How the States Fought Slavery

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 marked the culmination of the over half a century’s worth of efforts by the federal government to prop up slavery. While much of this history is neglected today, the states’ rights movement the legislation ignited in the North has been downright ignored.

The existence of such a movement may be surprising to modern readers, who are told that states’ rights always and forever existed for the sole purpose of enslaving or oppressing minorities. But the principle that individual states could resist the federal government appealed to Northerners who were opposed to the nationalized protection of slavery. Many Northerners, especially those with abolitionist sympathies, were shocked and outraged that the Fugitive Slave Act made it legal for slave catchers to enter their states and kidnap residents on the mere accusation of being runaway slaves. That the law also required their support in the process rubbed salt in the wound.

Northern Personal Liberty Laws

In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, nine northern states passed what were called “personal liberty laws.” These state laws, which effectively nullified certain provisions of the federal law, required the traditional right of habeas corpus to be extended to accused fugitives before they could be hauled off to the South. While the Constitution had always required any escaped slave to be returned to his “owner,” Northerners at least wanted to ensure that the determination of the accused’s fate would follow the proper legal course.

In the event that slave catchers attempted to skirt the state laws, many states mandated hefty fines and jail time for anyone who attempted to take an accused fugitive out of the state without a trial. Northerners, correctly believing that the Fugitive Slave Act violated their states’ sovereignty, opposed it so much that mob violence against slave catchers frequently broke out and, in at least one case, resulted in the deaths of fugitive hunters.

Abolitionists Nullify Federal “Laws”

Northern states rebelled not only against the federal legislature, but also against the federal judiciary. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that blacks, free or slave, were not and could never be American citizens, Vermont and Massachusetts stated that the Court’s decision was null and void within their borders.

Wisconsin was particularly aggressive in employing the principle of states’ rights in the resistance to federal slavery laws. In March 1854, a mob of Wisconsinites led by abolitionist Sherman Booth stormed a jail and liberated a captured fugitive slave named Joshua Glover. When Booth was arrested by federal agents for interfering with the slave catcher, his case was taken to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which freed him on a writ of habeas corpus. For good measure, the Court also stated that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional and therefore null and void.

Booth was later rearrested by federal agents only to be again set free by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which again adjudged the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and requested the state court’s documents, Wisconsin refused to send the required information which delayed the case for four years. While the federal government spun its wheels attempting to prosecute Booth, Glover and his family escaped to Canada and freedom.

Northern States Individually End Slavery

The principle of federalism was not only used to fight against the protection of slavery, it actively ended it. Historian Douglas Harper observed that, as a result of Enlightenment ideals, religious and moral opposition to slavery and the American War for Independence, “between 1777 and 1804, the Northern colonies and states, one by one, gave up on slavery.”

The important phrase here is “one by one.” Northern abolition was not the result of some top-down, centralized plan. Northern states, where slavery had existed for over a century by the time of the American Revolution, acted in their individual, sovereign capacities to become the first governments in the world to end it.

At the same time that northern states were ending slavery, southern states were using the power of the federal government to protect it and offload its costs to poor Southerners and anti-slavery Northerners. Many today point to southern secession as evidence that states’ rights were to blame for the protection of slavery. But Southerners’ appeals to secession succeeded only after they were stymied in their attempts to further centralize the protection of slavery. Ironically, southern slaveholders’ failed attempts to control the federal government led to their allegedly principled adherence to federalism, culminating in the secession of southern states in 1860 and 1861.

Ultimately, the demonization of states’ rights in the struggle against slavery is at best an incomplete history, one in dire need of serious reconsideration.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.