“To Agitate the Question is a Breach of Good Faith”

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Chris Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College

It is now the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, an anniversary commemorated by exhibits, including the impressive exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society, reenactments, lectures and other events.   The Underground Railroad and the Kennett area are an integral part of the sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War.  The United States Constitution, written in 1787, recognized the legality of slavery in the states where it existed and required the return of “fugitives from labor” if they tried to escape to one of the free states of the North.  Many people in both North and South understood that this was part of the “deal” that made the creation of the United States possible.  Whether one liked or disliked the institution of slavery, the protection of slavery was in the Constitution which was regarded as almost a sacred document.

In Kennett and vicinity abolitionists stood on one side of the question, not willing to recognize the legitimacy of slavery and willing to assist those trying to escape it.  The other side included people that feared that the Underground Railroad antagonized the South and could end in division and civil war.   In 1839, the Governor of Pennsylvania, stated “To agitate the question anew, when it has thus satisfactorily settled [by the US Constitution] is not only a breach of good faith to our brethren of the South; an unwarrantable interference with their domestic relations and institutions…”   Plainly stated, the Governor of Pennsylvania thought that anti-slavery organizations, anti-slavery publications and anti-slavery newspapers were subversive of the good order of the nation. The abolitionist felt that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was the higher law.  Who was the Governor so worried about?   Why, the Kennett Anti-Slavery Society, and the sort of folk who have been appearing in this column. Who knew that a bunch of old Quaker farmers could be so frightening?