Scott Laderman's July 29 “In Response” column challenged my assertion that states' rights was a consistent Southern position. Since the column went directly to the issue of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, one of the omnibus measures included in the commonly termed Compromise of 1850, I will answer that here.
The relevant portion of the Constitution is in Article IV, Section 2 and must be quoted in full to make my point clear: “No person held to Service or Labor in one 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 is may be due.” Congress passed a law in 1793 to codify the execution of that provision. At that time there was no problem with compliance, and the law was primarily focused on the method of rendition of fugitives from justice.
Several Northern states began to either ignore the constitutional provision or took positive action to prevent its enforcement. In Prigg vs. Pennsylvania in 1842, the five-member Supreme Court majority ruled that states could not negate the federal law but left open the issue of whether state magistrates could be compelled to execute or enforce it.
Hence my comment in my July 12 column about a comment that previously had been made by Laderman. I wrote: “The example cited in the column about Southern states demanding federal action in regard to fugitive slaves omitted that this was made necessary by numerous Northern states enacting so-called personal-liberty laws to nullify the constitutional provision requiring states to deliver up escaped bondsmen.”
Interestingly, President Jefferson Davis believed that despite the 1850 act the federal government and its marshals would encounter such opposition as to render the process more troublesome than it was worth. This proved to be prophetic. His belief was that the Union could only survive if the states respected each other and assumed the responsibilities accepted by their ratification of the Constitution. Ultimately, as the court indicated, the fulfillment of the provision did rest upon the willing action of the states to honor their constitutional responsibilities.
The fact that the court in its ruling recognized that the federal government lacked the power to compel state action is itself an endorsement of the reserved powers of the states. It was only due to the actions of faithless Northern states to uphold their obligations that the South reluctantly turned to the federal government to execute the provision.
The compromise measures of 1850 were adopted to fend off secession and were hoped to be a final adjustment of the issues between the states of the Union. They only accomplished that purpose for a decade.
I reaffirm my view that Southern states were consistent in their assertion of states' rights in these measures and generally throughout the antebellum era. The record is really too clear to deny, no matter how many revisionist historians are cited.
J. Craig Scherf of Duluth researches and writes regularly for the publications of historical societies.