Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial

By Brophy, Alfred L. | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial


Brophy, Alfred L., The Historian


Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial. By Steven Lubet. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 367. $29.95.)

Hauling a slave into court was commonplace; from 1850 until the Civil War, alleged fugitives were hauled before federal magistrates nearly two hundred times (5). However, making an owner appear to defend his rights--that was more controversial. In fact, it was so controversial that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was designed to minimize alleged fugitives' arguments about whether they were slaves. Moreover, the federal government, including the Supreme Court, tried to limit the rights of slaves and even free African Americans to appear in court and make owners and alleged owners answer.

Steven Lubet's book lies at the intersection of a series of questions: how trials of fugitive slaves and those who tried to rescue them or prevent their recapture functioned, how the arguments about "higher law" became increasingly popular and powerful (even if never very powerful in court), and how the legal system failed sufficiently to channel or restrain the nation's dissolution. Lubet gets at these huge issues largely through three case studies: the prosecution of people who prevented the rendition of fugitives from Christiana, Pennsylvania, in 1851; the rendition of Anthony Burns to his owner by Judge Loring in Boston in 1854; and the prosecution of rescuers at Oberlin, Ohio, that made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1854. Along the way, Lubet outlines such key pieces of the story as the Constitution's basic proslavery provisions and the John Brown trial.

Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, uses trials as a gauge of social attitudes, a method quite common of late in legal history. …

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