Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1818? Part 7

The House of Representatives resumed debate on the Bill to amend to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 the next day, Friday January 30, 1818.

The first reported speaker that day, Benjamin Adams of Massachusetts (no relation to John or John Quincy as far as I know) led off with objections. The bill, he maintained, endangered the rights of both free blacks and the north.

Arthur Livermore of New Hampshire likewise cited the risk to free blacks as the basis for his objection:
[T]he bill contained no sufficient guard to the safety of those colored people who resided in the States where slavery was known only by name. The bill provided that alleged fugitives were not be identified and proven until they reached the State in which the person seizing them resided; and this would expose the free men of other parts to the hazard of being dragged from one extreme of the country to the other.

In some ways, the more interesting speeches were those of northerners explaining why they were prepared to vote in favor of the bill. Jonathan Mason of Boston cited the fact that the Constitution did, after all, acknowledge the right of slaveowners to recover “this kind of property.” He would not assume abuse of the system by southern judges, and in fact southern courts were more likely to deliver unbiased rulings than northern ones. He also admitted that he did not want his state to become “infested” with “the runaways from the South”:
The Constitution, formed in the spirit of compromise, had guarantied this kind of property to the Southern States, and as it appeared from the insufficiency of the existing laws, that the proposed bill was necessary to secure this right, he was willing to adopt the measure, as he was always willing to approve any measure to effect what the Constitution sanctioned.

The possible abuse of anything was no argument against it, if otherwise expedient, and on this ground he was not prepared to reject the feature of the bill so much opposed. The judicial tribunals of the South, he had no doubt, would decide on the cases as correctly as those of the North, and on this subject perhaps more so, as, he believed, so strong was the feeling on this subject in the latter section of the country [the North], and so great a leaning was there against slavery, that the juries of Massachusetts would, in ninety-nine cases in a hundred, decide in favor of the fugitive.

His feeling on this bill were also somewhat interested; as he wished not, by denying just facilities for the recovery of fugitive slaves, to have the town where he lived (Boston) infested, as it would be, without an effectual restraint, with a great portion of the runaways from the South.

John Holmes, from the Maine District of Massachusetts (the same John Holmes to whom Thomas Jefferson addressed his fire bell in the night letter), seconded his Bay State colleague. The bill “was necessary to secure the Constitutional rights” of the south, and “[h]e did not believe the freedom of a single man in the North would be endangered” by it.

Rep. James Pindall of Virginia, had, several days earlier, defended the bill against charges that it unconstitutionally imposed a duty to act upon state officers. The Fugitive Slave Clause, he argued, imposed a duty on states to "deliver up" fugitive slaves, and Congress was empowered to enforce that obligation:
It being thus shown, in regard to this clause of the Constitution, that a right and corresponding obligation are established between different States, which, by ordinary interpretation, depend for their development and exercise upon the proper officer of each State; and it being admitted on all sides that Congress has the power to regulate the due exercise of that right, and enforce the performance of that obligation, it follows that Congress can make a law to regulate the conduct of these State officers in the performance of their duty.

Now yet another Massachusetts congressman, Ezekiel Whitman, also from the Maine District, disputed Rep. Pindall's constitutional claim:
He objected to that provision, which makes it a penal in a state officer to refuse his assistance, in executing the act. This feature, if retained, would prevent his voting for the bill, as its penalties would require the State officers either to resign, or perform an act which might be repugnant to their feelings, and render their official stations frequently disagreeable. Furthermore, he did not believe Congress had the right to compel the State officers to perform this duty – they could only authorize it . . ..

Such arguments were, however, swept aside. Before the end of the day, the House passed the bill by a substantial margin, 84 to 69.

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