Category Archives: Congress

The Fugitive Slave Law and Runaways

Printed in 1851, this flier was circulated around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of any runaway slaves (Source: Harvard Square Library)

This poster was distributed around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of runaway slaves. (Source: Harvard Square Library)

In 1850, Congressional leaders made their last valiant efforts to forestall conflict between the North and the South. However, in their attempts to reach some form of compromise, they unwittingly set the stage for the Civil War.

Some might say that civil war was the price the United States paid for orchestrating war with Mexico in 1848. By invading Mexico, or at least by sending troops to contested territory, the United States ultimately gained a huge swath of land that included modern day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Like Thomas Jefferson before them when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, most American leaders probably believed it would take generations before much of the new territory would be ripe for statehood. But history is full of unforeseen consequences, and James Marshall’s gold discovery in Coloma, California, accelerated the process by attracting sufficient numbers of Americans who wanted statehood. More importantly, California’s citizens had enacted a constitution that prohibited slavery.

For years, Southern leaders had sought to maintain balance in the United States Senate, admitting a free state to the union only while admitting a slave state at the same time. In 1850, they had many demands on the table: carving up Texas into a number of states in an effort to maintain equal representation in the Senate; continued legality of slavery in the nation’s capital, anathema to antislavery Northerners; and a stricter fugitive slave law to insure recovery of runaway slaves.

Anti-slavery forces in the North also had an agenda: admission of California and other future states acquired from the Mexican War as free states and abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital.

1850 also saw the last great stand of the Senate’s most famous orators: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay sought to ease tensions by proposing a series of resolutions. Each resolution offered something to the North, balanced with an inducement to the South. His strategy failed, but Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief opponent for the presidency ten years later, succeeded by gathering enough votes from Upper South and Midwest representatives, who approved the package as a whole.

Painting titled "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law" (Source: Library of Congress)

Painting titled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law” (Source: Library of Congress)

Before the Compromise of 1850, a 1793 federal statute authorized Southerners to enter free states to capture runaway slaves, but state authorities were not obligated to enforce the law. Prigg v. Pennsylvania (United States Supreme Court 1842). One of the compromise’s components, the Fugitive Slave Law, sought to remedy Southerners’ dissatisfaction with existing law by creating a category of federal commissioners empowered to arrest and return runaways to their owners. The law also gave the commissioners authority to deputize any citizen to assist in enforcement of the law.

While many Northerners did not object to slavery where it lawfully existed, they took great exception to playing any role in its enforcement. Southern slave owners, who thought they finally had obtained a meaningful process for retrieving their fugitive property, fumed about Northerners’ resistance to the law’s enforcement and Northern states’ passage of personal liberty laws designed to thwart the enforcement of the law. Within a year of the law’s enactment, it became clear that enacting a law is considerably less difficult than executing it. After 1851, few runaways were returned to their owners under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a fictional but faithful account of a runaway slave’s stop at an Underground Railroad station, please see the “Runaway” chapter in my historical novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel’s “Charleston” chapter about the Democratic Convention of 1860 also depicts Southern politicians’ dissatisfaction with Northerners’ resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a more detailed historical account of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, see Professor James McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire, pages 70-89 (3rd Edition, McGraw Hill 2001).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Congress, history, Presidents, slavery, United States

The Presidential Election of 1876

Regardless of your political affiliation, you certainly remember the Presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush ultimately prevailed over Al Gore. By a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ultimately validated the election results certified by a Florida Republican official.

Flash back to the Presidential election of 1876. Inauguration day was set for Sunday, March 4, 1877, giving government leaders four months between November and March to resolve the election results of a hotly contested election. Three former Confederate states were in play: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.

Federal troops played a significant role in the South in the years after the Civil War (Reconstruction). The troops protected African Americans from white persecution and guaranteed that Republican officials ran the state governments. White Southerners strongly resented the presence of federal troops within their borders. In the months leading up to election day, organized groups of whites intimidated African Americans, working diligently and violently to suppress black turnout at the polls.

President Hayes (Source: Library of Congress)

President Hayes (Source: Library of Congress)

Republican officials in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida certified the results, in each case tossing out enough votes for the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, to give the state’s electoral votes to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. But the game was not over. On the first Wednesday in December, the Democratic electors met separately from the Republican electors in each of the three states and cast their votes for Tilden. It appeared the country might be at the brink of another civil war.

Justice David Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

Justice David Davis (Source: Library of Congress)

The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Republicans controlled the Senate. Ultimately, the politicians agreed to appoint an advisory commission consisting of five members from the Senate (3 Republicans and 2 Democrats), five from the House (3 Democrats and 2 Republicans), and five from the Supreme Court, who were to be selected by agreement of the 10 members from Congress. Two of the justices were Democrats and two were Republicans. Everyone expected the commission to select independent David Davis as the final member. Everyone was wrong.

In those days, each state legislature selected its United States Senator. The Illinois state legislature, deadlocked over its choice, chose Justice Davis as its compromise choice. Davis agreed to take the Senate seat and resigned from the Supreme Court. All of the remaining justices from whom the commission could choose its final member were Republicans. Thus, the commission, with a one-vote Republican majority in the Supreme Court, recommended that Congress accept the election results certified by the Republican election officials in the three contested states.

John Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)

Sen. John Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)

But all was not over. Many Democrats believed they had been robbed of the White House. In an unwritten agreement between the Hayes men and Southern moderates intended to calm the nation, the Hayes men agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, provide no further support for the carpetbaggers in Louisiana and South Carolina, and allow the Democrats to resume control of the state governments. Generations of African Americans paid dearly for the compromise. In the height of irony, the Hayes men included Senator John Sherman of Ohio, whose brother had made Georgia howl, and Senator John Gordon of Georgia, who had served as a general in the Confederate army.

For more information about the 1876 election and its aftermath, please go to the following sources:

H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union, pp. 567-577 (Random House 2012);

John Gordon (Source: Library of Congress)

John Gordon (Source: Library of Congress)

Jean Edward Smith, Grant, pp. 597-605 (Simon & Schuster 2001);

James W. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 639-646 (McGraw Hill, 3rd Edition 2001)

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Congress, history, Presidential elections, Presidents, Reconstruction