Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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PERSONAL LIBERTY LAWS (IN U. S. HISTORY), statutes passed by the legislatures of various northern states, during the existence of the fugitive slave laws, for the purpose of securing to alleged fugitives the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus and the trial by jury, which those laws denied them. (See FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS.)


—In 1840 New York passed an act securing a trial by jury to persons accused of being fugitive slaves. This was the first real "personal liberty law," other previous state statutes being ostensibly or really designed to assist in the rendition of fugitives; and even this statute soon fell into disuse and was practically forgotten. The case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania (see FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS) was decided in 1842, and in 1843 Massachusetts and Vermont passed laws prohibiting state officers from performing the duties exacted of them by the first fugitive slave law, and forbidding the use of the jails of the state for the detention of fugitives. In 1847 and 1848 Pennsylvania and Rhode Island passed similar laws. Other states refused to do so.


—The passage of the fugitive slave law of 1850, which avoided all employment of state officers, necessitated a change in the personal liberty laws. Accordingly, new laws were passed by Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1854, by Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan in 1855, by Wisconsin and Kansas in 1858, by Ohio in 1859, and by Pennsylvania in 1860. These laws generally prohibited the use of the state's jails for detaining fugitives; provided state officers, under various names, throughout the state, to act as counsel for persons alleged to be fugitives; secured to all such persons the benefits of habeas corpus and trial by jury; required the identify of the fugitive to be proved by two witnesses; forbade state judges and officers to issue writs or give any assistance to the claimant; and imposed a heavy fine and imprisonment for the crime of forcibly seizing or representing as a slave any free person with intent to reduce him to slavery. New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, California and Oregon passed no full personal liberty laws; but there were only two of these states, New Jersey and California, which gave any official sanction or assistance to the rendition of fugitive slaves, though three of them, Indiana, Illinois and Oregon, did so indirectly, by prohibiting the entrance within their borders of negroes either slave or free. In the other states named above, the action of the legislative, judiciary or executive was generally so unfriendly that the South Carolina declaration of causes for secession in 1860 included Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and New Hampshire with the ten states which had passed liberty laws, in the charge of having violated their constitutional obligation to deliver fugitive slaves.


—The fugitive slave law and the personal liberty laws together show plainly that the compromise of 1850 (see COMPROMISES, V.) was far worse than labor lost. It gave the south a law to which it had no title; even Rhett, in the South Carolina secession convention, declared that he had never considered the fugitive slave law constitutional. It thus provoked the passage of the personal liberty laws in the north. Each section, ignoring the other's complaints, exhausted its own patience in calling for a redress which neither was willing to accord first. It is not meant to be understood that secession would never have occurred without the aid of the fugitive slave law and its countervailing statutes; only that secession would have had to search much more diligently for an excuse without them. Throughout the whole declaration of South Carolina in 1860 there is hardly an allegation which, in any point of view, deserves respectful consideration, with this single exception of the personal liberty laws; and these were the unconstitutional results of the unconstitutional fugitive slave law.


—The objection to the constitutionality of the fugitive slave law is, in brief, that the rendition of fugitive slaves, as well as of fugitives from justice, was an obligation imposed by the constitution upon the states; and that the federal government, which has never attempted to give the law in the latter case, had no more right to do so in the former. (See FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS.) This opinion, however, has against it the unanimous opinion of the supreme court in the case of Ableman vs. Booth, cited below. But there is absolutely no legal excuse for the personal liberty laws. If the rendition of fugitive slaves was a federal obligation, the personal liberty laws were in flat disobedience to law; if the obligation was upon the states, they were a gross breach of good faith, for they were intended, and operated, to prevent rendition; and in either case they were in violation of the constitution, which the state legislators themselves were sworn to support. The dilemma is so inevitable that only the pressure of an intense and natural horror of surrendering to slavery a man who had escaped from it, or who had never been subject to it, can palliate the passage of the laws in question. Plainly, the people, in adopting the fugitive slave clause of the constitution, had assumed an obligation which it was not possible to fulfill.


—The writer's own belief that the obligation of rendition was upon the states alone, has prevented him from classing the personal liberty laws under nullification. If, however, the obligation was really federal, they were certainly nullifications, though not to the same degree as that of South Carolina; for the latter absolutely prohibited the execution of the tariff act, while the former only impeded the rendition of fugitive slaves. The principle, however, is the same. (See NULLIFICATION.) It is worthy of notice, however, that when the supreme court, in the case of Ableman vs. Booth, overrode the Wisconsin personal liberty law, the Wisconsin legislature passed a series of resolutions, March 19, 1859, reaffirming the Kentucky resolutions of 1799 (see KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS), but making them read "that a positive defiance" (instead of a nullification) "is the rightful remedy."


—See Massachusetts Revised Statutes (1860), c. 125, § 20; 2 Wilson's Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, 57, 639; Joel Parker's Personal Liberty Laws (1861); B. R. Curtis' Works, 328, 345; 2 ib., 69; Tyler's Life of Taney, 398; Appleton's Annual Cyclopædia (1861), 575; 21 How., 506 (Ableman vs. Booth); 2 Webster's Works, 577; Schuckers' Life of Chase, 178.


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