One of the biggest criticisms of nullification is that it was asserted for the purpose of perpetuating slavery.

This is a complete misrepresentation of history. The record is absolutely clear on this issue. Frustration of the federal Fugitive Slave Act was accomplished by nullification efforts all over the North, and because of the success of those efforts, slaves were encouraged to seek their freedom.

Although the concepts of states’ rights and nullification are historically associated with the South, they were employed by northern states to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While the southern states defied the federal government by refusing to accept the abominable tariffs, the northern states defied the government by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which they believed was an unconstitutional commandeering of the state and at its core, a repugnant law that offended their conscience. Under this law, stringent measures were imposed to catch runaway slaves. These included:

  • Penalizing federal officials that did not enforce the law
  • Rewarding federal officials that did enforce law
  • Requiring free citizens to help capture runaway slaves
  • Fining or imprisoning citizens helping runaways escape
  • Prohibiting runaways from testifying on their own behalf in court
  • Denying jury trials to runaways

Special federal commissions, not courts, worked with U.S. marshals to handle runaway cases. Commissioners and marshals who failed to hold captured runaways could be sued, thus compelling them to enforce the law. They received $10 for every runaway delivered to a claimant, but only $5 for cases in which the runaway was freed. This provided a financial incentive to send even free black men and women into slavery. The law not only jeopardized the liberty of every black citizen, but it also infringed on the freedom of white citizens by forcing them to hunt for runaways against their will.

2 thoughts on “The Misrepresentation of Nullification with Respect to Slavery

  1. Jeremy Hurt

    Question for you. Do you deem the departure from slavery of the northern states at the Founding to be an example of nullification? And, if so, could you show me a probable argument to justify this hopeful view?

    • I don’t see that as a nullification because there was no law being nullified. On the other hand, when the abolitionists defied federal slave-catching laws, they were nullifying because they were rendering a particular law unenforceable.

      Hopefully that makes sense.

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