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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

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The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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The Speech of John Hossack, Convicted of a Violation of the Fugitive Slave Law

An 1859 speech to an Illinois court by John Hossack, convicted of aiding a fugitive slave to escape from authorities. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



John Hossack (1806-1891) was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Canada at age twelve. With only a few years of education, he started work in his uncle’s confectionary business in Quebec. Hossack soon became a public works contractor working on the St. Lawrence River canal system. In 1838 he came to Chicago to obtain canal work contracts in Illinois and Michigan. Hossack established his home in Cook County on a farm known as Hossack’s Grove; in line with his antislavery sympathies, the house became known as a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the late 1840s, having also established a lumber business in Ottawa, Illinois, Hossack was one of the largest grain and lumber merchants in the West. In 1854 he built a mansion on a bluff of the Illinois River and this became a major Underground Railroad center, usually with from several to a dozen fugitives in residence at any one time: more than two hundred fugitives were estimated to have passed through. Hossack became a friend and correspondent with political abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Owen Lovejoy, and Gerrit Smith. 
The legal case against Hossack originated from the arrest of Jim Grey, a fugitive from slavery in Missouri, who was arrested on September 4, 1859. On October 19 he was discharged because the Illinois state law under which he was arrested had been held unconstitutional, but the judge remanded him into federal custody under the Fugitive Slave Act. A group of abolitionists led by James and Joseph Stout and others stood up in court, forming a passageway to the door with their bodies. Hossack led Grey through the passage to a waiting carriage outside. He raised his fist against one man who tried to prevent the get-away, while the abolitionist ‘committee’ blocked the courthouse door to enable escape. 
Through this celebrated act of civil disobedience, Grey escaped. Hossack and another seven defendants were arrested and indicted on federal charges. After a trial in Chicago, Hossack and Joseph Stout were convicted and sentenced to a $100 fine and ten days imprisonment. Hossack delivered the present speech prior to his sentencing. 
Hossack begins his speech by identifying himself as an immigrant who worked hard from an early age. To the prosecution’s argument that he should have abided within the law especially because he was a foreigner, he responds with Scottish national pride that “It is true, Sir—I am a foreigner. I first saw the light among the rugged but free hills of Scotland; a land, Sir, that never was conquered, and where a slave never breathed.” (4) But because he has contributed so much to the United States and raised eleven native-born children, he argues “No living man, Sir, has greater interest in its welfare; and it is because I am opposed to carrying out wicked and ungodly laws, and love the freedom of my country, that I stand before you to-day.” (5) He became an abolitionist, he states, because “As a man who had fled from the crushing aristocracy of my native land, how could I support a worse aristocracy in this land?” (ibid) 
Hossack relies on a combination of antislavery arguments, invoking both the US Constitution’s preamble promising justice, general welfare, and liberty, and natural law invocations of a divine right to freedom. Much of the latter part of his speech is an attack on the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act as inimical to US constitutional guarantees. On the basis of this argument he contends “I ought not to be sentenced for raising my hand to rescue a fellow-man from a mob that would strip him of his liberty and life-long toil without due process of law, without trial by jury. Sir, this law tramples so flagrantly upon the spirit and letter of the Constitution, that I ought not to be sentenced.” (8) There can be no constitutional protection extended to slavery, Hossack contends. “I cannot, for the life of me, see what there is in robbing a man of his inalienable rights and enslaving him for life, that should entitle it to the special and peculiar protection of national law.” (9) 
The concluding section (10-12) of Hossack’s speech is an embrace of religious principles underpinning his antislavery arguments. In his view, divine commandments and biblical citations are more important than civil law. Finally, he tells the court “I ask for no mercy; I ask for justice. Mercy is what I ask of my God. Justice in the Courts of my adopted country is all I ask. It is the inhuman and infamous law that is wrong, not me.” (12)   
During his brief imprisonment, Hossack enjoyed great popular support. The mayor of Chicago and other dignitaries arrived to take him on carriage drives, accompanied by the jailor’s wife as a guard. Local citizens covered the legal costs and supplied Hossack and his fellow prisoner with food. After his release, Hossack was nominated for governor on an abolitionist ticket. He remained in business until 1873, when blindness forced him to retire. Source: In Memoriam. John Hossack (Ottawa, IL: The Republican-Times, 1892).
For further, see Report of the Trial of John Hossack, indicted for rescuing a fugitive slave from the U.S. deputy marshal, at Ottawa, October 20th, 1859. Phonographically reported, including the Evidence, Arguments of Counsel & Charge of the Court. United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Honorable Thomas Drummond, judge. February term, 1860. Robert R. Hitt, reporter. (Chicago: Press & Tribune Steam Book and Job Printing Office)
- Joe Lockard