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A Letter by a Fugitive Slave

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A Letter by a Fugitive Slave (1840)

Source: Joseph Taper: excerpts from “Letter from Joseph Taper to Joseph Long, November 11, 1840” in the Joseph Long Papers located in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

No one knows how many slaves succeeded in escaping from bondage before the Civil War. Some who managed to do so settled in northern cities like Boston, Cincinnati, and New York. But because federal law required that fugitives be returned to slavery, many continued northward until they reached Canada.

One successful fugitive was Joseph Taper, a slave in Frederick County, Virginia, who in 1837 ran away to Pennsylvania with his wife and children. Two years later, learning that a “slave catcher” was in the neighborhood, the Tapers fled to Canada. In 1840, Taper wrote to a white acquaintance in Virginia recounting some of his experiences. The Biblical passage to which Taper refers reads: “And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts.”

Reading Questions:

1. How does Taper’s letter reverse the rhetoric, common among white Americans, which saw the United States as a land of freedom and the British empire as lacking in liberty?
2. What aspects of life in Canada does Taper emphasize as elements of his new freedom?

Dear Sir,

I now take the opportunity to inform you that I am in a land of liberty, in good heath….I have paid 50 dollars rent this year; next year I expect to build. The Queen of England has granted 50 acres of land to every colored man who will accept of the gift, and become an actual settler. Also a yoke of…...

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