Examination of three prosecutions under the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.
The Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause required successive congressional action to ensure its enforcement, legislation that culminated in the Compromise of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, intended to reconcile the nation. It did just the opposite. By federalizing procedures of capture and rendition and by criminalizing interference with or failure to help officials carrying out the law, the statute exacerbated sectional tensions and carried the issue of slavery to the doorstep of northerners who preferred to think of it remotely—if they thought of it at all. Although he alludes helpfully to other incidents, court decisions and political commentary on the Act, Lubet (Law/Northwestern Univ.; The Importance of Being Honest: How Lying, Secrecy, and Hypocrisy Collide with Truth in Law, 2008, etc.) focuses on three trials: 1851’s “so-called Christiana slave riot” in Pennsylvania; 1854’s prosecution of runaway Anthony Burns in Boston, the intellectual capital of the antislavery movement; and 1858’s proceedings in Cleveland against the Oberlin College rescuers, whose home was ground zero for abolitionist practice. With sharp scene-setting in each of these locales, careful attention to trial transcripts, sensitive etchings of the people enmeshed in the statute’s operation and a clear command of the legal maneuvering, the author demonstrates how shifting public opinion emboldened attorneys to move from reliance on claims of innocence or fact-based or procedural defenses to a forthright call for judges and juries to invoke a “higher law” that appealed to conscience. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision and the increasingly politicized and publicized prosecutions under the Act all set the stage for Harpers Ferry—and John Brown’s eloquent, higher-law appeal that inspired the North and infuriated the South—and the bloody war that followed.
A stirring account of courtroom collisions at the intersection of law, morality and politics.