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In 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the “Fugitive Slave Act” into law, prompting abolitionist Northern States to attack this unjust law with nullification.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 counts as one of the most reprehensible laws in American history. It denied a black person accused of escaping slavery any semblance of due process. A white man could basically drag a black person south into slavery merely on the power of his word. This even put people born free in the North under the constant threat of being snatched up and sent to slavery.

But rather than wait for Congress or the federal Courts to overturn it, Northern abolitionists used every tool possible to resist it. The most famous example was the underground railroad, but abolitionists also used state-nullification to help stop the enforcement of this federal act.

On November 13, 1850, the Vermont legislature passed a bill known as the “Habeas Corpus Act.”  It required the state to “protect and defend…any person in Vermont arrested or claimed as a fugitive slave.”

The Michigan Personal Freedom Act guaranteed any man or woman claimed as a fugitive slave, “all the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus and of trial by jury.” It also prohibited the feds from using state or local jails for the purposes of holding an accused fugitive slave, and made any attempt to send a freedman South into slavery a crime.

A Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act called for the removal of any state official who aided in the return of runaway slaves and disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive slave rendition. Another section authorized impeachment of state judges who accepted federal commissioner positions authorizing them to prosecute fugitive slaves.

Famous abolitionists publicly supported these efforts. John Greenleaf Whittier said, “So far as that law is concerned, I am a nullifier.” And William Lloyd Garrison supported him when he wrote, “The nullification advocated by Mr Whittier…is loyalty to goodness.”

By creatively denying much-needed support and resources to the federal fugitive slave act, states were extremely effective at stopping it. In the end, almost every Northern state enacted laws which either nullified the fugitive slave acts or rendered useless any attempt to enforce them.

Michael Boldin

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