Educator Resources

Fugitive from Labor Cases


The cases of Henry Garnett and Moses Honner bookend the 1850s, a decade of intensifying political crisis that was deeply connected to the institution of slavery. In both court actions, the defendants were charged with being "fugitives from labor," but, despite numerous similarities, the outcomes of the cases were exactly opposite. Both cases were tried in the Third Circuit Court, Eastern District, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Escape to freedom was one of the methods of individual and sometimes group resistance to enslavement. As the abolition movement gained strength and the political climate deteriorated, more "fugitives from labor" took the Underground Railroad to freedom. Not all were successful; many were captured. The two cases in this lesson, nearly identical in many respects, show dramatically different outcomes.

The explanation for the differences lies in the historical events of the 1850s. By 1861 the issue of fugitive slaves was so devisive that President Lincoln in his inaugural address stated: "There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions: No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

And President Lincoln went on to observe that "All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution--to this provision as much as to any other." To eliminate slavery, then, required amending the U.S. Constitution.

Other Resources

Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, available online from Columbia University.

Catton, Bruce. The Civil War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Edited by Michael Perman. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

The Documents

Henry Garnett - 1850

  • Warrant
    National Archives Identifier: 279017
    Image #3
  • Evidence: Witnesses for Claimant in the Matter of Henry Garnett, Fugitive Slave
    National Archives Identifier: 279018
    Image #1

    View Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

  • Judgement
    National Archives Identifier: 279019

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the U.S. Circuit Court
Record Group 21

Moses Honner - 1860

  • Warrant
    National Archives Identifier: 279023
  • Evidence: Deposition of Charles T. Butler and other witnesses in the Matter of Moses Honner, Fugitive Slave
    National Archives Identifier: 279023

    View Pages:     1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
    11 | 12 | 13 | 14
  • Judgement
    National Archives Identifier: 279025

    View Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the U.S. Circuit Court
Record Group 21

Article Citation

This article was written by John M. Lawlor, Jr., an instructor at Reading Area Community College, in Reading, PA.