Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 35
THE LIBERTY PARTY

It is a singular fact that the Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society ended with the statement: "We also maintain that there are, at the present time, the highest obligations resting upon the people of the free states, to remove slavery by moral and political action." The meaning of that clause is to be found, not in the many bitter arguments of later days, but in the history of the movement before the society was organized and its Declaration of Sentiments was written.

Slavery had been abolished in eight states by constitutional provisions or by acts of state legislatures. No one denied that it could be abolished in the remaining states in the same way, though most Southerners held that it could be done only by constitutional conventions and not by legislatures.

Slavery had been abolished in the Northwest Territory and in that part of the Louisiana territory north of 36° 30′. It had been allowed to survive in the Florida Purchase and in the Territory of Arkansas, and Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri had been admitted as slave states by free action of Congress. There was argument on three main questions in this field of political action: Could Congress exclude slavery from the territories? It had done so. Could Congress exclude slave states from the Union? It had not done so. Could Congress bind states to remain free as a condition of admission? It had done so, but slaveholders denied the restraints were binding. These questions had to be decided by congressional action -- perhaps by judicial interpretation. They had been subjects of political agitation and provided a continuing field for political action.

The Constitution gave Congress power to abolish the foreign slave trade. It had done so, but insufficient legislation or lax law enforcement had permitted importations in violation of the law. The Constitution gave Congress exclusive control over interstate commerce, and in all probability interstate commerce embraced the commercial slave trade if not migrations. The latter seemed to have been placed under Congressional control by the clause pertaining to the foreign slave trade. This was a second broad field for Congressional legislation, though no action had been taken relative to the interstate trade.

The Constitution denied freedom to slaves by virtue of the laws of states to which they might escape. The provision was not a clear grant of power to Congress, and the law which the Congress had enacted nearly a half century before seemed to violate due process and actually did subject every free person of color to the danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Political action in this field involved legislatures, Congress, and the courts because of state legislation designed to supplement the deficiencies of the federal law and to protect the civil rights of the individuals.

The Constitution gave to Congress exclusive control over the District of Columbia. Slavery and the slave trade were allowed to continue there by inaction of Congress. Only Calhoun extremists denied the power of Congress to abolish both,

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