Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820–1850
By Elliott Drago
An illuminating look at how Philadelphia’s antebellum free Black community defended themselves against kidnappings and how this “street diplomacy” forced Pennsylvanians to confront the politics of slavery.
As the most southern of northern cities in a state that bordered three slave states, antebellum Philadelphia maintained a long tradition of both abolitionism and fugitive slave activity. Although Philadelphia’s Black community lived in a free city in a free state, they faced constant threats to their personal safety and freedom. Enslavers, kidnappers, and slave catchers prowled the streets of Philadelphia in search of potential victims, violent anti-Black riots erupted in the city, and white politicians legislated to undermine Black freedom. In Street Diplomacy, Elliott Drago illustrates how the political and physical conflicts that arose over fugitive slave removals and the kidnappings of free Black people forced Philadelphians to confront the politics of slavery.
Pennsylvania was legally a free state, at the street level and in the lived experience of its Black citizens, but Pennsylvania was closer to a slave state due to porous borders and the complicity of white officials. Legal contests between slavery and freedom at the local level triggered legislative processes at the state and national level, which underscored the inability of white politicians to resolve the paradoxes of what it meant for a Black American to inhabit a free state within a slave society.
Piecing together fragmentary source material from archives, correspondence, genealogies, and newspapers, Drago examines these conflicts in Philadelphia from 1820 to 1850. Studying these timely struggles over race, politics, enslavement, and freedom in Philadelphia will encourage scholars to reexamine how Black freedom was not secure in Pennsylvania or in the wider United States.
Elliott Drago joined the Jack Miller Center in April 2022. As Editorial Officer, Elliott writes and edits historical content for JMC’s various platforms, including our general email newsletter, monthly K-12 teacher newsletter, and The American Arc blog. He also publishes historical pieces in popular outlets such as RealClear History and Civics, as well as academic journals, and serves as part of JMC’s editorial team for our forthcoming online American tradition library. Before joining the Jack Miller Center, he taught in public high schools and universities throughout the Philadelphia region.
Elliott earned his B.A. in History and Education from Saint Joseph’s University, M.A. in United States History from Villanova University, and his Ph.D. in United States History from Temple University. His research focuses on slavery in the United States.
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