A Rare Pamphlet from the Underground Railroad

The announcement that Harriet Tubman will be the new face of the $20 bill is sure to draw renewed attention to the Underground Railroad, the network of people, places, and secrets that helped the enslaved escape to Northern states and Canada. The Newberry recently acquired a rare pamphlet with some surprising connections to this fascinating saga.

The newly acquired edition of The Constitution of the United States was printed and published in 1853 by Martin Mitchel in Gouverneur, New York. The subtitle informs us that this edition appears In Three Parts: Embracing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution Proper, and Fugitive Slave Law. The presentation of these three separate documents as parts of a whole is unorthodox, to say the least.

In his prefatory remarks, Mitchel explains that he was induced to print these documents together because “even…when there is so much discussion upon what is constitutional and what unconstitutional, a very large share of the people are almost as ignorant of the provisions of the constitution as though it had never been published in the English language.” He continues, “we place it [the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850] in such connection that every citizen may judge for themselves whether it is, or is not in harmony with the genius of a free government.”

The Fugitive Slave Act, which required free-state authorities to return captured slaves to their masters and penalized both officials and citizens who did not turn in known fugitives, had particular significance for Mitchel, and for Gouverneur, a town near the border with Canada in St. Lawrence County. It was on a branch of the Underground Railroad’s Champlain Line, with at least one well-documented safe house, that of Myron Cushman. Mitchel published an anti-slavery newspaper, The Laborer, in 1852 and 1853, and also signed at least one abolitionist petition in the 1840s as well.

The pamphlet now at the Newberry is the only known copy in an institutional collection.

By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services