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The Michigan Historical Review 42.2 (Fall 2016): 53-65©2016 Central Michigan University. ISSN 0890-1686 All Rights Reserved “The Exploded Humbug”: Antebellum Michigan, Personal Liberty Laws, and States’ Rights By Matthew R. Thick In 1844, Adam Crosswhite settled in Marshall, Michigan, with his family after they absconded from Kentucky, where they had been enslaved. Three years later, four Kentuckian slave catchers arrived intending to capture the Crosswhites and return them to their former owner. With the slave catchers and a local law officer on his front porch, Crosswhite signaled his neighbors, who quickly formed a mob. The mob arrested the slave catchers and placed all four in the local jail. They were charged with breaking and entering, assault and battery, and illegal possession of firearms. Their stay in jail was long enough for the townspeople of Marshall to help Crosswhite and his family move to Canada. This is a well-known story in Michigan’s history, yet it is only one among many. Slave catchers working in Michigan were often met with hostility, so much so that it compelled Henry Clay of Kentucky to announce that the Great Lakes state was a “hotbed of radicals and renegades.”1 Michigan’s opposition to slavery would manifest through legislation, as well. In 1850, Congress passed an aggressive Fugitive Slave Law giving Circuit Courts the power to appoint commissioners, who in turn could appoint deputies empowered to capture suspected runaway slaves with or without due process. Further, these commissioners had the authority to summon “bystanders . . . when necessary,” for the law stated that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt execution of this law.” In other words, “good citizens” were to act as slave catchers.2 However, in order to protect free blacks, many northern states had begun passing anti-kidnapping laws as early as the 1780s. In 1843, Massachusetts passed one of the earliest named “personal 1 Bruce A. Rubenstein and Lawrence E. Ziewacz, Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 90-92. 2 “Fugitive Slave Act (1850),” Melvin I. Urofsky and Paul Finkleman, Documents of American Constitutional & Legal History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 369. 54 The Michigan Historical Review Adam Crosswhite, circa 1870s Source: Battle Creek Enquirer liberty laws” and other states soon followed, passing their own versions of these laws over the next fifteen years, including Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and Michigan.3 Michigan was one of the last to do so, enacting its first in February 1855. This personal liberty law, dubbed “An Act to Protect the Rights and Liberties of the People of this State,” was patterned from similar statutes in other states and guaranteed the rights of any citizen accused of being a fugitive slave. It required county prosecutors to defend alleged fugitives, granted the accused the writ of habeas corpus, forbade the use of state prisons to house the accused, and required at least two “credible” witnesses to validate the claim. The law also established strict penalties for anyone arresting a free person with the intent to enslave. Four years later, Michigan passed a second personal liberty bill that made it a crime 3 Thomas Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1861 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), xi. The Exploded Humbug 55 for anyone to bring a person of color into the state and claim him or her as a slave.4 Democrats, supporters of the Fugitive Slave Law, controlled Michigan’s government until 1855, when the nascent Republican Party— formed earlier that year in Jackson—took surprise control of both the legislature and the governorship.5 Once in office, the Republican state senators sent a message to Congress that clearly stated their intentions: Resolved, That the act of Congress of 1850, known as the Fugitive Slave Law, was, in the opinion of the people of this State, an unnecessary measure; that it contains provisions of doubtful constitutionality; that the mode of proceeding under it is harsh, unjust and repugnant to the moral sense of the people of the States, cruel and despotic toward the person claimed as a fugitive, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2327-9672
Print ISSN
0890-1686
Pages
pp. 53-65
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-01
Open Access
No
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