The Slave Who Helped Create Two Countries and Wreck a Third

John Anderson was born property. At 29 he was a prisoner. He was seated in Toronto’s Osgood Hall while outside on the chilly morning of December 15, 1860 stood fifty armed police officers. A company of the Royal Canadian Rifles stood with muskets ready and bayonets menacingly attached. All were prepared for the demonstration promised and the riot expected should the court decision go as the crowd of two hundred or so Anderson supporters feared. Stretchers were piled against a wall, ready to haul away the injured and killed.

His adventure had begun seven years before. He had run when life as a Missouri slave had become too much. It was too much to watch his mother being beaten and then sold. It was too much to lose his name. It was too much to be kept from living with his wife and child. It was too much to be denied opportunity; to be denied his very humanity. And so he ran. In running he had committed a crime for he robbed his owner by stealing himself.

On the third day of his flight, Anderson accidently stumbled upon a White farmer named Seneca Digges and four of his slaves. They gave chase and for thirty minutes ran through woods and fields until Anderson encountered Digges. Digges raised either a cane or a tree branch and they fell together. Anderson’s knife plunged three times into Digges’ chest and back.

Dirty, exhausted and starving, Anderson slowly snuck his way north. When he encountered a White man who offered a meal and bed for the night Anderson boarded the Underground Railroad. A few weeks later he was over the Detroit River and in Windsor, Canada West. With the help of a thriving Black community he learned to read and do sums and within a few years he had learned masonry, begun his own business and purchased a house.

Anderson confided to a friend that he had stabbed a man while fleeing. He was betrayed and arrested. A judge informed Missouri officials that Anderson was in a Brantford jail. Soon, officials from the Missouri governor to the American Secretary of State were writing to Canadian and British leaders demanding his extradition.

Anderson had moved from slave to symbol. Southerners had grown enraged with the Canadian Black communities and the abolitionists that enabled them. For generations they had insisted that slaves were unable and unwilling to work, read, or succeed on their own. And yet, up in Canada, ex-slaves were illuminating the lie that was the foundation of their economic, political and social ethos. The Underground Railroad, Northern abolitionists, and Canada had in this way become part of the Southern impetus to insist on State Rights and contemplate a divorce from the American state.

If Anderson could be extradited then the Canadian Black communities and the Underground Railroad itself could be destroyed with slave catchers able to grab prey in Canadian cities as easily and legally as if they were Boston or New York. A New Orleans attorney wrote, “We are going to have Anderson by hook or by crook; we will have him by fair means or foul; the South is determined to have that man.”

John Anderson

At that time, Canadians were debating their future as a British colony, a new country, or perhaps an American state. Meanwhile, a growing number of influential British leaders were advocating cutting ties with the increasingly expensive and bothersome Canada. The Anderson case led other Brits to argue that there was a moral issue at stake that trumped political concerns. They advocated intervening in the case even if it kept Canada colonial and threatened war with the United States.

The court decided that Anderson must be returned to Missouri but there was an appeal. American Secretary of State Lewis Cass wrote a letter insisting that Anderson be immediately sent south. British Prime Minister Palmerston demanded that Anderson be dispatched to Britain. Canada’s Attorney General summoned the temerity to say no to both. His name was John A. Macdonald, soon afterwards, an independent Canada’s first prime minister. He quietly covered all Anderson’s legal bills.

Sir John A Macdonald

John A. Macdonald

Finally, after weeks of legal wrangling and insults across the ocean, over the Canadian border and back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, the time had come for a final decision. British, American and Canadian reporters were huddled in the imposing courtroom as police and soldiers outside nervously held their weapons. Three justices argued that the Missouri writ had charged Anderson with killing and that there was no such crime – the only charge available was murder. On a technicality, Anderson was free to go.

Anderson rose unsteadily to his feet and beamed a huge smile. In a quiet voice he whispered, “Thank you, gentlemen—thank you, your lordships.” The gavel fell and there was a roar of shouting and applause from those in the courtroom and from the crowd shivering outside in the snow.

Canadian reaction was ecstatic for it was a three-way victory. Anderson was free. Canada had told the United States to forget its designs its Black citizens and to respect its borders. It told Britain to mind its own business. Macdonald pushed and in March 1862 the British government passed the Habeas Corpus Act rendering it illegal for Britain to issue writs in Canada. A major step toward Canadian nationhood had been taken.

Canadian and American abolitionists quickly had Anderson delivering speeches to educate and raise funds. By June, he was in England delivering more speeches. His largest audience was at Exeter Hall, where the newly formed John Anderson Society welcomed six thousand to see him.

Meanwhile, Fort Sumter had been pummelled and Bull Run bullets had screamed. By 1862, the American Civil War was grinding into its second year. Anderson was no longer needed to make a point or further a cause. Without consulting him, British abolitionists arranged for him to be given land in and passage to Liberia.

On December 22, 1862, Anderson delivered his last speech. As always, he ended with the mournful hope that he might again see his family. The next day he was aboard a steamer bound for Cape Palmas. There are no records of him in Liberia, nor of his wife Maria or their child in Missouri. They became as lost to history as they were to each other. However, John Anderson’s legacy lives on in the America that was torn in two and Confederacy and Canada he had inadvertently, with his primal desire to be free, helped to create.

To discover more about John Anderson and Canada’s role in the American Civil War please check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, available online and, if you can still find one, book stores everywhere. http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361446

 

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