“The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and not slavery.” Many of us have heard this reasoning before: that the South didn’t want the Federal government telling it what to do, just as our Founding Fathers broke away from England to create a Republic made up of individual states. But Southern slaveholders in fact relied on Federal law to protect the institution of slavery, a fact often overlooked by proponents of states’ rights. In addition to ignoring Southern support for Federal laws protecting slavery, this reasoning consistently fails to ask, “A state’s right to do what?”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a piece of legislation designed to ensure Federal protection of the institution of slavery. The Act penalized officials in any state, slaveholding or non-slaveholding, who did not arrest alleged runaway slaves. Any person found guilty of helping a runaway slave could likewise be penalized. Both penalties carried a $1,000 fine, a rough equivalent of $30,000 today. In effect, the Fugitive Slave Act held Northern law enforcement officials responsible for upholding the laws that supported slavery. Many Northern states that had been “free states” now had to help Southern slave catchers find and arrest runaway slaves. Many free blacks and escaped slaves who were living in the North escaped to Canada after the Act was passed.
The Act went further than penalizing non-compliers. It required Federal Courts to appoint commissioners for the purpose of hearing cases of alleged runaways. What happened when an alleged runaway slave was apprehended and brought before the commissioner? Slaves could not testify on their own behalf. To make matters worse, commissioners had financial incentives to rule on behalf of slaveowners: they received a $10 fee if they ruled against the alleged runaway, and $5 if they ruled in his or her favor.
The Act further authorized these commissioners and federal marshals to form posses of citizens to catch runaway slaves. This meant that anyone could be a slave catcher: the burden of returning slaves to slaveholders fell on all citizens of the United States. What happened if a person was caught helping a runaway slave? They could be charged for treason by a Federal prosecutor. This was an issue in some northern cities where abolitionist sentiment was high. The Federal government also protected the individual rights of slaveholders in non-slaveholding states by providing Federal troops to escort runaway slaves back to the South, if necessary. In Boston, where abolitionist sentiment was high in the 1850s, the Federal government provided 300 armed troops to escort a runaway slave back to the South. The troops were protecting the slave from a crowd that sought to help the slave escape to freedom.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a Federal law that restricted the rights of African Americans everywhere and citizens living in non-slaveholding states. Northern states passed laws to prevent state officials from participating in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. In this instance, Northern states were asserting their states’ rights not to uphold the institution by disobeying Federal law. It was Southern slaveholders and Southern states that wanted Federal oversight; Northern states wanted to assert their right not to participate in the capturing of runaway slaves.
In February of 1860, a full nine months before the presidential election that sent Abraham Lincoln to the White House, the Alabama state legislature passed a resolution stating that if a Republican (Lincoln) was elected, they would meet again before he took office to decide what course of action to take. The resolution was adopted because of “anti-slavery agitation persistently continued in the non-slaveholding States of this Union, for more than a third of a century, marked at every stage of its progress by contempt for the obligations of law and the sanctity of compacts, evincing a deadly hostility to the rights and institutions of the Southern people.” Northern agitators, specifically Lincoln and the Republican party, were going to end Southern states’ rights to own people. When the Alabama secession delegation did meet the following January, they chose to secede because Lincoln was “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama.” The “domestic institution” undoubtedly meant slavery.
The Federal government protected the interests of slaveholders and the states these men represented before the Civil War. After the war, the Federal government affirmed for the first time its commitment to Civil Rights when it passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. I think we can all agree that the abolition of slavery, the right to citizenship, and the right to vote, as upheld by these amendments, are rights that every American should have. As historian Eric Foner states: “neither federal power nor states’ rights exist in a vacuum. Both can be threats to the liberties of citizens and both can be modes of protecting them. It all depends on the uses to which federal and state power are put.”
Originally published by Project Say Something, History & Race in Florence, AL, 2016, All rights reserved.
Brian is a Master’s student in UNA’s Public History program with a special interest in race and discriminatory housing practices. He hopes to bring his research in local history to bear on issues that continue to impact the Shoals community.