Nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act

Before the Civil War, northern states defied the federal government by refusing to enforce one of the most repugnant laws ever enacted in U.S. history.

Although the concepts of states’ rights and nullification are historically associated with the South, they were employed by northern states to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Under this law, stringent measures were imposed to catch runaway slaves. These included: 

  • Penalizing federal officials that did not enforce the law
  • Rewarding federal officials that did enforce law
  • Requiring free citizens to help capture runaway slaves
  • Fining or imprisoning citizens helping runaways to escape
  • Prohibiting runaways from testifying on their own behalf in court
  • Denying jury trials to runaways

Special federal commissions, not courts, worked with U.S. marshals to handle runaway cases. Commissioners and marshals who failed to hold captured runaways could be sued, thus compelling them to enforce the law. They received $10 for every runaway delivered to a claimant, but only $5 for cases in which the runaway was freed. This provided a financial incentive to send even free black men and women into slavery.

The law not only jeopardized the liberty of every black citizen, but it also infringed on the freedom of white citizens by forcing them to hunt for runaways against their will.

Northern Outrage
J.W. Loguen, a runaway slave who became a college-educated minister, denounced the Fugitive Slave Act: “The time has come to change the tones of submission into tones of defiance… I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it… I will not live a slave, and if force is employed to re-enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man…”

Northerners who had previously been ambiguous about slavery were now compelled to witness the institution firsthand. Consequently, former moderates quickly became enraged by the “Man-Stealing Law” and refused to send their fellow men and women into servitude. Resistance to the law was so strong that slaveholders coming north to find runaways were sometimes mobbed or jailed for attempted kidnapping.

Abolitionists used this new resistance by encouraging more slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad, reasoning that if enough slaves escaped to the North, and if enough northerners refused to help catch them, then slavery would eventually die. Thus, the liberties of runaways were protected by abolitionists and noncompliant northerners who were defending their own freedom against an overreaching government.

Defiance and Nullification
In the spirit of southern statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun, northerners worked to prevent the Fugitive Slave Act from being enforced in their states. This “nullification” of federal law was first introduced by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, in which Jefferson and James Madison declared that states had the right to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional.

State and local governments openly defied the law:

  • The legislatures of Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Wisconsin passed “personal liberty laws” making it nearly impossible to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in those states.
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court declared that the Tenth Amendment protected states from repugnant federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, specifically citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 as the basis for its opinion.
  • The Chicago City Council called northern congressmen who supported the act “traitors” like “Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.”
  • When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not free federal prisoners convicted of helping runaways, the Wisconsin legislature called “this assumption of jurisdiction by the federal judiciary… an act of undelegated power, void, and of no force…” 

In addition to local governments, the people themselves took matters into their own hands:

  • In Syracuse, New York, a jury effectively nullified the law by acquitting all but one of 26 people who had been arrested for freeing William “Jerry” Henry; he ultimately escaped to Canada.
  • When Joshua Glover was captured by U.S. marshals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the sheriff supported local opinion by freeing Glover and jailing the marshals; Glover also escaped to Canada.
  • In Pennsylvania, a mob of free blacks killed a slaveholder attempting to capture a runaway.
  • Military force was needed to disperse a mass meeting after a black man was apprehended in Detroit.
  • Throughout Ohio, town meetings branded any northern official who helped enforce the law “an enemy of the human race.”

Other cities and states refused to help enforce the law simply because it was too expensive. Returning one runaway to the South cost the city of Boston $5,000. Boston officials never enforced the law again. All of these acts of defiance and nullification were ironically adopted from principles first introduced and later invoked by southerners.

The Law’s Legacy
The unintended consequences of legislation has rarely been greater than with the Fugitive Slave Act. The law enabled northerners to defy federal authority on moral grounds, and people who broke the law by refusing to help catch runaways were hailed as heroes. Thus, this law actually increased the number of abolitionists and further divided North and South.

The law also enabled the federal government to save slavery from extinction when the institution was dying throughout the rest of the world. Had the law not been passed, more slaves would have escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, it would have been too expensive to capture runaways, and the economic realities would have eventually destroyed slavery.

Moreover, northerners’ use of defiance and nullification helped embolden the South to secede from the Union a decade later. Americans recognized that they were the ultimate defenders of their own liberty, and as such many believed that the next logical step after defiance and nullification was secession. The Fugitive Slave Act hastened that secession and helped bring on the most terrible war in American history.

Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF