Reflecting on the Fugitive Slave Act

On September 18th, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act.  The grand bi-partisan bargain was unjust.  The Act admitted California as a free state and prohibited the importation of Africans into Washington D.C. for sale as slaves, among other provisions.

Senator Henry Clay (W-KY) presented the compromise and with the help of Senator Daniel Webster (MA), Senator John C. Calhoun (SC) and Stephen Douglas (IL) the compromise was passed through Congress and signed by President Fillmore, the second Vice President to take the Oath of office following the death of a sitting President. 

The true measure of this bill could be found in its most insidious provisions.  Under this law, citizens of Northern states would be required to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves from the southern states.  Fugitives were denied a jury trial and cases would be handled by special commissioners wherein the officials would be paid double if they held that the fugitive was indeed an escaped slave and not a freeman.  Also, federal officials would be tasked with enforcing the act. 

While this compromise temporarily kept the nation united, it inflamed passions, especially among northern abolitionists who could now be charged for picking up black hitchhikers.  In retrospect, and indeed at the time, the law seemed one-sided.  Some have argued that it was this law that destroyed the Whig Party and the Fillmore Administration. 

Nonetheless, it was also this law that began to utilize a national system of law enforcement between the states.  Now, every COUNTY would have a federal commissioner appointed to hear fugitive slave cases and call in federal authorities to implement the law.  Federal marshals could be fined up to $1,000 for not “us[ing] all proper means to diligently” enforce the Act.  Marshalls and commissioners could call on militias and the Army to enforce the law and could be held personally liable for the market value of a slave if they failed.  It also declared that, “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law.”  Thus, while states had a legitimate claim to states’ rights, northern states could now argue that their autonomous rights were being infringed by both the feds and the southern states.    

For free blacks, this law essentially imperiled their free status and actually suspended their habeas corpus rights to petition the court for a violation of their constitutional rights.  Furthermore, while a northern white could be criminally charged for giving a cup of water to an escaped slave, a southern slave owner wouldn’t be charged for kidnapping a free black man in the north.    

How is the Fugitive Slave Act relevant today?

In reading up on the Fillmore Administration, I found it interesting that this was the incompetent administration tasked with tackling the slave territory problem.  Essentially, the law punished black and white northerners for an institution many abhorred.  It brought to mind the taxpayer underwriting of groups like Planned Parenthood by the American people.  There are two groups of people with opposing interests and a third group of people who have no voice and are the subject of the disagreement.  Yet, the left demands that we pay to underwrite the act.  It isn’t enough to be have won the argument, they require that everyone partake in the action. 

I also found it interesting that this was the beginning of federal law enforcement officers working together and usurping state powers.  This started prior to the war between the states.

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