The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and Sanctuary Cities for Slaves in the United States

Interesting piece, from WBUR’s Cognescenti, about the town of Lowell, MA choosing to be a sanctuary city for slaves — in defiance of a standing federal law. That was followed in 1850 by the Fugitive Slave Law, which subjected state and local officials a then onerous $1,000 fine for failing to return a fugitive slave, and private citizens who aided fugitive slaves were potentially subject to 6 months in prison. Note how Massachusetts responded:

In 1855, in defiance of an updated federal Fugitive Slave Act that heavily favored slave holders, the Massachusetts state Legislature passed the Personal Liberty Act that guaranteed runaways various protections, including the right to a jury trial. The Act also made it difficult — and costly — for slave owners to prove their case in court. The slave-owning South was incensed.

Even if this and other laws like it were eventually ruled unconstitutional (in Priggs v. Pennsylvania), these were practices of civil disobedience mounted at the state and city level.

There is informal discussion available advocating that there is a legal category of being a citizen of a state in the United States but not of the United States federal government. See also. I do not know the legal depth, if any, of these arguments. I do know that certain states, including Massachusetts, have home rule provisions, but I do not think these have anything to do with their relationship to the central government.

(Please note that I am not an attorney and nothing written here should be taken as any kind of legal advice or counsel.)

See also a related article in Portside, and at The Atlantic. Note also articles from William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.

Reverend Theodore Parker was charged with inciting an abolitionist riot in defiance of federal law. Reverend Parker wrote to President Millard Fillmore:

There hangs in my study … the gun my grandfather fought with at the battle of Lexington… and also the musket he captured from a British soldier on that day. If I would not peril my property, my liberty, nay my life to keep my parishioners out of slavery, then I should throw away these trophies, and should think I was the son of some coward and not a brave man’s child.

Reverend Parker was acquitted.

There’s also this, from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

IV.–The people of this Commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent state; and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not, or may not hereafter, be by them expressly delegated to the United States of America, in Congress assembled.

I added some emphasis there, but that’s pretty in-your-face to the federal government.

Or how about these?

VII.–Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; Therefore the people alone have an incontestible, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.

XXIV.–Laws made to punish for actions done before the existence of such laws, and which have not been declared crimes by preceding laws, are unjust, oppressive, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a free government.

XXV.–No subject ought, in any case, or in any time, to be declared guilty of treason or felony by the legislature.

Of course that Constitution has a lot of odd parts, at least by today’s standards, e.g., Articles I, II, and III of selfsame Declaration of Rights of Inhabitants of the Commonwealth, but note this part of Chapter I, Section II, Article II:

… And to remove all doubts concerning the meaning of the word “inhabitant” in this constitution, every person shall be considered as an inhabitant, for the purpose of electing and being elected into any office, or place within this State, in that town, district, or plantation, where he dwelleth, or hath his home.

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This entry was posted in Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Massachusetts, rights of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, United States, United States Constitution. Bookmark the permalink.

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