Horrible Legislation In American History
The Fugitive Slave Act took this criminalization further, essentially allowing white “man-catchers” to declare black people escaped slaves—again criminals—and remand them to custody. And there was great incentive to do so, as the individual enforcers of the act were given $5 if it were determined “that a slavemaster was not entitled to an alleged fugitive slave” but $10 if it were determined the slavemaster did have a right to his “property.” A U.S. marshal refusing to participate could himself be criminalized and fined $1,000. A marshal who allowed an enslaved person to escape “would be liable to an owner for the full value.”
And in addition to the odious content, as I’ve said before nothing better reveals the farcical nature of the assertion that the Confederacy was about “states’ rights.” To anyone who believed in a “strict construction” of federal powers, the placement of the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV rather than I and the lack of an explicit grant of federal authority would render the statute unconstitutional. But…over to you, Justice Harlan:
In view of the circumstances under which the recent amendments were incorporated into the Constitution, and especially in view of the peculiar character of the new ights they created and secured, it ought not to be presumed that the general government has abdicated its authority, by national legislation, direct and primary in its character, to guard and protect privileges and immunities secured by that instrument. Such an interpretation of the Constitution ought not to be accepted if it be possible to avoid it. Its acceptance would lead to this anomalous result: that, whereas, prior to the amendments, Congress, with the sanction of this court, passed the most stringent laws — operating directly and primarily upon States and their officers and agents, as well as upon individuals — in vindication of slavery and the right of the master, it may not now, by legislation of a like primary and direct character, guard, protect, and secure the freedom established, and the most essential right of the citizenship granted, by the constitutional amendments. With all respect for the opinion of others, I insist that the national legislature may, without transcending the limits of the Constitution, do for human liberty and the fundamental rights of American citizenship what it did, with the sanction of this court, for the protection of slavery and the rights of the masters of fugitive slaves. If fugitive slave laws, providing modes and prescribing penalties whereby the master could seize and recover his fugitive slave, were legitimate exercises of an implied power to protect and enforce a right recognized by the Constitution, why shall the hands of Congress be tied so that — under an express power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce a constitutional provision granting citizenship — it may not, by means of direct legislation, bring the whole power of this nation to bear upon States and their officers and upon such individuals and corporations exercising public functions as assume to abridge, impair, or deny rights confessedly secured by the supreme law of the land?
Of course, by 1883, not only the reconstituted slave power but moderate Republicans thought that federal power to protect civil rights (as opposed to the slaveholders) went too far.