In 1850, Congress compromised in order to hold the Union together against the divisive issue of slavery. Since the preservation of the Union (Northern control of the South’s economy), rather than the abolition of slavery was foremost in the minds of influential Republican bankers, manufacturers and heads of corporations, this compromise made perfect sense.
Part of this compromise was the passage of more stringent fugitive slave legislation that compelled citizens of all states to assist federal marshals and their deputies with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves and brought all trials involving alleged fugitive slaves under federal jurisdiction. It included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in their escape, even by simply giving them food or shelter. The act also suspended habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury for suspected slaves, and made their testimony non-admissible in court. The written testimony of the alleged slave’s master, on the other hand, which could be presented to the court by slave hunters, was given preferential treatment.
As would be expected, this new legislation outraged abolitionists, but also angered many citizens who were previously more apathetic. In 1851, 26 people in Syracuse, New York were arrested, charged and tried for freeing a runaway slave named William Henry (aka Jerry) who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. Among the 26 people tried was a U.S. Senator and the former Governor of New York! In an act of jury nullification, the trial resulted in only one conviction. “Jerry” was hidden in Syracuse for several days until he could safely escape into Canada.
The government of Wisconsin went even further and in 1854 officially declared the Fugitive Slave Act to be unconstitutional. The events that lead up to this monumental decision, which is a milestone in the history of the states’ rights tradition, is one of the best stories most Americans have never heard.
Federalism is based on the same principles as capitalism, which is why they are supported and opposed by the same people. This is also why the best protection of capitalism is a federal system protected by a Senate as originally designed by the Constitution.
Derek Sheriff is a great storyteller. You should read the whole thing here.