FUGITIVE SLAVES AND THE LAW
Antislavery philosophy in regard to the constitutional rights and legal status of the Negro held that slavery was the complete subjection of one man to the will of another by force, the exercise of which was sanctioned by the statute law of the colonies and the subsequent states; that slaves were recognized as property in the states still sanctioning slavery, but not in the nonslaveholding states and not, and deliberately not, in the Constitution of the United States; that in the slave states, where slavery was perpetual, again by statute law, slavery was equated to race and made a system of racial adjustment.
Antislavery men insisted that all of these laws were contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence; that Negroes were persons entitled to all the natural rights of man, to equality before the law, and to all the safeguards of due process; that when they passed beyond the limits of the state whose laws authorized their forcible subjection they were free men, because freedom was the natural state of all men.
The question, of course, was whether this Declaration, this statement of natural law, this magnificent definition of manhood, did or did not have constitutional force. The slaveholders said it did not, federal judges said it did not, but it had given greater solidarity and completeness to man's quest for freedom and justice than any other document ever written. It had cut away from slavery every single shred of philosophical support. It has been truly said: "The United States of America came into being with the Declaration of Independence, and for nearly two centuries the people have carried closer to their hearts than any other treasure the testament of faith therein contained." It was true in 1787, and it was true in 1850, as it is today. It was true, that is, where there was no slavery, with its doctrine of racial inferiority to stultify the minds and souls of men. Whether at the time of the Revolution Negroes were considered a special class of inferior beings or not -- and there is precious little evidence for such assertions -- the Northern people quickly came to respect them as persons, and a very great percentage of the people to treat them as equals insofar as all of their natural rights were concerned. If this were not true in 1820, then dozens of people representing great constituencies stood up in Congress and in pulpits all over the land and lied, and if it were true in 1820 it had been largely true in 1787, for the institutions of a people and the attitudes which sustain them do not change so quickly.
In the slaveholding states slaves were property by force of statute law, and Negroes were slaves unless they could prove the contrary. In the North they were persons, regardless of status elsewhere and despite all legal subtleties, and every person was free until proved otherwise by positive evidence. All Negroes, all antislavery whites, and, ultimately, the Northern people generally demanded that legislative bodies and the courts recognize the rights of slaves as persons. Slaveholders fought stubbornly to keep slaves property, no matter where they were taken or fled. The conflict raged in the courts, in the judicial cases involving fugitives, free Negroes, and their friends.