Believing as we do that it is morally wrong to continue our fellow beings in involuntary servitude, it is with the utmost pleasure that we aid and assist them in their flight from southern kidnappers.
The Signal of Liberty, May 12, 1841
Long before the Civil War, opposition to slavery was a political force in Michigan. The Michigan Antislavery Society was founded in Ann Arbor’s First Presbyterian Church in 1836, a year before statehood.
The society took the Michigan branch of the abolitionist Liberty Party under its wing and in 1840 endorsed James G. Birney for president. A former slaveholder, Birney had freed his own slaves and withstood mob attacks to publish an antislavery paper in Ohio.
Though Birney got less than 1 percent of the vote nationally, some Liberty Party candidates were elected to local office. To strengthen their position, it was felt that a statewide newspaper was needed–something more substantial than the sporadically published Michigan Freeman. The Antislavery Society recruited Methodist preacher and Ann Arbor merchant Guy Beckley to found it.
Beckley’s financial wherewithal made him a good fit to serve as publisher. Theodore Foster, a farmer and tanner in Scio Township whose father had been a senator from Rhode Island, had the necessary credentials to serve as the paper’s editor.
The Signal of Liberty began publication in 1841. Printed above Beckley’s brother’s store on Broadway, it had an initial circulation of 500. By February the following year, subscriptions had almost doubled to 900, passing the Michigan Freeman at its peak. By the mid-1840s the circulation doubled again.
The paper’s accounts of aiding escaped slaves on their way to Canada were probably firsthand. Identifying participants in the Underground Railroad is notoriously difficult, because aiding escaped slaves was a crime (Birney himself was convicted of it in Ohio in 1837). But an 1882 reminiscence by Nathan Thomas of Kalamazoo named Beckley and Foster as fellow “conductors.”
The Signal of Liberty zealously shared news and opinions concerning the antislavery movement in Michigan and throughout the United States. An article entitled “Judicial Prejudice” deplored the sentencing in Washtenaw County of John Kading, a black man, to five years’ imprisonment at hard labor for stealing items valued at no more than fifty cents. Meanwhile, a white man was sentenced to only three years for shooting a man and crippling him for life.
The Signal was not afraid to attack political heavyweights. Its April 10, 1846 edition relayed the tortures suffered by Lewis Richardson, a slave of Kentucky senator Henry Clay, who was subjected to 100 lashes after returning late from a visit to his enslaved wife, who lived three miles down the road at another plantation. Richardson recounted that during his nine years under Clay’s thumb, he received “not a stitch of bed clothes” or even a hat to protect him from the sun. He was fed mostly meager amounts of coarse corn and bread. His reason for taking flight, without his wife, was that he deemed it impossible to physically survive another whipping.
In that time and place, the Signal’s revulsion at slavery was by no means universal. For publishing testimonies such as Richardson’s, the paper received many a written lambasting from pro-slavery publications. The Detroit Free Press sneered that the Ann Arbor paper had “taken up the Cudgels of the coon organ” and was “billing and cooing with abolitionism.” The Livingston Democrat vowed to expose its “damnable principals … whenever and wherever” they appeared.
But opposition to slavery was growing. In 1844, when the Liberty Party again ran Birney for president, he got enough votes to swing several states from Henry Clay to James Polk. The following year, he ran for governor and received 7.8 percent of the vote, a strong showing for a third-party candidate.
In 1847 and 1848, Foster drew up a list of 1,267 Michigan subscribers. Close to 300 of them resided in Washtenaw County, which also provided more than half of the Signal’s advertising. In terms of occupations, 60 percent were farmers, and 20 percent were artisans. Why? One theory is that these groups supported the abolition of slavery because they believed that their own hard work had brought them financial success and felt that nobody should be barred from that same chance.
Male abolitionists generally favored gender-segregated branches, with women encouraged to direct their efforts to liberating female slaves. “Say not that it is man’s business to destroy slavery,” the Signal editorialized in 1845. “I know man ought to do it–he should have done it a long time ago, but he has been recreant to his duty. Now let woman speak, and it shall be done. You are aware of the extent of your influence. I have frequently observed that antislavery sentiments are much oftener cherished by females than by the other sex. Their sympathies for the oppressed are generally deeper and lasting; and were they sufficiently firm in their advocacy of man’s ‘inalienable rights,’ the result would be most happy and beneficial. Much of the success that has hitherto attended the antislavery cause is owing to the efforts of woman. May we not hope that those efforts will be redoubled.”
Apparently, women took this message to heart. The Signal of Liberty reported that during 1846 and 1847, a larger number of female antislavery societies materialized throughout Michigan. Nevertheless, under Foster’s leadership, the paper afforded less space to women’s antislavery works than to men’s. While he often published the minutes of Washtenaw County’s male abolitionist society meetings, he rarely hailed the endeavors of female antislavery societies, leaving little historical record of their efforts. And he ridiculed abolitionists who advocated for women’s suffrage.
Foster eventually revised those views. By 1856, he made up his mind that women should be afforded the right to vote. He even went so far as to predict that “female suffrage will generally prevail in the United States” by the mid-twentieth century. He was not too far off–women didn’t win the vote nationally until 1920.
The Signal of Liberty ceased publication in 1848. Beckley had died the previous year, taking with him the financial support on which the paper depended. The Liberty Party also folded.
But opposition to slavery continued to grow. After Clay won approval for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required authorities in free states to assist in the return of escapees, the Michigan Legislature passed the Michigan Personal Freedom Act in 1855. Directly contradicting the federal law, it guaranteed anyone claimed as a fugitive slave “all the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus and of trial by jury.” It made it illegal for Michigan sheriffs to detain accused fugitives and prohibited state or local jails from holding them. And it made it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to “maliciously seize any free person entitled to freedom, with intent to have such person held in slavery.”
In Jackson in 1854, Birney and other Liberty Party veterans helped found the Republican Party. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the slave states seceded. The stage was set for the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
This article has been edited since it was published in the January 2021 Ann Arbor Observer. The year of Michigan’s statehood has been corrected.