• Peter Templeton

Resource - The Fugitive Slave Law

There are people who to this day claim that the American Civil War was not about slavery. Abraham Lincoln himself said "If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that”, though these words do not reflect the political reality facing Lincoln at the time: by this point in 1862 he had already decided Emancipation was necessary. But Southerners framed the issue around the idea that this was a local matter to be decided on by the states themselves, and not by the federal government.

In this, the roots of the conflict date back to the American Revolution and its aftermath. In the new nation, two parties quickly emerged: Federalists were generally based around the North and more influenced by the British system from which they had just broken away. In the South, the more radical politics of France influenced men like Thomas Jefferson to see America as a land where individual liberty – for white people, at least – was paramount. By the 1820s this had outlasted Federalism to become the mainstream of American politics.

To this group, the Federal government was there for the purpose of defence, and to present a united front to the world. Domestic matters were for the states to sort out for themselves, and they didn’t want people from outside telling them how to manage their affairs. As time went on this became more pronounced in the South, particularly in South Carolina, where they once attempted to ‘nullify’ Federal laws that they held to be unconstitutional. That means that they tried to say that they simply did not apply within the borders of the state. The attempt failed, but it shows the commitment to the states’ rights idea.

When Southern states seceded in 1861, it was officially not to save slavery but to save the idea that they should be able to manage their own affairs without interference. But if there is one area in which the South did throw down it’s belief in states’ rights, it is slavery itself. In 1850 a law was passed in order to defend the institution, with the support of the South. It was called the Fugitive Slave Law, and it gave slaveholders the power to cross into free states and to take their victims back to slavery. It also forced those in the free North to return slaves and prevented them from legally protecting them. The law greatly enhanced the power of the Federal Government at the expense of the freedom of the Northern states.


Why did the Southern idea of liberty win out in America? What are its advantages?

Could this idea have worked if it had been extended to all people, and not just white ones? Does this tell us anything about the period we're talking about?

What does the South’s support for this law tell you about their principles and the causes of the Civil War?

There was a great deal of resistance to the law, such as in the case of Thomas Sims in Boston, who was forcibly returned to slavery in 1851. In cases like this, is it OK to resist the law?

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