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THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW: A Double Paradox 1 Larry Gara The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, as one of die compromise measures of diat year, was meant to help quiet die explosive slavery issue and to remove it from die realm of political discussion. Instead, die law operated to keep die slavery question alive and to assure its inclusion in die political debates of die 1850's. This irony of political life was matched by anodier: diat a measure which substantially increased tiie power of die general government was demanded by a section whose spokesmen consistendy relied upon die arguments of state sovereignty for die protection of tiieir interests.2 The law was actually as much concerned witii constitutional obligations as witii die problem of returning fugitive slaves. Yet by its very nature it was a concession to nationalism, and a recognition by die Soutii diat when problems exceeded die ability of states to solve diem the power of die national government should be brought into play. The fugitive slave issue became an explosive one in die Soutiiern states after die 1842 Supreme Court decision in Pn'gg v. Pennsylvania. In diat decision die majority of die court declared unconstitutional a Pennsylvania personal liberty law because it interfered witii die federal fugitive slave act of 1793. The court held diat the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves was exclusively a federal responsib├╝ity, and tiiis part of die decision opened die way for a new series of personal liberty laws which usually forbade state officials from participating in the arrest or return of runaways from slavery. Since die 1793 statute depended upon enforcement by state officials, die Nordiern 1 This article is based, in part, upon research made possible by a grant from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophical Society. In slightly modified form the article was read at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in Cleveland, May 1, 1964. 2 Arthur Bestor has pointed out the constitutional significance of the doctrine of state sovereignty and asserted that in its last analysis it was a docrine of power rather than of rights and operated to make slavery a national rather than a local institution. See Bestor, "State Sovereignty and Slavery: A Reinterpretation of Proslavery Constitutional Doctrine, 1846-1860," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, LIV ( 1961 ), 117-180. 229 230CIVIL WAR HISTORY state laws rendered it largely ineffective. Not surprisingly, a demand for new federal legislation followed from Southern spokesmen.3 The issues at stake were far more important than the monetary value of any slaves who might escape north.4 A fugitive slave recaptured was worth little as a chattel and slave dealers found such "property " difficult to sell even at greatly reduced prices. In 1850 Virginia's Senator James Murray Mason opposed a clause in the proposed fugitive slave measure which provided a possible jury trial for a fugitive in the state from which he had fled. Mason's objection was that such a requirement would prevent the master from selling the runaway immediately after recapture. Such quick sale was usually advisable, said Senator Mason, "first, on account of the example, and, secondly, because by absconding he has forfeited the confidence of his owner."5 The example of a successful flight was indeed a serious problem for those who claimed title to slave property. Abolitionists and slaveowners alike recognized that the influence of escapes on those remaining in slavery was considerable. In 1857 J. Miller McKim, a Phdadelphia abolitionist, reported an increased number of escapes and remarked that "the tenure by which slave property is held all along our borders, is gready weakened by these multiplying flights. Human chattels, even when but partially enlightened, constitute a very uncertain sort of possession." Dr. Robert Collins, the owner of Ellen Craft, who had fled from slavery, expressed similar sentiments. "Every slave who gains his freedom by flight from the south, and by protection from the north," he said, "presents his fellow slaves the temptation to follow in his footsteps and find the same freedom."6 Although fears of a mass exodus from slavery, always uppermost in the minds of the slaveholders, proved largely unfounded, Southern...


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