“Solomon, Shall I Strike?”
by Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
In West Vincent, Chester County,187 years ago, these words were uttered in a moment of grave physical danger and profound moral challenge.
On the farm of Esther Lewis, two fugitives from slavery were being employed as farm workers. They were well accustomed to this work, having for years performed these duties for a white Southern master, receiving nothing but the barest minimum of food and clothing ,with no conceivable prospect of a better life for themselves or their descendants.
Like many in their situation, they were now motivated to do their best; imagine performing familiar work but for the first time to be valued, to receive pay, to be considered part of a team including the man in charge: Solomon Fussell, brother to Esther, a Quaker and abolitionist, at that time manager of her farm..
However, according to the history of Robert Smedley (p. 173) an infamous local slave catcher, Abel Richardson, conspiring with the former slave masters, surprised them.
One of the fugitives, however, had an axe in hand, able and willing to use it to free himself and his companion from the horror of recapture. Raising it, he had a moment’s hesitation and asked the question: “Solomon, shall I strike?”
What a moment!
What influence had this simple Quaker on these two men that the question should even be asked? Consider: you are about to be dragged back to the horror of slavery, intensified by the fact that your “masters” had to go to the trouble of recapturing you? And you wonder if you should strike?! How many of us would even pause to ask such a question?
But one did. And Solomon, named after the king of Israel said to be wisest, was asked to give judgment in that instant. This Solomon, a Quaker, a believer in non-violence, followed “his life-long principles,”—and said, “No.”
The axe was dropped. The fugitives were recaptured. According to Smedley’s account, “They were never heard from more on earth.”
Who was right? Did Solomon clear his soul of the likely consequence of bloody death, wreaked by that axe upon the wretches bringing those men back to slavery? Did he realize the consequences of his “No,” that the pair of fugitives would face torment and possible maiming for their aspiration to freedom? Does blame lie with the fugitive who tossed his fate onto the conscience of a Quaker, committed to nonviolence, ready to spare the lives even of despicable slaves-catchers?
We would have to be wiser than the Old Testament Solomon to make, instantaneously, a judgment that would make sense of our country’s greatest moral dilemma.
Perhaps some good came from this sad incident. Esther Lewis’s daughters –including Grace Anne, shown here--were horror-struck to see the two fugitives re-enslaved, and they became ardent abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad for as long as it ran.