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During the tumultuous decade before the Civil War, no issue was more divisive than the pursuit and return of fugitive slaves—a practice enforced under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When free Blacks and their abolitionist allies intervened, prosecutions and trials inevitably followed. These cases involved high legal, political, and—most of all—human drama, with runaways desperate for freedom, their defenders seeking recourse to a “higher law” and normally fair-minded judges (even some opposed to slavery) considering the disposition of human beings as property.
Fugitive Justice tells the stories of three of the most dramatic fugitive slave trials of the 1850s, bringing to vivid life the determination of the fugitives, the radical tactics of their rescuers, the brutal doggedness of the slavehunters, and the tortuous response of the federal courts. These cases underscore the crucial role that runaway slaves played in building the tensions that led to the Civil War, and they show us how “civil disobedience” developed as a legal defense. As they unfold we can also see how such trials—whether of rescuers or of the slaves themselves—helped build the northern anti-slavery movement, even as they pushed southern firebrands closer to secession.
How could something so evil be treated so routinely by just men? The answer says much about how deeply the institution of slavery had penetrated American life even in free states. Fugitive Justice powerfully illuminates this painful episode in American history, and its role in the nation’s inexorable march to war.
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, theDred Scottdecision 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.