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Northern states were so effective at nullifying the fugitive slave act of 1850, that they were successful even in the face of a threat to use the US military to stop them.

Under the provocative headline “The Administration and Nullifying Vermont,” the Memphis Daily Eagle in its lead editorial for December 18, 1850 reported on the Vermont Habeas Corpus Act, a bill to block enforcement of the Federal Fugitive Slave Act.

They noted the President and the entire Cabinet were “determined to enforce the fugitive slave law in Vermont … if it required the whole military force of the United States to do it.”

The threats didn’t scare them into submission. And while Vermont was first, a dozen other states joined them with similar acts, usually referred to as Personal Liberty Laws, in the coming years.

With just a few exceptions, the Fugitive Slave Act went totally unenforced in New England.  Over the 10 year period of 1850-1860, there were only four documented cases in which fugitive slaves were returned from New England, the last being a man named Anthony Burns from Boston in 1854.

By creatively denying much-needed material support and resources to the federal fugitive slave act of 1850, Northern states were, according to South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, extremely effective at nullifying it.

Michael Boldin

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