Life in the 1850s: The Legislative Atmosphere

Before we plunge into Sesquicentennial Madness proper, it may be useful to take a look at what was going on in the 1850s. I’ve arbitrarily drawn the line at 1850 (although I will stray to previous years a bit) because really, you could tell the entire history of the United States from the perspective of tension between slave and free states, beginning with the infamous 3/5s compromise when writing the Constitution, where an enslaved person was counted as 3/5s of a person for census purposes. Instead of dragging things all the way back to the Articles of Confederation and working forward, though, I’m going to take the easy way out and start with the Compromise of 1850.

Except that to start there, first we need to talk about the Missouri Compromise. See how this all gets complicated really quickly? To sum up the Missouri Compromise, it was passed in 1820 and was an attempt to manage slavery in the western territories. It banned slavery north of 36 degrees 20 minutes latitude, the southern boundary of the proposed state of Missouri, with the exception of that state. There is some evidence that this was a real boundary between slave and free states, note that the only state north of that line to secede was Virginia.

The Compromise of 1850 was actually five bills passed that year. The first transferred a huge chunk of land from the Republic of Texas, newly reincarnated as the state of Texas, to the federal government, and organized New Mexico Territory. The second organized Utah Territory, the third admitted California as a state. The fourth was the Fugitive Slave Act, about which more in a moment, and the fifth banned the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 replaced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which had been written with the intention of supporting Article 4, Section 2 of the Constitution. Article 4, Section 2 deals with extradition between states and reads:

The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.
No Person held to Service or Labour 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 Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act made it a federal crime to assist a person who had escaped from slavery, established the legal mechanisms whereby these people could be kidnapped, brought before a magistrate, and dragged back into slavery; denied rights of citizenship to even free people of color; and turned every person who had escaped slavery and the children of mothers who had escaped slavery into fugitives for life. It met with a very poor response in free states, where laws were often passed refusing slave-catchers the use of local jails and resources, and spawned both the slave-catching industry and the Underground Railroad.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act attempted to put actual teeth into this nasty business. It made any Federal marshal or other official who didn’t arrest an alleged runaway liable for a $1,000 fine. Likewise, anyone who assisted an alleged runaway was subject to imprisonment for six months and a $1,000 fine. The person accused of being a runaway was denied a jury trial, and was not allowed to speak in his own defense. More chillingly, all that was required to start this machinery in motion was an affidavit from the person claiming to be the owner of the escapee. Free people of color were sometimes seized under this law with no recourse to defend themselves from being taken down south and sold.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin made Wisconsin the only state in the union to declare the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional, in 1854. In 1859, the US Supreme Court overruled the Wisconsin court as a result of Ableman v. Booth, declaring that state courts cannot contradict the decisions of federal courts, which meant that state officials could no longer interfere with federal marshals.

The dance between slave and free states continued in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law created the Kansas and Nebraska territories, and repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Instead of outlawing slavery north of an arbitrary geographical boundary, the Kansas-Nebraska act switched to popular sovereignty, allowing the residents of those territories to vote on whether or not slavery should be legal within their boundaries. Instead of creating peaceable compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska act set in motion the events known as Bloody Kansas, as activists from both abolitionist and pro-slavery parties flocked to the new territory in organized migrations. Among the activists who headed into Kansas Territory, rifles at the ready, was John Brown, whose failed uprising at Harpers Ferry will be the official start of Sesquicentennial Madness. From 1854 to 1859, acts of terrorism committed by both sides held Kansas Territory hostage to the question of slavery, and the bloody guerilla warfare began again a mere two years later with the advent of the Civil War.

In 1857, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The decision declared that neither people of African descent imported as slaves nor their descendants, no matter if those descendants were free could be citizens of the United States, and were not protected by the Constitution. It further ruled that Congress could not declare slavery illegal in federal territories, and that since enslaved people were chattel property, they could not be taken from their owners without due process. This decision has never been overruled by the Supreme Court itself, although in 1873 the court ruled that portions of it were already overruled by the 14th Amendment, which established that all people born in the United States are citizens of the US and entitled to constitutional protection.

So there was the US in the 1850s. Bloodshed had already broken out over the slavery question (I told you that deciding when Sesquicentennial Madness started was difficult!), but Congress and the US Supreme Court had made various moves to support and expand slavery, over the objections of abolitionists and the free states.

Published in: on 20 July, 2009 at 04:23  Leave a Comment  
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