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Resistance Against Fugitive Slave Act Give Blueprint to Stop NSA Spying

By       Message Michael Maharrey     Permalink
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The United States has a history of resistance efforts, from the Civil Rights era to antiwar, and anti-prohibition efforts -- and everything in between.  But arguably, none was more heroic than the abolitionist movement in the m id-19th century.

We have much to learn from those courageous abolitionists. They risked their own freedom, and sometimes their very lives, to protect the rights of black people.  In fact, they offer us a blueprint to resist attacks on our rights like the ones coming from the NSA.

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The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 counts among the most disgusting acts ever passed by Congress. This so-called law denied a black person accused of escaping slavery any semblance of due process. A white man could basically drag a black man or woman south into slavery on the power of his word. All he had to do was swear out a writ before a judge and get a "certificate of removal." The accused couldn't even offer testimony or evidence in his own defense. There was even a financial incentive. Appointed slave commissioners got $10 for returning a slave south, but only $5 if they determined the accused was actually a freeman.

The Fugitive Slave Act also made it illegal to assist an accused runaway slave. A simple act of kindness like giving a woman and her children some bread and water was a federal crime punished by fine and imprisonment. Every conductor on the Underground Railroad was subject to arrest.

Even more oppressive, a provision of the act allowed federal marshals to forcibly deputize citizens to track down runaways. There was no out for conscientious objectors. If called upon, you were legally required to act as a slave catcher.

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Northern abolitionists embarked on a multi-state, multi-year campaign to resist fugitive-slave acts.

For instance, the Michigan legislature approved an act in 1855 that guaranteed trial by jury and prohibited the use of state or local jails for holding accused fugitive slaves.

The Massachusetts personal-liberty law prohibited any state officer from serving on a fugitive-slave commission, making it an impeachable offense. It also provided for disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive-slave rendition.

Later personal liberty laws ratcheted things up another notch.

Vermont passed an act in 1858 that essentially declared any black person within its borders free and subjected slave catchers to kidnapping charges.

Sec. 6. Every person who may have been held as a slave, who shall come, or be brought, or be in this State, with or without the consent of his or her master or mistress, or who shall come, or be brought, or be, involuntarily or in any way in this State, shall be free.

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Sec. 7. Every person who shall hold, or attempt to hold, in this State, in slavery, or as a slave, any person mentioned as a slave in the sixth section of this act, or any free person, in any form, or for any time, however short, under pretence that such person is or has been a slave, shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned in the State Prison for a term not less than one year, nor more than fifteen years, and be fined not exceeding two thousand dollars.

Prominent abolitionists like John Greenleaf Whittier and William Lloyd Garrison vocally supported these personal liberty laws.


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Micheal is the national communications director for the Tenth Amendment Center and the author of "Our Last Hope: Rediscovering the Lost Path to Liberty." He Lives in Lexington, Ky.

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Resistance Against Fugitive Slave Act Give Blueprint to Stop NSA Spying