Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War


OPEN COURT, 448 PAGES, $29.95

States’ rights and secession haven’t always been synonymous with the South. In fact, in the lead up to the Civil War, abolitionists denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act defended both states’ rights and secession, while it was southern politicians that argued for more Federal involvement. In Jeffrey Hummel’s book, “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men,” we’re given a fascinating look at the complex battle to end slavery.

The political debate centered around slavery’s Achilles heel, the runaway slave. So long as slaves had a place to run to for freedom, the entire economic viability of the slave system became called into question. “If blacks could simply obtain freedom by slipping across an open border, enforcement throughout the upper South was compromised, and the lower South would feel the repercussions” (p. 54).

In order to prevent northern states from becoming a safe-haven for runaways, the South had insisted on including a fugitive slave clause in the Constitution. According to Article IV, Section 2, all states, including free states were required to return escaped slaves. “This in effect required the national government to subsidize the enforcement of the slave system with resources from slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike” (p. 11).


Underground Railroad Routes to Canada


However, abolitionists remained undeterred. They challenged the Fugitive Slave Act in the courts, and they illegally set up the Underground Railroad which helped assist runaway slaves make their way to Canada. In 1842 the state of Pennsylvania even ended up challenging the Act in the Supreme Court. Trying to find a middle path, the Court concluded that the Constitution did in fact grant a positive right of an owner to his slave, so no state could prohibit a master from coming north and retrieving his “property.” However, Justice Story also added that the states did not have to participate in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.


Seven northern legislatures responded with personal liberty laws. These either prohibited state officials from participating in a recapture or forbade holding fugitive slaves in state or local jails. In the face of these hostile enactments, the legal privilege to head north and personally retrieve slaves did not amount to much. (p. 54)


As a result, in 1850 the South managed to work out in the Missouri Compromise a more stringent version of the former Fugitive Slave Act. Several state governments responded by openly defying the law, and attempted to find ways to make enforcing it impossible.

It was a huge source of irritation and contention among southerners that northern states were nullifying Federal law within their own borders. Hummel quotes a Virginia Congressman, Charles James Faulkner referring to the earlier actions of Pennsylvania:


slaves are absconding from Maryland and this portion of Virginia in gangs of tens and twenties and the moment they reach the Pennsylvania line, all hopes of their recapture are abandoned. The existence of such a law on the Statue Book of any State is not only a flagrant violation of the spirit of the Federal Constitution and indeed of its express provisions, but is a deliberate insult to the whole Southern people, which . . . would amongst nations wholly independent and disconnected by Federal Relations be a just cause of War. (p. 55)


Read the entire article at ShotGlassofHistory.com