Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 37
FUGITIVE SLAVES AND THE PEOPLE

No laws of Congress ever produced more bitterness and widespread disobedience than the fugitive slave laws. No other laws of Congress, probably, ever were so wicked in their consequences, and it is doubtful if any other ever was held by the people to be so flagrantly unconstitutional. The question of why Article 4, Section 2,1 was inserted in the Constitution becomes superficial when one remembers the widespread belief, testified to by most honorable men and affirmed in ratifying conventions everywhere except in the southernmost states, that slavery was expected to disappear at an early date, and when one remembers also, as generally agreed by all, that every state possessed the power to protect persons within its jurisdiction and none had been obliged to permit the capture of alleged fugitives under the Articles of Confederation. If the clause was a grant of power to the federal government to return fugitives and a denial to the states of a power to protect persons within their jurisdiction, as the courts ultimately claimed, it placed a heavy responsibility upon Congress, if and when it implemented the clause by legislation, to provide every safeguard against kidnapping. Congress failed to do so, thus placing an equally heavy responsibility upon the courts to declare the Act of 1793 unconstitutional.

The request for federal legislation did not originate in a slave state but in Pennsylvania, and it did not arise from a case of recovery but from a case of kidnapping.2 There was every reason, therefore, for Congress to have passed an anti- kidnapping law. Instead, it passed a law for the recovery of fugitive slaves.3 Antislavery resistance to the law was based upon the fact that the clause in the Constitution and the law of 1793 were both contrary to the moral law and to the natural law. This doctrine of the moral law went back in antislavery tradition at least to the days of Woolman and Benezet, for the Quakers of that day emphasized the command, "Thou shalt not deliver unto the master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates where it liketh him best, thou shalt not oppress him," and the golden rule, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law and the prophets." By the time of David Rice and David Barrow, it was clearly and universally believed among antislavery men that no legislative body could enact an enforceable law which was contrary to the law of God as revealed in the Word or in the immutable laws of nature. This firm conviction was reinforced by the theory of natural rights as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to which no constitution or law within the framework of our political institutions could do violence and command obedience.4

The clause in the Constitution was wrong. It legalized kidnapping. The men who wrote it into the Constitution were so ashamed of it that they said "persons held to service or labor" instead of "slaves." James Iredell said so in the North Carolina ratifying convention. The law of 1793 was wrong. Slaves were men and endowed with the same natural rights as other men.5 They had a

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