Passmore Williamson

American abolitionist and businessman / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Passmore Williamson (February 23, 1822 – February 1, 1895)[1] was an American abolitionist and businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a free state in the antebellum years. As secretary of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and a member of its Vigilance Committee, Williamson is best known for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons gain freedom from slavery on July 18, 1855.[2]

Passmore Williamson in Moyamensing Prison, 1855

In a case that established legal precedent, he was served with a writ of habeas corpus by federal US District Court John K. Kane under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to produce Johnson and her two sons in court. He did not know where they were held, so could not respond; Judge Kane charged him with contempt of court and sentenced him to 90 days.

The jailing of Williamson dramatically expanded news coverage of the case and generated debate about the extension of "Slave Power" over state law, as Pennsylvania did not recognize slavery. It held that slaveowners gave up their property rights in slaves if they brought them into the state; if the slave chose freedom, the state would support that decision and not compensate the owner. Thus, Johnson was not literally a fugitive, as she had gained freedom in the state according to state law, after John Hill Wheeler voluntarily took her there in the course of his travel.