Captains Drayton and Sayres; Or the Way in Which Americans are Treated, for Aiding the Cause of Liberty at Home
Anonymous tract published in 1848 by the Eastern Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society concerning prosecution of Daniel Drayton and Edwin Sayres, a case involving two whites who attempted to aid slaves to escape the District of Columbia. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
This anonymously-authored tract published by Philadelphia abolitionists describes one of the best-known antebellum escapes, an effort that failed but caused national controversy. On the evening of February 17, 1848, the schooner Pearl left Washington, DC, with 77 fugitive slaves aboard. The escape was organized with the assistance of Daniel Drayton, who had aided earlier escapes in the Chesapeake Bay and was now working with William Chaplin, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent. It was a mercenary venture with humanitarian sponsorship. Drayton served as the vessel’s captain, Edwin Sayres as the vessel owner and co-captain, and Chester English as sailor and cook. Two local blacks, Thomas Ducket and Daniel Bell, organized fugitives for the escape. However, the vessel’s departure was betrayed by Judson Diggs, a black drayman, and a steamboat was used to pursue and re-capture the fugitive slaves aboard the Pearl. The prisoners were paraded to jail in the city; many were later sold.
On the day of the re-capture, February 18, a white mob rioted in front of the anti-slavery Washington newspaper, the National Era, edited by Gamaliel Bailey. The case became a national issue, in part because of the public violence and in part because of the ensuing Congressional debates. Congressmen Joshua Giddings of Ohio, a leading anti-slavery voice, together with others raised the case on the House and Senate floors. In The Biglow Papers, James Russell Lowell satirized the pro-slavery politicians in this debate. Harriet Beecher Stowe incorporated details of the case into Uncle Tom’s Cabin and provided a case history in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For abolitionists, the case illustrated the contradiction between welcoming the new republican spirit of Europe in 1848 and the absence of liberty under slavery in the United States.
Drayton was indicted on 41 charges of larceny and 71 misdemeanor charges, and Sayres faced similar charges. Charges against English were dropped on account of lack of prior knowledge. A Boston defense committee assembled with the participation of William Channing, abolitionist editor Samuel May, social reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, author and attorney Richard Hildreth, Samuel Sewall, and Robert Morris, Jr. Among the national political figures who volunteered to serve as defense counsel were Horace Mann, William Seward, and Salmon P. Chase. Drayton was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison; the sentence was overturned on appeal for prosecutorial misconduct. He was sentenced to pay over $10,000 in fines and remain in prison until payment. Sayres was initially acquitted, but was retried on separate charges and similarly fined. Both were released after a pardon from President Millard Fillmore over four years later. The escape that they attempted to organize was one of the largest mass escape attempts in the history of slavery in the United States.
For a May 10, 2007, Morning Edition program discussion of Mary Kay Ricks' Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad (New York, William Morrow, 2007), visit this National Public Radio site. Ricks identifies the probable author of this tract as George Cleveland, president of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, who helped organize the escape attempt and later raised monies to support the families of Drayton and Sayres.
- Joe Lockard