Would Rachel Maddow have enforced the Fugitive Slave Act?
On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the battle of Fort Sumter, MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow said on her evening program: “The fact that the first shots were fired in South Carolina specifically came as no surprise… the great pride of the South Carolina secessionists was Senator John C. Calhoun, a beloved pro-slavery politician who… championed the cause of nullification.”
The obviously anti-secession liberal host then defined the term: “Nullification—the idea that states could and should refuse to follow federal laws they didn’t like, that they thought went beyond the powers of the federal government.”
In addition to Calhoun, some of the earliest examples of nullification in the United States were in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act declared that slaves who escaped to free states must be forcibly returned to their masters. Many abolitionists became rabid advocates of nullification. When South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 it specifically listed nullification of fugitive slave laws as one of its grievances. When US Senator Jefferson Davis left Congress to become the President of the Confederate States of America he specifically denounced nullification in his farewell address.
Southern leaders denouncing nullification where it undermined the institution of slavery reinforces liberals’ argument that the Civil War was exclusively about slavery. It also seriously contradicts liberals’ argument that nullification is exclusively about slavery.
Still, was the Civil War just about slavery? Not according to President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
For Lincoln, preserving the Union was more important than abolishing slavery. Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s primary concern for the supremacy of federal law over state law had formerly led him to be a strong proponent of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Lincoln was for slavery before he was against it.