Today in 1862, the federal government suspended military enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, forbidding union troops from returning fugitive slaves. The law required individual citizens to assist with the capture and return of fugitive slaves in the states, and set up a system of whereby federal commissioners would be paid more upon the determination that the slave should be returned rather than left free. Often on the basis of hearsay, the civil rights of many slaves and free blacks were violated with complete legal sanction.

In response to the 1850 law, several northern states passed laws that either nullified the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 or obstructed its enforcement. In Vermont, the Habeas Corpus Act penalized state officials and individuals who dared to assist federal officials in apprehending the runaway slaves. Michigan passed an act that denied the usage of their prisons for captured slaves to be held.

In Wisconsin, the law was effectively nullified after years of popular unrest – aided by the heroism of Sherman Booth, the successful liberation of Joshua Glover added fuel to the fire of resentment toward the malignant law A similar situation unfolded in Massachusetts, where the 50,000 people successfully rebuked the federal government when it held and returned a fugitive slave, Anthony Burns. The judge who tried burns was impeached, and the law was never again successfully enforced within the state.

Throughout much of the war, Lincoln took deliberate strides to ensure that captured slaves, especially those belonging to union forces, were not emancipated. He reprimanded John C. Fremont directly when the commander tried to enact an emancipation proclamation in Missouri, because the slaves of forces fighting for the Union were not protected. For issuing a blanket emancipation of all slaves, Lincoln relieved Fremont of duty.

While military administration of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was forbidden in 1862, enforcement of the law continued throughout much of the war, and the law was not repealed until mid-1864.

Dave Benner

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