On May 21, 1855, a very important anti-slavery nullification law was signed into law in Massachusetts. Although mainstream history books typically glossed this important bill, it remains prescient in today’s world where federal overreach is at an all-time high. It is more important than ever to follow in the heroic footsteps of Massachusetts and other northern states that appropriately used state-level non-compliance to protect freedom and prevent injustice.
Tensions were high in the lead up to the Civil War on many issues including slavery. Heroically, the state of Pennsylvania convicted a bounty hunter pursuing the capture of a runaway slave during this time. However, the feds and the Supreme Court intervened and ruled that the states had no jurisdiction to protect the freedom of runaway slaves in Prigg v. Pennsylvania ruling. The Court also held that states could in no way interfere with fugitive slave rendition.
Many states simply ignored the ruling and went right on doing things like allowing jury trials for accused escapees. But in 1850, Congress passed an even more aggressive fugitive slave act. This prompted many northern states, including Massachusetts, to pass personal liberty laws that took measures to reduce enforcement power of the Fugitive Slave Act in the state.
WHAT IT DID
The Massachusetts personal liberty law applied the writ of habeas corpus to accused runaway slaves. It stated that no runaway slave could be returned to bondage under Massachusetts law without a fair trial. The burden of proof would rest upon the shoulders of the person claiming the slaves as their property, and they would have to produce at least two credible witnesses for the case to be valid. It also created strict criminal penalties for anyone who removed a free person from the state and attempted to place them into bondage.
The also law made it a crime for any local or state government official to help in the capture of a fugitive slave under any circumstances. Furthermore, it banned state militias from being used in the capture of fugitive slaves. It also denied the use of state jails and other state-owned property to be used in housing the captured runaways and stripped state government officials who aided and abetted slave catchers of their positions..
WHAT WE MUST DO
The personal liberty law passed in Massachusetts shows that the states can create practical measures to halt the progress of evil. We can use their model of resistance today and rein in overreaching federal power. State action in the north seriously impeded fugitive slave rendition, and was effective enough that several southern states complained about it when they seceded.
State non-compliance works. It worked in the 1850s and it will work today. States simply have to have the courage to stand up and say, “No!” to federal overreach.