As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Law, providing stiff penalties for any person who aided fugitives in their escape to freedom. The law was passed in September 1850, and immediately drew a strong reaction in Syracuse and throughout the North. The Syracuse Daily Standard reported on a "meeting of colored citizens" and printed their resolutions of mutual and self-defense.
On October 4, more than 500 citizens of Syracuse met to plan their response, with the Mayor of Syracuse in the chair. They formed a Vigilance Committee made up of leading citizens of both races, and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor that no person would be taken from Syracuse and returned to slavery. The meeting was addressed by Jermain Wesley Loguen, Elder (and ultimately Bishop) of the AME Zion Church. Himself a fugitive from slavery in Tennessee, Loguen roused the commitment of his fellow citizens, swearing he would not be taken, and that he knew they would stand with him.
Also present was Samuel J. May, Unitarian Minister and active worker in the cause of Abolition. May also addressed the crowd, and subsequently preached a sermon in which he condemned Daniel Webster for his support of the Fugitive Slave Law. In it, though himself a pacifist, he urged his listeners to defend their neighbors as vigorously as they would themselves and their families.
The Mayor of Syracuse, Alfred H. Hovey, pledged his commitment to stand with his constituents, come what may, against enforcement of the act.
The Following May, Daniel Webster came to Syracuse, and from a balcony opposite City Hall he defended the Fugitive Slave Law, and labeled efforts to block its execution as "treason, treason, TREASON." He promised the Fugitive Slave Law would be executed in Syracuse, during its next anti-slavery convention if the opportunity should arise. And so it did, during the convention of the NYS Liberty Party.
Around noon on October 1, federal marshals from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, accompanied by the local police, arrested a man who called himself Jerry. also known as William Henry. Jerry was working as a barrel maker, and was arrested at his workplace. He was originally told the charge was theft until after he was in manacles. On being informed that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law, he put up substantial resistance, but was subdued.
Word of the arrest quickly reached the Convention, then in session at a nearby church. There are reports that the wife of Commissioner Sabine, who would hear the case, had already leaked plans of the arrest. By pre-arranged signal, church bells began ringing, and a crowd gathered at Sabine's office, where Jerry had been taken for arraignment. An immediate effort to free the prisoner was unsuccessful, and though he escaped to the street in irons, he was rapidly recaptured. The arraignment was put off until evening and relocated to a larger room. A large crowd gathered in the street, this time equipped for a more serious rescue attempt.
With a battering ram the door was broken in and despite pistol shots out the window by one of the deputy marshals, it became clear that the crowd was too large and determined to be resisted. The prisoner was surrendered, and one deputy marshal broke his arm jumping from a window to escape the crowd. The injured prisoner was hidden in the city for several days in the home of a local butcher know for his anti-abolitionist sentiments, and later taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada.
The following day, Gerrit Smith introduced the following resolution, adopted at the Liberty Party convention:
WHEREAS, Daniel Webster, That base and infamous enemy of the human race, did in a speech of which he delivered himself, in Syracuse last Spring, exultingly and insultingly predict that fugitive slaves would yet be taken away from Syracuse and even from anti-slavery conventions in Syracuse, and whereas the attempt to fulfill this prediction was delayed until the first day of October, 1851, when the Liberty party of the State of New York were holding their annual convention in Syracuse; and whereas the attempt was defeated by the mighty uprising of 2,500 brave men, before whom the half-dozen kidnappers were 'as tow', therefore,
Resolved, That we rejoice that the City of Syracuse- the anti-slavery city of Syracuse- the city of anti-slavery conventions, our beloved and glorious city of Syracuse- still remains undisgraced by the fulfillment of the satanic prediction of the satanic Daniel Webster.
Nineteen indictments were returned against the rescuers, not including Smith or May, who later both publicly admitted their involvement. Loguen was among those indicted. Taken to Auburn for arraignment, the suspects were bailed out by, among others, William H. Seward, the current US Senator and former Governor of New York. The proceedings dragged on for two years with one conviction. The convict died before his case could be heard on appeal.
The unsuccessful prosecution of the Rescuers did not end the story, however. Smith and others obtained an indictment against Marshal Allen for kidnapping, and used the occasion to argue against the Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Marshal Allen was, of course, acquitted.
In the following years the annual commemorations of the Jerry Rescue attracted speakers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Wentworth Higgison. The main address was typically given by Gerrit Smith. Some of the addresses are preserved among the Gerrit Smith Papers at Syracuse University. Also in that collection is Smith's printed letter of August 27, 1859 to John Thomas, Chairman of the Jerry Rescue Committee, declining to participate in that year's event. In it Smith expressed his frustration with the movement and predicted that as the Abolitionists had failed to move their countrymen, "For insurrections then we may look any year, any month, any day."
Six weeks later, John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and lit the fuse of a Civil War that would bring an end to slavery throughout the world. As noted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton six months later, the movement had also set other fires of reform, and liberated the energy of reformers, across American society.