The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860

By Stanley W. Campbell | Go to book overview

Chapter V

Executive Policy
and the
Fugitive Slave Law

Effective law enforcement requires not only a favorable climate of public opinion, but also a strong desire on the part of law enforcement agencies to see the law enforced. Because of the furor caused by passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in some northern communities, it would not have been difficult for the administrations of Presidents Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan to rationalize a soft policy toward enforcement of the law. But such was not the case. After the statute to reclaim runaway slaves was signed into law, President Millard Fillmore adopted a policy that was politically dangerous but which sternly demanded that the agencies responsible for the law's enforcement do their duty. This policy was followed consistently by the administrations of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Having supported the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore had signed the bills as they were presented to him. With regard to the Fugitive Slave Law, he was hesitant. Because the question of whether the act suspended habeas corpus proceedings had arisen, Fillmore asked his attorney general, John J. Crittenden, for his opinion on the constitutionality of the law. When Crittenden

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