FROM THE TENTH AMENDMENT CENTER
May 10, 2012
In 1850, when President Millard Fillmore signed the second “Fugitive Slave Act,” due process was under serious attack by the federal government.
The law compelled people of all states to “assist” federal marshals and their deputies with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves. It 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.
On top of it, bounties were paid to commissioners in fugitive slave cases. $10 was paid if a person was sent back to slavery, and $5 if the person was allowed freedom. The federal government was paying people to capture other people and send them to slavery.
The act also suspended habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury for alleged “slaves,” and made their testimony inadmissible in court. The written testimony of the supposed slave master, on the other hand, which could be presented to the court by slave hunters, was given preferential treatment.
In response, Northern States intensified efforts to pass what were known as “personal liberty laws.” These had already been growing over time in response to the original Fugitive Slave Act years earlier.
Vermont passed a “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring state judicial and law enforcement officials to actually help captured fugitive slaves there. Massachusetts took a really strong stand – and passed a law that provided for kidnapping charges to anyone trying to use these “indefinite detention” provisions of the fugitive slave act.
No federal agent was charged with kidnapping in Massachusetts, though. But, this was only because no escapee was ever captured for return after the law was passed. The state response was working.