The Price of Liberty

 
ArCH Program Logo

LEARN.

Preservation is about more than saving old buildings. You can also preserve items and documents that help you discover stories from the past.

Travel back in time with us to the year 1847, before human slavery was outlawed in Delaware. Slavery means that a person owns another person and can tell them what to do without question. In 1847, if someone tried to help an enslaved person they could be arrested, put on trial, and face punishment.


Materials Needed:

  • Paper

  • Pencil or pen

  • An envelope (optional)

  • Stamp (optional)


Instructions:

STEP 1: Review the vocabulary terms below.
STEP 2: Read the historical documents below.
STEP 3: Write your answers to the reflection questions.


 
A colonial brick building.

Vocabulary:

A note for students: Some of the vocabulary terms below are hurtful words if used today, but are commonly seen in historical documents. If you are unsure which words you shouldn’t say, please ask an adult. You can learn more about the words commonly used in a slaveholding society, versus the language the National Park Service and its partners use today, at this website.

Slavery was a condition where one person owned another person and was completely in charge of their day-to-day activities. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons. Since this was something that was done to someone, today we call them an ‘enslaved person’ to recognize that they were a human being and that being held by an enslaver was not their fault.
A network of people using their homes, farms, businesses, and churches to provide a safe place for runaway slaves and their families. The people involved in this network provided food, clothing and shelter.
A word used in the past for a member of a dark-skinned group of peoples originally native to Africa south of the Sahara Desert. This is a term that was common in slaveholding society but is no longer acceptable to describe someone today.
A word used in the past to describe a person of mixed White and Black ancestry. This is a term that was common in slaveholding society but is no longer acceptable to describe someone today.
A person who hoped to do away with slavery. People involved in the abolitionist movement could be either White or Black and might contribute by speaking out or writing against slavery, giving money or directly aiding slaves to seek freedom.
 

Samuel D. Burris was a free African American man, meaning he was not enslaved, when this law was written and passed by the Delaware government in 1837. Ten years later, Samuel D. Burris went to court for breaking this law. Take a moment to read through the law below and then pause to think about how it made you feel.

Chapter CXXXVI (137)

A Supplement to the act entitled “An Act providing for the punishment of certain crimes and misdemeanors”

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Delaware in General Assembly met, that if any person or persons shall, knowingly entice, persuade, encourage, aid or abet any negro or mulatto slave or indentured servant to leave the service of his or her master or mistress, or shall, knowingly aid or assist any negro or mulatto slaves or indentured servants in escaping from the service of his or her said master or mistress, every person so offending, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof, shall forfeit and pay to the state fine of not less than one hundred dollars nor more than five hundred dollars and shall be imprisoned for a term of not less than three months nor more than six months and at the expiration of said imprisonment shall be disposed of, if a negro or mulatto, as a servant to the highest and best bidder, for the period of seven years.

Passed at Dover, February 21, 1837


Question:

Treating everyone equally is one of the keys to our justice system, but throughout our history it has often been more of an ideal than a reality. Based on your understanding of the law above, does this law treat everyone the same? Why or why not?

 
Edging of Samuel D. Burris

Who was Samuel D. Burris?

Samuel D. Burris was a free African American man born and raised in Delaware. As an adult, he was an opponent of slavery, and he decided to help enslaved people escape from enslavers on the Underground Railroad.

In 1847 Mr. Burris was caught helping a woman named Maria Matthews escape enslavement. When he was put on trial that Fall, he was also accused of helping two enslaved men escape.

The case was heard in the courtroom of the Delaware State House (now the Old State House) in Dover by Judge James Booth Jr. and two other men.

In a letter he wrote that appeared in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Mr. Burris described what happened:

“Court came on, and without sufficient preparation, I was forced in for trial; and as might have been expected, I was convicted on two indictments, and sentenced on both to pay five hundred dollars fine and cost, and prison charges and be imprisoned ten months and be sold as a slave for a period of fourteen years; to be exported, transferred or assigned over to slave-traders, or whatever else the inhuman purchaser may choose to do with me. Of course, I have been here in prison ever since, looking forward, with anxious mind, with an anxious mind, to the day in which the sale of my body in the first case will take place”

Citation: Samuel D. Burris letter from the Liberator newspaper, June 30, 1848


Questions:

  • How do you think Mr. Burris was feeling when he wrote this letter?
  • What punishment did the judges give to Mr. Burris?
 

What did Judge Booth think?

At the same time Judge Booth wrote a letter to William Tharp, the Governor of Delaware. In the letter Judge Booth said:

“When the last term of imprisonment shall expire, he will have been imprisoned for upwards of one year; which of itself alone, is a severe punishment for a mere misdemeanor. If Burris is sold to the highest and best bidder, he will inevitably be sold out of the State; and thus contrary to the plain construction of the law under which he was sentenced, instead of his being free at the expiration of his term of servitude of seven years, he becomes a slave for life. The ends of justice will be answered, either by way of punishment of public example, by the payment of five hundred dollars, the amount of the two fines imposed on him, by the payment of the costs and his jail fees; by his long term of imprisonment, and by prohibition his ever again coming into this State.”

Citation: Judge James Booth to Governor William Tharp letter, Delaware Public Archives, Executive Papers 1848 Petitions

Questions:

  • Why do you think the Judge wrote a letter to the Governor on Mr. Burris’s behalf?
  • How do you think the letter may have affected Mr. Burris’s sentence

Do.

In the story you just read above, you saw how Judge James Booth used his voice to make Governor Tharp aware of how he felt about the sentence given to Samuel D. Burris for helping escaped slaves seek their freedom.

Writing a letter is one way to make your voice heard by leaders of your local community. Follow these simple instructions, and write a letter to a leader in your community letting them know how you feel about a local event, problem or activity.

Instructions:

STEP 1: Brainstorm a list of things in your community or school that you would like to change. Also think about who you might write to for each item on your list (for example principal, teacher, governor, city councilperson)
STEP 2: Try to think of a few reasons why that change matters for each item. If you cannot think of any reasons for an item you may want to eliminate it from your list.
STEP 3: Pick a change from your list that you feel strongly about.
STEP 4: Use the template below to set up your letter. Ask your teacher or guardian if you get stuck.

Today’s Date (Month ##, 202#)

Dear (fill in the person’s name),

Body of your letter (what you want to say).

Sincerely,

Your name

(optional) STEP 5: Have an adult help you find the address for the person you wrote to.
(optional) STEP 6: Use the template below to address your letter and mail it.

Your Name
Street Address
City, State Zip Code

Name of the person you wrote to

Street address

City, State Zip Code


 

REFLECT.

Do you think laws should be rewritten as society changes? If yes, how often should they be revised, and what in your state's legislation would you change first? If no, what are the pieces of legislation that you feel should never change because they reflect the needs and values of society?

 


Thank you to our partners!

This program would not have been possible without the time and dedication from the staff at the The Old State House. Big thanks to everyone who helped create this experience.

Last updated: May 11, 2021

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

New Castle Court House Museum
Attn: First State NHP
211 Delaware Street

New Castle, DE 19720

Phone:

302-478-2769
If you need to speak to a park ranger call our ranger station at (302-478-2769) and someone will return your call as soon as possible. For a more immediate response, please email the park at firststate@nps.gov.

Contact Us

Tools