Saturday, January 24, 2015

When the South Wasn’t a Fan of States’ Rights

The strange, often forgotten, history of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

By ERIC FONER, Politico.com
January 23, 2015

Whenever I lecture to non-academic audiences about the Civil War era, someone is bound to insist that the South fought for states’ rights rather than the long-term survival of slavery. In an extreme version of this view, Abraham Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator but a tyrant, the creator of the leviathan national state that essentially enslaved white Americans. This reading of the conflict is why a remarkable number of libertarians, self-proclaimed defenders of individual freedom, sympathize with the Old South, and why some even make excuses for slavery.

But this history omits one important part of antebellum history: When it came to enforcing and maintaining the peculiar institution against an increasingly anti-slavery North, the Old South was all too happy to forget its fear of federal power—a little-remembered fact in our modern retellings of the conflict.

The slavery exception to otherwise robust support for states’ rights was a recurring feature of antebellum Southern politics. Southerners wrote into the Constitution a clause requiring the return of slaves who escaped from one state to another, and in 1793, only four years after George Washington assumed the presidency, they persuaded Congress to enact a law putting that clause into effect. Ironically, when it came to runaway slaves, the white South, usually vocal in defense of local rights, favored robust national action, while some northern states engaged in the nullification of federal law, enacting “personal liberty” laws that barred local officials from cooperating in the capture and return of fugitives.

(More here.)

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