The Oberlin Evangelist
May 25, 1859
The Fugitive Slave Act Unconstitutional and Void.
We argue this, briefly,
I. On Moral Grounds.
II. On Legal.
I. On Moral Grounds.
The thing this act requires of us is against fundamental morality, and there fore is a void, and of no binding force.
Let it be assumed that the thing this act requires is that we force back a fellow man into the life-long bondage of American Slavery. This act is against fundamental morality because it is against the dictates of our common humanity; against our convictions of duty to do to others as we would have other s do to us; and because – as towards our suffering brother – it is real and terrible oppression. It must therefore be void and of no obligation. This appeal lies to every man’s conscience.
Or, we may appeal to authorities:
1. Jehovah. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you in that place which he shall choose in one of they gates where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”
2. Blackstone. “If any human law shall allow or require us to commit crime, we are bound to trangress that human law, or else we must offend against both the natural and the divine.”
3. John McLean, U.S. Supreme Judge. “Statutes against fundamental morality are void.”
What is true of statues must be yet more certainly true of Constitutions.
Similar authorities might be quoted, in any desired number, and of the highest character.
II. We argue the affirmative on legal grounds.
The clause in the Constitution, assumed to be the basis of all Fugitive Slave Laws, reads thus: -
“No person held to service or labor in any State under the laws thereof, escaping into
another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Here, note,
1. This clause speaks of “persons,” not of things. But according to slave laws,
defining the status of slaves, they are not persons but are things. Hence they are not spoken of in this clause of the Constitution.
2. The language describes an apprentice, but does not describe a slave. Apprentices
are precisely persons held to service. This language states just what is true of them and all that is true. They are not held as property.
Slaves are precisely things, HELD AS CHATTELS. For this doctrine there is ample authority. Thus South Carolina says – “Slaves shall be deemed, held, taken, reputed and adjudged I law to be chattels personal, in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators and assigns, to all intents, constructions and purposes whatsoever.” Louisiana says – “Slaves shall always be reputed and considered real estate.” Maryland and Virginia rank slaves under the head of personal property. But whether real estate of personal, they are nowhere anything but property – are never accounted as persons.
Now on every just principle of interpretation, we must not go beyond the letter for a meaning adverse to liberty and humanity. We must not force the language for the sake of making it reach the slave.
The legitimate description of the slave is not found here; it is not in the language of the Constitution. Of course we speak of the slave as now held.
If it be claimed that in the era when the Constitution was framed, slaves were reputed to be persons, we reply – The slavery of to-day is entirely another thing, and cannot claim under the compact of 1787.
2. The clause in question does not allude to Congress, nor to the Federal Courts, nor
to their Commissioners, nor to their Marshals. It alludes only to States, namely the State out of which he has fled. The precept in this clause touches only the latter – forbidding one thing, requiring one. If forbids this second State to release said person from the service he owes; requires the said State to deliver up on proper claim. If the clause forbidding, binds a sovereign State and not the Federal Government, so also does the clause requiring, go to the State and not to the Federal Government. The precept goes to the party named and spoken of - not to somebody else. This party is the State, and is not the Federal Government.
Hence it is perfectly certain that the Constitution contemplated no action by Congress, but only action by the several States.
Further, we hold that originally the several states were absolute sovereignties. The Federal Government was created by the compact known as the Federal Constitution. It has no powers but such as are given it in that instrument. All other powers remain with the states.
In the present case, no powers are granted to Congress or to the Federal government; for neither is even named or alluded to. On the contrary sovereign states are named and they only.
To the argument that the Constitution must confer this power on Congress because their legislation is necessary to give efficiency to this clause, we only reply – That is the tyrant’s plea. Admitted in a government like ours, it demolishes al state rights, and leaves us only one great central despotism.
3. The law of 1850 is against the spirit of the constitution, inasmuch as it denies the
trial by jury.
Here we hold, (1.) The Constitution avowedly aims to secure more perfectly to all”
persons,” their right to personal liberty. If slaves are in the Constitution at all, they are in it as “persons.”
(2) The great safeguard of personal liberty is the right of trial by a jury of one’s peers.
This right the Fugitive Act strikes down utterly.
Nor let it be said that slaves have no personal liberty to be protected; for they bear God’s impress of humanity: they have not forfeited their heaven-derived right to liberty; it has only been stolen from them and this theft has not vitiated a particle of their right to it, but has really augmented their right and their claim to have it.
Besides, even admitting that slaves have no rights, our argument stands in full force, for in this case, the very question to be determined is whether the man on trial is a slave or is not. Hence the admission that slaves are not men, and have no rights which white men are bound to respect, cannot debar one, not yet known to be a slave, form a jury trial. So to debar such a man is utterly repugnant to the spirit of the Constitution and therefore is void.
4. If we grant all the slaveholder claims in regard to the constitutional guarantees of
Slavery, they were admitted as compromises, on the principle of mutual concessions. The slave interest made certain concessions: the antislavery interest made concessions correspondingly.
Under the latter head, the party for slavery enumerate three things; - (1.) the three fifths representation of slaves; (2.) the non-interdiction of the foreign slave-trade up to 1808, and (3.) the rendition of fugitives.
What now were the corresponding concessions made by the Slave Power to its opponents?
(1.) Good faith in contracts; for example – the Missouri Compromise.
(2.) No further territorial extension of slavery.
(3.) That the system itself, being repugnant to the genius of our government, and to the hearts of the people, should be abolished soon.
The first point was fully involved in their mutual relations as men of honor and as brethren who had just won in battle side by side the boon of national liberty. The second was fully understood, and so was the third, and they were none the less binding because they were tacitly admitted, instead of being formally expressed. In fact they were so fully admitted that it might have been deemed an insult to the South to ask for their formal expression.
Yet every one of these guarantees, slavery on her part has utterly disregarded. She has trodden under foot the Missouri Compromise – has swept on over all the new territory she could reach - and has fully committed herself to live forever if she can.
Therefore so far forth as the binding force of the rendition clause in the Constitution rests on mutual comity and concessions, its obligations were utterly annulled a long time ago.
Thus, on numerous, independent grounds, we maintain that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is u constitutional and void. H.C.