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"That Abomination of the Nineteenth Century": The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Literature of the North American Continent

Kevin McMullen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study explores the outpouring of literature provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. While the law is often credited with inspiring Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, its influence on the larger literary culture of the mid-nineteenth century has gone largely unremarked upon. This dissertation places the law at the center of dozens of literary works that intervened in the pressing debates raging in the United States in the decade before its most destructive and divisive war. I also reveal that, much like many of the fugitive slaves that were its focus, controversy over the law often crossed national boundaries, impacting political and cultural debates in Canada—debates that played out in poems, periodicals, and speeches in both the U.S. and its northern neighbor.^ Placing into conversation diverse, neglected texts from a wide variety of sources and genres—including periodicals, novels, poems, speeches, interviews, and legal documents—I demonstrate that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law was a watershed moment in both American history and American literature. Indeed, as these works reveal, at the root of and at issue in the controversy surrounding the Fugitive Slave Law was the very nature of democracy, republicanism, and America itself.^ Grounded in historical, textual, and archival recovery work, this study also emphasizes the importance of expanding our very conception and definition of "literature," particularly in discussions of the political controversies of the late antebellum period, when, despite the rapid growth of print technology, many of those individuals best placed to speak to the personal impact of such controversies were silenced by racial, cultural, political, and legal barriers that kept them from making their stories known. As such, a key contribution of this study is the reconstructing of the narratives of fugitive slaves captured and returned under the Fugitive Slave Law, stories that constitute a new genre of slave literature, and offer a necessary complication to the better-known narratives of those slaves that managed to evade the law and its agents.^

Subject Area

American history|American literature

Recommended Citation

McMullen, Kevin, ""That Abomination of the Nineteenth Century": The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Literature of the North American Continent" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI10790366.