The John Brown Museum has a dagger on display that is one of 100 daggers John Brown distributed to African-Americans in Springfield, Massachusetts, to defend themselves against slave hunters following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 dictated that any African-American could be arrested by a slave hunter anywhere in the United States, and when the seized African-American appeared in a special court, they had no right to defend themselves legally in any way.

Adding to the legal woes of the seized African American, the Judge was paid $5.00 if he declared the African-American to be a freed man, and $10.00 if he sent the African-American into slavery. In addition, a slave hunter could ask any citizen around them to help seize an African-American, and if the citizen refused, they could be arrested and fined or imprisoned.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 outraged many northerners, and John Brown stated that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 “created more abolitionists than all the speeches ever given.”

John Brown was among the abolitionists who were angered by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and being a man of action, he immediately moved to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in a practical manner. Brown attended an integrated church in Springfield, and proceeded to organize the African-Americans of Springfield, Massachusetts, into a self-defense group called the “United States League of Gileadites.”

Brown believed that African-Americans had a right to defend themselves against slave hunters, and he distributed 100 daggers to African-Americans in Springfield in 1850, and advised African-Americans that as Americans they had the right to fight off any attempt to either kidnap free African-Americans into slavery or return an escaped slave to slavery.

Furthermore, Brown advised African-Americans to toss small gunpowder bombs into the special courts during the trials of African-Americans and free the African-Americans that slave hunters had arrested to send into or return to slavery.

Fortunately, due to the number of abolitionists and free soilers in Springfield, Massachusetts, The United States League of Gildeadites never had to employ violence in defense of their freedom. However, Brown’s efforts to train and arm African-Americans to defend themselves against slave hunters demonstrates that he was a man of action, and his close social contact with African-Americans is remarkable in a time when even some abolitionists would not attend an integrated church or socialize with African-Americans.

The racism of the 1850s was so deep that it was debated whether African-Americans were fully human. John Brown was unique in that he believed that African-Americans were equal to whites in every way, and he was willing to lead them in the defense of their freedom.

The dagger on display in the John Brown Museum State Historic Site is a symbol of Brown’s willingness to act on his abolitionist beliefs, and his belief in the equality of all races in the eyes of God.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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