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I knew a very wise man that believed that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation… Andrew Fletcher

In the shadow of the Civil War : Passmore Williamson and the rescue of Jane Johnson Nat Brandt ; with Yanna Kroyt Brandt United States. Fugitive slave law (1850), Williamson, Passmore, Johnson, Jane, b. 1820 Columbia : University of South Carolina Press, c 2007 Hardcover. xiv, 216 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [195]-205) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

In July 1855 Williamson and his colleague William Still responded to a written plea from Johnson and rushed to the Camden ferry dock to liberate her and her two children from their master in a daring confrontation. The abolitionists had no idea that Johnson’s owner, Col. John Hill Wheeler, was connected to the highest levels of government and was a personal friend of President Franklin Pierce. As a result Wheeler was able to have Williamson arrested and confined to Moyamensing Prison, an institution notorious for harboring Philadelphia’s worst criminals.

The case and Williamson’s imprisonment became an international cause with famous leaders of the abolitionist movement visiting the prisoner. In one of the episode’s most dramatic moments, Johnson returned to Philadelphia, at the risk of her own freedom, to testify on Williamson’s behalf. There were petitions in northern states to impeach Judge John Kintzing Kane, who refused to release Williamson. The case became a battle of wills between a man who was unwavering in his devotion to civil disobedience and another determined to defend the law as written.

Williamson’s martyrdom spotlighted Philadelphia as one northern city where the growing rifts between states’ rights, federal mandates, and personal liberties had come to the fore. His case put a vivid – if often livid – face on the issue of slavery and helped to strengthen the will of its opponents though politically they remained next to impotent.

Coupling acts of brazen defiance with high courtroom drama, and the rise of a cult of celebrity, the narrative takes readers into the lives of the central participants in this complex episode. Passmore Williamson, Jane Johnson, William Still, Colonel Wheeler, and Judge Kane are brought to life as fully developed and flawed characters drawn unexpectedly into the annals of history.

In the Shadow of the Civil War chronicles events that presage the divisive national conflict that followed and that underscore the fact that hard cases make bad law.


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