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Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851

Politics Dictates Treason Charge

News of Gorsch's death quickly spread across the country. People in the South (especially in Maryland) were demanding blood. Southern newspapers made the incident sound like a planned rebellion. President Millard Fillmore, along with his secretary of state, Daniel Webster, and his attorney general, John Crittenden, knew that something had to be done or the South would regard the whole affair as proof of the federal government's inability to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Therefore, it was decided to charge all the participants in the riot with treason. Even if there were no convictions, the government reasoned, the trials alone would dampen northern opposition to the enforcement of the fugitive slave law.

Treason is defined by the Constitution as levying war against the United States. The government's argument was that any action to prevent, by force, the enforcement of any federal law was treasonous. Furthermore, anyone who advocated such action, even if he or she did not actually participate in the violence, was also guilty of treason. Eventually, 41 people, including Hanway and Lewis, were indicted. (Parker and the four runaway slaves were among those charged with treason, but since they had escaped arrest, they would be tried in absentia.)

The trial was held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Assisted by W. Arthur Jackson, Hanway's defense lawyers were four of the most prominent attorneys in Pennsylvania and included the fiery orator and congressman Thaddeus Stevens as well as Theodore Cuyler, Joseph Lewis, and John Read.

The U.S. Attorney for eastern Pennsylvania, John Ashmead, was initially in charge of the prosecution. Urged by Daniel Webster himself to make as strong a case as possible, Ashmead was assisted by his cousin, George Ashmead, and by Philadelphia lawyer James Ludlow. However, there was a strong suspicion in Maryland that the entire judicial system in Pennsylvania was biased against southern slaveowners. Maryland attorney general Robert Brent advised Ashmead that he expected to play a prominent role in Hanway's prosecution, along with two lawyers hired by the Gorsch family. At first, Ashmead refused, but when the governor of Maryland complained to the White House, Ashmead was instructed to accommodate Brent and the others. One of the Gorsch family's attorneys, James Cooper, eventually became the prosecution's "leading counsel." Baltimore District Attorney Z. Collins Lee was later added to the team. Still, each group of prosecutors had different strategies that often lead to the submission of conflicting evidence.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851 - Slave Master Killed Chasing Fugitive, Politics Dictates Treason Charge, Hanway Tried In Test Case, Suggestions For Further Reading