As everyone knows, and every textbook teaches, there were a multiplicity of causes of the Civil War. By far, the main one—the one which really stood alone—was slavery. But another one was certainly the fight over states’ rights. It’s true.
It’s true, that is, if you’re considering the perspective of the Abolitionists and the North!
That’s right. We’re used to hearing endlessly about “states’ rights” from the defenders of the Old South, etc., but the truth is, perhaps the most laudable exercise of states’ rights in American history was on the part of Abolitionists and the North.
This exercise of states’ rights was the defiance of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and the subsequent legislative and judicial enhancements of that clause.
I have already rehearsed a good deal of the history of these elements in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. Alternatively, there is a great article on it all, as a states’ rights issue, over at The Federalist. I’d like you to consider just how important this particular exercise of state sovereignty was, how it counters the narrative often promoted on both sides of the debate, and what it means going forward.
The basic important facts are this. The Underground Railroad continued to succeed and was growing into the 1840s and 50s. Southern politicians had tried to clamp down on it. The Constitution itself forbade it—its authors had intended anyway. The Supreme Court clamped down in the 1842 case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. But the capstone on the affront came in the great 1850 compromise, which among other things gave the slaveholders some legislation with real federal teeth, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
This Act created the first armed federal police force. Further, as I say in the book:
This 1850 revision to the 1793 Act imposed particularly onerous burdens—on slaves, obviously, but also potentially on all northern citizens. First, it empowered all federal court commissioners and marshals to do what was originally left to local magistrates. Second, it allowed these to appoint officers and agents, as well as to create new commissioners, to perform the work of tracking, arresting, detaining, and processing alleged fugitives. Should any marshal or deputy refuse to execute the warrants issued, they could be fined up to $1,000. The law also imposed on them the financial responsibility for slaves who escaped them after capture.
It also . . . refused the accused slave’s testimony to be allowed in any trial whatsoever, allowed a claimant to recover an alleged fugitive on his testimony alone, and forbid interference from “any process issuing from any judge, court, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.”
Finally, in the new provision that probably most riled northerners, commissioners or their agents could summon any local posse or bystander, and “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.”
This meant that no one, no matter their beliefs or conscience, not even an abolitionist, could escape the service and deference to the slave power without stiff penalties. Not only were local and state governments forbidden from intervening, but the new federal slave-tracking police force could enlist you in the business of slave recovery against your will.
(The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 145.)
That’s right, the 1850 enhancement allowed a federal police force to deputize any citizen against their will on the spot in the effort of capturing alleged slaves. In short, in deference of the slave power, it allowed the state to conscript—make slaves of—anyone.
This included any abolitionist perchance, and as you can imagine, abolitionists did not like this. Neither did most northerners, especially any who cared about the slavery issue much at all. Even if they were aloof and hardly cared about slavery as long as it stayed down there in the South, many were now awakened to the fact that they themselves could be made actively complicit in the system. Many just did not like the idea of federal troops intruding into their state to conscript them in general.
Up to this point, many state laws, officers, and judges supported the people in defying the federal injustices. They protected the Abolitionists working on the underground railroad, and created space for them to operate. After 1850, this became much more difficult.
Many, nevertheless, continued to resist as best they could. Many Abolitionists continued to resist. Matt Trewhella, author of The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates, has highlighted the case of escaped slave Joshua Glover:
On March 11th, 1854, Joshua Glover, a runaway slave who had settled in Racine, Wisconsin, was arrested and imprisoned by federal marshals under the newly passed federal Fugitive Slave Act. While sitting in a Milwaukee jail, 5,000 Christian people rallied to his defense. He was rescued from jail and then led to safety via the underground railroad. The leader of the rescue, Sherman Booth, was put on trial for violating the federal Fugitive Slave Act. But Wisconsin’s State Legislature and the State Supreme Court ruled that this federal “law” was unconstitutional, protecting Booth from prosecution. They defied the Federal government and their unjust “laws” to protect an innocent person!
In another article, Matt explains yet another case in 1859 in which Wisconsin legislators actively resisted the federal fugitive slave tyranny.
The men of 1859 not only declared in their resolution that the unjust and immoral federal Fugitive Slave Act was “without authority, void, and of no force” in the state of Wisconsin, but they openly checked federal tyranny by stating:
“Resolved, that the government formed by the Constitution of the United States was not the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; but that, as in all other cases of compact [the compact being the Constitution] among parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself.”
The American doctrine of states’ rights is simply one version of the lesser magistrate doctrine outlined in Matt’s book.
It is key to consider this in light of the often-promoted argument that the South seceded over states’ rights. But that was only the incidental reason, and certain southern apologists emphasized that point (suppressing the slavery angle) only after the War.
While the very argument over the Fugitive Slave Act was raging in Congress, and while Northern Abolitionists were actively defying federal tyranny by exercising state sovereignty, John C. Calhoun was making it clear on the Senate floor that the South would secede for one main reason: to protect its “peculiar institution,” slavery, and escape the agitation of the abolitionists! He said:
Unless something decisive is done, I again ask, what is to stop this agitation before the great and final object at which it aims—the abolition of slavery in the States—is consummated? Is it, then, not certain, that if something is not done to arrest it, the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession?
(The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 146.)
Finally, Matt is absolutely correct in noting why this is crucially important in our day:
the duty of our state officials in our day is no different. Their duty is not to accommodate or bow down – but to interpose when the Supreme Court acts lawlessly. A true federalism understands the importance of checks and balances. . . .
The Supreme Court is not above divine law. They are not above God. They are not the voice of God. They are not God. Their opinions and interpretations are not the supreme law of the land. God’s law declares “You shall not murder.” His created order has declared that a man joins a woman in marriage. They have contradicted His law and Word and therefore should not be obeyed in these matters. They are the tyrant.
States’ rights has a crucial role to play in Christian life and in Western civilization. Just as godly and freedom-loving people, upheld and protected by their state and local officials, once risked their lives and fortunes to aid escaped slaves, so ought we do for many issues today. We should work to recapture the vision and the support of our state and local officials to defy federal and state tyrannies, to protect the unborn in our land, to abolish abortion, and to end a whole variety of godless evils.
Whether opposed by pro-confederate apologists or leftists seeking to maintain federal tyrannies, we should remind them all that the best history of states’ rights runs directly through the fiercest and most loyal fighters against American slavery, and rests squarely on the side of biblical justice.