May 22, 2012 by Michael Boldin
recently became the first State to pass a law refusing compliance with
or assistance to Federal agents carrying out detentions without due
process against citizens of that State.
In 1850, when President Millard Fillmore signed the second Fugitive
Slave Act, due process was under serious attack by the Federal
The law compelled people of all States to “assist” Federal marshals
and their deputies with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves. It
brought all trials involving alleged fugitive slaves under Federal
jurisdiction. It included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in
his escape, even by simply giving him food or shelter.
On top of it, bounties were paid to commissioners in fugitive slave
cases: $10 if a person was sent back to slavery and $5 if the person was
allowed freedom. The Federal government was paying people to capture
other people and send them to slavery.
The act also suspended habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury
for alleged “slaves,” and made their testimony inadmissible in court.
On the other hand, the written testimony of the supposed slave master,
which could be presented to the court by slave hunters, was given
In response to the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Northern
States began to pass what were known as “personal-liberty laws.” After
the second Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Fillmore, these efforts
Vermont passed a Habeas Corpus Law, requiring State judicial and law
enforcement officials to actually help capture fugitive slaves there.
Massachusetts took a really strong stand and passed a law that allowed
kidnapping charges for anyone trying to use these “indefinite detention”
provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.
No Federal agent was charged with kidnapping in Massachusetts,
though. But that was only because no escapee was ever captured for
return after the law was passed. The State response was working.
In fact, Northern States were so successful overall that when South
Carolina seceded 10 years later, the people there named the attempts to
bypass the Fugitive Slave Acts as one of their primary reasons for
leaving the Union. Their publicly released “Declaration of Causes”
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