American Legal History
On October 4, 1842, George Latimer and his wife, Rebecca, escaped from Norfolk, Virginia. The pair hid beneath the deck of a northbound ship that took them to Baltimore. From there, they traveled to Philadelphia, with Rebecca posing as a servant to the lighter-skinned husband.[1] At last, they made their way to Boston, arriving on either October 7th or 8th.[2] This escape set in motion a sequence of events that would result in an uproar so great that Boston was, for a time, "without a doubt, the most potentially violent city in America."[3]

George Latimer was born in Norfolk, Virginia on July 4th, 1918. His father, Mitchell Latimer, was a white man and his mother, Margaret Olmsted, a slave belonging to his uncle Edward A. Latimer.[4] In George Latimer's youth he was owned by a man named Edward Mallery, for whom he worked as a domestic servant until the age of sixteen. After that time, Mallery hired him out. Latimer primarily worked driving a dray and as a shopkeeper. On two separate occasions he spent time in prison as a result of Mallery's debts.[5]

Eventually Mallery sold to James B. Gray. Gray was a shop owner and Latimer manned his store.[6] Unlike Mallery, Gray was a physically abusive master. In Latimer's own words, he "was knocked and kicked about by [Gray]--beaten with a stick and cowhides" on multiple occasions. [7] It is thought that this abuse precipitated Latimer's flight to Boston.[8] After Latimer and Rebecca's escape James Gray offered a reward of $25 if Latimer was captured in Virginia and $50 plus expenses if he was captured outside Virginia.[9]

George Latimer's initial freedom was short-lived. On the day he and Rebecca arrived in Boston, Latimer was recognized by William R. Carpenter, a former employee of James Gray.[10] Carpenter promptly contacted Gray[11], and on October 20th, Latimer was arrested[12] on a charge of larceny.[13] He was brought before Justice Joseph Story, who, although personally opposed to slavery, ordered that he be held.[14]

After Latimer's arrest word spread through the black community and a group led by Henry G. Tracy attempted, unsuccessfully, to rescue him.[15]

Latimer's lawyer, Samuel Sewell, then sought a writ of personal replevin from Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, who was known to have strong anti-slavery views.[16] Sewell argued that Latimer should have the right to have his identity determined by a jury. This attempt at freeing Latimer also failed, as Shaw denied the writ.[17] According to the abolitionist paper the Liberator, Shaw said that it was a federal matter and the Constitution and the laws of Congress "were to be obeyed, however disagreeable to our natural sympathies or views of duty."[18]

Latimer’s case brought about an immense public response in the state of Massachusetts and many prominent abolitionists were involved in it.[19] His counsel, Sewell, chaired a meeting at Faneuil Hall where attendees not only vowed resistance to slave-catching but also voted for disunion.[20] Additional meetings were held throughout the state, called "Latimer Meetings."[21] These meetings included both black and white abolitionists.[22] The Latimer and North Star Journal was created by the men appointed to the newly formed Latimer Committee, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, William F. Channing, and Frederick Cabot.[23] Issues were published every other day.[24] The Latimer Journal reported that the social unrest related to Latimer's imprisonment was such that “fire and bloodshed threatened in every direction.”[25]

One significant development that occurred as a result of Latimer's arrest was the Latimer Committee's creation of two separate petitions, the "Great Massachusetts Petition" and the "Great Petition to Congress."[26] The former requested a law banning the involvement of state officials or public property in the detention or arrest of suspected fugitives. The latter demanded that laws be passed severing any connection between Massachusetts and slavery.[27] Latimer's situation was ultimately resolved while these petition drives were still ongoing, but they had a considerable impact. The petition delivered to the State Assembly contained 64,526 signatures and weighed 150 pounds by the time it was delivered on February 17, 1843.[28] This petition contributed significantly to the passage of the 1843 Personal Liberty Act, dubbed the "Latimer Law," which prevented Massachusetts officials from assisting in the detention of suspected fugitive slaves and banned the use of state facilities to detain such suspects.[29] The petition to Congress, delivered to John Quincy Adams, was less successful, with no legislation resulting from it.

Latimer’s arrest spurred other action as well. It was the “immediate impetus” for the organization of the New England Freedom Association and increased collective action in the black community of Massachusetts.[30] One example of this is the fundraising meetings, addressed by such abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond, that helped raise the money that was eventually used to purchase Latimer.[31] Indeed, the free black community of Boston was instrumental in raising the money that eventually purchased Latimer's freedom from Gray for $400.[32] As Ira Berlin notes in Generations of Captivity, black northern communities often had “an internal coherence in ideology, leadership, and institutions.”[33] This coherence is perhaps part of what allowed the black community to mobilize effectively on behalf of Latimer. Furthermore, Latimer was one of a growing number of runaways slaves. At mid-century more than 1/5 of black Bostonians had come to Boston from slave states.[34] These were not people for whom the idea of slavery was an abstract one. They had first-hand experience of what Latimer was escaping. Immigrants from the South “stood atop black society in the North […] by any measure and were particularly active politically.[35] Latimer and his case were a part of the development of this influential community. The organization engaged in as a response to his escape something that could later be put to work on behalf of others.

Latimer’s case also provides us with an illustration of the conundrum faced by Northern, anti-slavery judges in the face of fugitive slave laws and the explicit acceptance, even support, of slavery provided by the federal government. Neither Story nor Shaw approved of slavery and yet during the Latimer affair both acted in a manner that supported the slave owner.[36] In many ways, the fugitive slave laws put judges in an untenable position. They had a duty to uphold the law even when that law was repugnant to their own sense of morality and were thus made tools of a system they knew to be immoral.


  • 1, 5, 6, 8, 13, 29: Rodriguez, Junius P. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 1. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11: Davis, Asa J. "The George Latimer Case: A Benchmark in the Struggle for Freedom", 1980
  • 3, 22, 25, 30: Levesque, George A. Black Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban America, 1750-1860. New York, Garland Publishing, Inc. 1994.
  • 12, 15, 24, 29, 31, 32: Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1999.
  • 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 36: Cover, Robert M. Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.
  • 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, 32: Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • 27: Broadside attributed to the Latimer Committee, 1842. (Can be viewed at the Massachusetts Historical Society website, here.)
  • 33, 34, 35:Berlin, Ira. Genarations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

-- MeghanRedding - 31 Dec 2011



Webs Webs

Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
jpg George_Latimer_lithograph.jpg props, move 50.5 K 31 Dec 2011 - 21:57 MeghanRedding  
jpg George_Latimer_photograph.jpg props, move 22.7 K 31 Dec 2011 - 21:59 MeghanRedding  
jpg Latimer_reward.jpg props, move 83.0 K 31 Dec 2011 - 22:00 MeghanRedding  
jpg Mass_petition.jpg props, move 74.8 K 31 Dec 2011 - 22:01 MeghanRedding  
r4 - 29 Aug 2012 - 20:26:56 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM