Free but Not Free

n 1826, Gilbert Horton, a free black sailor from New York, was arrested during a sojourn to Washington, D.C., on the mere suspicion that he must be a runaway slave. Slavery still thrived in the nation’s capital, and men of color were routinely presumed at the time to be the property of whites unless they could prove otherwise.

Unable to produce “evidences of freedom,” Horton was incarcerated. The U.S. Marshal placed the customary advertisement detailing Horton’s physical appearance and duly reporting his claims of freedom, but chillingly warned he would be sold into slavery unless his “owner or owners” promptly called for him and paid the cost of keeping him imprisoned. Jailed for weeks, Horton was freed only after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and President John Quincy Adams, no less, prepared to intervene in his behalf. Washington’s National Intelligencer newspaper blamed the injustice on the victim. Horton, the editors sneered, lacked “brains enough to get some one to write for the proof of his freedom.” Besides, the paper added, he had been “ten-fold happier in his cell” than other prisoners.

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