) He may have been, “in the eye of the law, a slaveholder,” but he still “could not obtain authority to convey these negroes to Ohio.” They weren’t his, after all. They were his father’s.

So Sumner “got together several congressmen to consult on the matter,” Conway wrote, “and one of them—Giddings, I think—said the only safe way was for me to take a cowhide and drive the negroes through the Baltimore streets!” In other words, since he was a slaveholder under the law, he may as well act like one by “taking ‘my father’s slaves'” through the city. Note the extra set of quotation marks. They’re his father’s slaves, all right, but he has no right to convey them anywhere. Conway as much admits that the whole thing’s a “ruse,” and he’s worried enough about the law to seek and receive the promise of protection from a Union general named Wool. (“General Wool was a good but infirm old man,” Conway anxiously notes, and if worse came to worst, “not likely to interest himself in my affair.”)

It’s worth considering that a discussion of the word smuggling focuses on what’s legal. It seems that Conway was just as much concerned with what was safe. And it turns out he was right to be concerned.

On the streets of Baltimore, Conway was at risk both from blacks, who suspected he was a slaveholder (they “muttered and hissed around me and impeded my efforts”), and whites, who noted the “triumphal” nature of the procession, assumed (correctly) that he was an abolitionist, and formed “an ugly crowd” at the train station.

“Alas, there was no westward train for three mortal hours!” Conway wrote. So he took his slaves into the waiting room, forgetting somehow that they would not be welcome there. This caused a stir, as you might imagine. So he tried to find a room for them to sit and was denied; he offered to pay for one and was denied again. He asked to sit in the railroad car and was told it was locked. “Meanwhile we were in the street,” he wrote, “and the crowd of whites was increasing every moment . . . Uglier and uglier they became, glaring at me.”

At which point, he actually turned to the police for help, “but these sneeringly said it was my own affair, not theirs.” Finally, he pulled from his pocket the note of protection from General Wool and was taunted by the crowd, which called Conway “a damned abolitionist, who had brought on the war.”

Whew. The legal intricacies of this are, to my sometimes limited imagination, hopelessly confused. Still, the idea of smuggling captures the gist of the situation, fraught as it was with danger. It is not perfect, but these are the limitations of 200-word Vignettes.