top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

Fleeing Slavery on Presidential Election Day in Baltimore, 1840

BHW 54: February 10, 2024

A broadside featuring the all-caps text: "HARRISONIAN RALLY! KEEP THE BALL ROLLING." It also depicts a farmer pushing a plow with the following phrase emblazoned on a banner held by an eagle in its claws: "WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON THE FARMER OF NORTH BEND."
Figure 1. “Harrisonian Rally!” broadside, 1840 [1].
 

On the day of the 1840 presidential election, an enslaved woman named Ann leveraged the public excitement and chaos surrounding the event to escape from slavery in Baltimore. One of her enslavers later recalled that the morning of her flight, she received permission to attend a funeral. She was enslaved in domestic service and left the home in which she worked that morning wearing “a wadded merino cloak, a long cloak with a cape on it.” Her enslaver asked: “Ann, why do you wear that heavy cloak this warm afternoon?” She confidently responded that “the evenings are cool, and I shall need it before I get back.” Her enslavers never saw her again. They lamented her thoughtful choice of election day as a promising time for flight from slavery. Indeed, “The election day was chosen by a large party of fugitives to make for Canada.” [2] Excitement and anxiety surrounding William Henry Harrison’s electoral defeat of the incumbent President Martin Van Buren fostered public chaos. Baltimore was infamous for election related unrest and lived up to this reputation in 1840. [3] The city was also engulfed in violence the previous May when it hosted the Whig Party nominating convention, providing a preview of the election related “disorderly occurrences” to follow. [4] Ann recognized that likely election fueled public disorder would make it easier for her to remain under the radar as she seized her freedom.


Since Ann’s story lives in the historical record through the writings of her enslaver, it requires a highly critical reading. In 1897, Sarah R. Levering published a biography of a Black woman named Margaret Jane who was enslaved by her Baltimorean family. This same family also enslaved Ann. Levering’s book was an attempt to extract additional profit from the Black lives her family enslaved and exploited. It also exemplifies the problematic sentimental paternalism that historians demonstrate characterized the views of many enslavers. [5] For example, Levering refers to Ann as a “servant,” rather than a “slave.” [6] She thus avoided invoking slavery and its negative moral associations. She also writes that after Ann fled slavery to Canada, “She married up there, and, after many years, desired to return to her former owners, but we were not willing to receive her. She had to abide by her choice.” [7] This claim embodies the paternalist assumption of affection from enslaved people towards their enslavers, which is in almost every case baseless. Additionally, Levering’s assertion that “Ann took the [last] name of Duncan, in honor of the Rev. John Duncan, a popular minister of Baltimore” must be viewed with skepticism. [8] Later that week, an advertisement appeared in Baltimore’s Commercial & Daily Advertiser seeking the return of runaway enslaved woman “Ann Myers.” [9] The Levering family may have used a false name in this ad because they were embarrassed that their enslaved asset left them and did not want others to draw this connection. That the ad asks respondents to “Enquire at this office” rather than naming the enslaver supports this possibility. For similar reasons, a pseudonym may have been used in the biography. Therefore, the difference in names should not disqualify the possibility that the runaway Ann mentioned in the newspaper was the same Ann that fled the Leverings.


The characteristics of Ann and Margaret’s enslavement exemplify the most common types of enslavement in antebellum Baltimore. As historian Seth Rockman articulates, “During the 1810s, 1820s, and 1830s, the typical Baltimore slave was not Frederick Douglass in a shipyard, but someone like Lyndia Holiday, a thirty-year-old woman who worked in a home on Gough Street.” [10] Slavery was never central to Baltimore City’s economy, and the institution withered as Baltimore grew into a thriving industrial metropolis throughout the antebellum era. Domestic slavery had more staying power than other forms of Baltimore enslavement due to its relative isolation from the rest of society. But for Baltimoreans enslaved and free, the city’s increasingly capitalist driven exchange economy made clear slavery’s decreasing practicality. The large labor market of free Black and white labor in Baltimore substantially encroached on enslaved workers in the domestic sphere just as slavery overall deteriorated in the city. [11]


Reconstructing expectations and realities of election related public chaos in 1840 Baltimore illuminates how Ann and her enslavers perceived her well timed flight. High voter turnout, surging public political enthusiasm, and Baltimore’s tradition of mob violence all contributed to a climate of social instability. [12] Former President John Quincy Adams witnessed the chaos surrounding the Whig convention in Baltimore in May 1840. He wrote in his diary that, “The Convention itself consisted of thousands; an immense unwieldy mass of political machinery to accomplish nothing—to form a procession polluted by a foul and unpunished murder of one of their own marshals, and by the loss of several other lives.” [13] Local newspapers also reported on the fatal violence, noting: “Thomas H. Laughlin, carpenter, residing on Federal Hill, and one of the Marshals of the eighth ward, was killed yesterday while marching in the procession, by a blow from some person unknown.” Reportedly, “a gang of half-grown boys were marching up, carrying on the top of a pole a stuffed figure, representing General Harrison as a petticoat figure” when they “attempted to form in with the procession . . . Mr. Laughlin stepped out of the ranks with the view to stop them, when he received the blow over the head with a stick, which deprived him of his life.” [14] It is important that the nominating convention was for the Whig candidate due to the grassroots nature of Whig support in 1840. Historian Robert Gray Gunderson explains that “The great commotion at Baltimore heralded the arrival of the common man in Whig politics and provided a pattern for the canvass of 1840.” The Whig leadership’s embrace of the common voter in 1840 fuelled public demonstrations of support. [15] Ann likely heard of the May 1840 events and realized that if a similar uproarious public procession occurred on election day this would distract attention from her flight.


Baltimore’s election related mass violence predictably continued on presidential election day, just as Ann fled her enslavers. Local papers reported: “Some disorderly occurrences took place Monday night after the result of the city election was known, and in two or three instances individuals suffered personal injury.” The chaos was not limited to those with the right to vote. For example, a Baltimorean who was under voting age was “returning home between eleven and twelve o’clock and encountered a riotous group at the corner of Baltimore and Liberty streets, and was asked if he was not a Whig. Being under age and not entitled to vote, he said he was nothing, and endeavored to move on.” The mob refused to allow this and “he was attacked, and severely wounded by a cut under the eye, which severed the lachrymal duct and inflicted an injury which may prove very serious.” Local authorities who under other circumstances may have noticed Ann’s flight and tried to stop her were preoccupied with the election frenzy. For example, a Baltimore City police officer “was severely injured in attempting to arrest some of these disturbers of the peace.” [16] As historian Adam Malka argues, it was often white Baltimorean civilians rather than police who encountered Black social renegades challenging white supremacist social order in the antebellum era. [17] But it appears in this case white Baltimoreans were either swept up in the election chaos or rushed home to avoid it.


In the recapture advertisement placed shortly after Ann’s flight, the similarities to her story as told in Sarah R. Levering’s book extend beyond her name to include belongings. The runaway ad states that Ann “has taken a variety of clothing with her.” [18] Levering mentions that “Ann was a woman of fashion, as far as she possibly could go.” [19] More directly related to her flight, Levering writes: “To Ann’s credit it must be said she took nothing away with her but what belonged to her. She had a good supply of clothes for the approaching winter, and a sheet from her bed (one was missed) must have been used to tie her garments in and then dropped from her window to the yard below to be carried off for her to the place of departure.” [20] The author thus provides a powerful recognition of Ann’s resourcefulness and how it likely aided in her escape. This exemplifies a place in the narrative where the inherent flaws of the paternalist enslaver ethos are clear. If Ann was dependent on her enslavers in any sense, then she would not have demonstrated such keen foresight into ensuring the ability to take care of herself in the future.


Ann vehemently resisted and rejected her enslavement when she chose to take advantage of 1840’s presidential election day disorder to flee slavery in Baltimore. Her enslaver later wrote that, “It was the night of the day of General William H. Harrison’s election to the Presidency, and much excitement prevailed.” They continued, “At last it occurred to one of the family, in consideration of the strange freak [incident] of the donning of her heavy cloak, to go to her room and examine her bureau. Her room was looked over and not a garment was to be seen that belonged to her. All gone! We never saw her more.” [21] By taking her clothing with her, Ann greatly empowered herself in her flight. This clothing could be used to stay warm that November night and in the months that followed. She could also change her clothing to deceive those seeking her recapture. Or she could sell the clothing to obtain capital. Doing so would demonstrate a recognition and utilization of the surging capitalist economy of the United States. If she engaged in capitalist exchange, she would be leveraging the very system that was rendering slavery in Baltimore increasingly outdated. [22] Her choice to flee on election day is a strong demonstration of her recognition of goings on in the city, country, and world around her. While she toiled in the Levering home, she surely overhead discussions of the upcoming election. In their paternalist worldview her enslavers likely assumed she was devotedly focused on her household duties. But she was listening and plotting liberation. Recognizing the opportunities presented, she boldly defied slavery.

 

[1] “Harrisonian rally! Keep the ball rolling. A general meeting will be held at the Old Court room, Riley's building on Saturday evening the 18th instant, at early candle light,” broadside (Illinois, 1840), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 16, Folder 14, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.01601400/.

[2] Sarah R. Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake of Baltimore, Md., and Selections in Prose and Verse (Philadelphia: Press of Innes & Son, 1897), 16-17, https://archive.org/details/memoirsofmargare00leve; Barbara Elizabeth Wallace, “‘Fair Daughters of Africa’: African American Women in Baltimore, 1790-1860” (PhD diss., University of California Los Angeles, 2001), 209, https://www.proquest.com/openview/ce5e2bf83097f4ca0975f0331c87125a/1.

[3] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 45-46, https://archive.org/details/slaveryfreedomon0000fiel

[4] “Some disorderly occurrences,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), November 4, 1840, 2, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=fYNBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oLcMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4187%2C4611204; John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, ed. Charles Francis Adams, vol. X (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1875), 282, https://archive.org/details/memoirsjohnquin01unkngoog.

[5] See Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974 [1972]), 5-6, https://archive.org/details/rolljordanrollwo0000geno; Adam Rothman, “Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eugene Genovese, and the Proslavery Worldview,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 3 (September 2013), 563-564, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43663464; Stephanie Cole, “Servants and Slaves: Domestic Service in the Border Cities, 1800-1850” (PhD diss., University of Florida, 1994), 1-4, https://www.proquest.com/openview/3a915403c6fb8a15ea142c0d2605b692/1.

[6] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 12.

[7] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 17-18.

[8] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 12.

[9] “100 DOLLARS REWARD,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), November 7, 1840, 4, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=gINBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oLcMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4005%2C4758574; “100 DOLLARS REWARD,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), November 9, 1840, 4, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=gYNBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oLcMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1269%2C4802453.

[10] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 111, https://archive.org/details/scrapingbywagela0000rock.

[11] Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 47-48; Cole, “Servants and Slaves,” 3-4.

[12] Ronald P. Formisano, “The New Political History and the Election of 1840,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (Spring 1993): 661-682, https://www.jstor.org/stable/206278; Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 45-46.

[13] John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, ed. Charles Francis Adams, vol. X (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1875), 282, https://archive.org/details/memoirsjohnquin01unkngoog.

[14] “INCIDENTS OF YESTERDAY,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), May 5, 1840, 2, https://www.newspapers.com/image/364960034/.

[15] Robert Gray Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1957), 7, https://archive.org/details/logcabincampaign0000gund.

[16] “Some disorderly occurrences,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), November 4, 1840, 2, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=fYNBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oLcMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4187%2C4611204.

[17] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 3, Kindle edition.

[18] “100 DOLLARS REWARD,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser, November 7, 1840, 4; “100 DOLLARS REWARD,” American & Commercial Daily Advertiser, November 9, 1840, 4.

[19] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 12.

[20] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 18.

[21] Levering, Memoirs of Margaret Jane Blake, 17.

[22] Fields, Slavery and Freedom, 47-48.

Kommentare


bottom of page