THE BEAUTIES OF PERSONAL LIBERTY LAWS.
The decision of the Supreme Court of New York in the Lemmon case is to this effect – that a slave brought into that State by his master or owner, no matter for what purpose, or under what circumstances, becomes free (if he so elects) under the State laws. The decision does not conflict with or reach the Dred Scott decision; for it does not pretend to say what would be the status of the negro if he should voluntarily return to a slave State with his master. But it plainly asserts that in New York, under any and all circumstances, he is entitled to his freedom. The master may not mean to sojourn for an instant on the soil of the State, or make any other use of his slave that he would of an Egyptian mummy; he may be driven there by stress of weather, or he may get over the State line by the merest accident in his geographical calculations; nevertheless, the slave, once touching the soil, becomes a freeman, and there is no remedy, unless, happily or unhappily, it may be provided under the laws of the United States.
We are not lawyer enough to settle the question which here presents itself - whether property in transitu ceases to be property, or may be confiscated, when it reaches a State, the laws of which does not recognize it as property, or make it contraband. The question has been argued enough, we suppose, and has been decided certainly in inferior courts; but the true answer of it – the final answer – has not reached us. We do not know what it is, or what it ought to be. When the Maine Liquor Law was forced in Maine, the matter was discussed in the newspapers, and by some of the lawyers. It was also discussed in Vermont and some other States. The result of the discussion was, a determination on the part of Maine Law men to let liquor in transitu alone.
But we are not going to take it for granted that the New York decision is correct. (As an interpretation of the State law, we presume it is correct. And our only question is, whether such laws – laws confiscating the property of slave-owners under the circustances we have named can be found profitable to slaves themselves, or to the States enacting them.
That they can be of no service to the slaves, is apparent at a mere glance. The whole effect of them must be to prevent slave-owners from taking their ‘property’ into free States, when traveling on business or for pleasure. The Kentuckian who wants to visit Niagara Falls, will leave Charley at home – perhaps leave himself and family at home also. If he wants to visit Newport, his interests will dictate the same policy. And if he wants to make a water excursion from Norfolk to Delaware Bay, he will calculate the chances of being thrown, by some southerly gale, upon the New Jersey coast. The actual disadvantage to the slave will be, that he can no longer enjoy these excursions with his master. He cannot be allowed to see Northern cities, or Northern wonders, or Northern people, or breathe Northern air; and he loses the chances of escape which are so much better here than at the South.
What will the States gain – the Northern States? That they will gain nothing directly, is certain. Such a policy cannot be expected to attract Southern visitors, or Southern travelers, or Southern traders. Its first effect must be, if not to clog the wheels of trade, at least keep from us Southern people. Its next effect must and will be, to provoke retaliation. If certain articles of Southern property may be confiscated the moment it reaches New York, then it may be that certain other articles of property, or what is styled property, in New York, may find itself in unpleasant circumstances when it reaches Virginia. The only requirement would seemto be, that Virginia should imitate New York, and prescribe the same rules for her own citizens that she does for other States. In ten thousand other ways this work of ‘retaliation’ might be kept up, until commerce between the States – which only Congress can regulate – should become nothing better than the merest farce. Would the North, or the South, lose most by this system of warfare, in the end?
It strikes us that here is one of the unpleasant issues of our family quarrel. Abolitionism has pushed us forward, until we are ready to trample on the commonest usages of hospitality. We are seeking, by ‘Personal Liberty’ laws and the like, to box ourselves up, so that no leprous slaveholder may ever set eyes upon us. Are we not working our own destruction? At least, are we not conducting ourselves shamefully towards members of the same common family?
Formerly, in New York and in many other Northern States, it was provided by special enactment, that citizens of slave States, coming upon their soil with no intention of permanently residing there, might bring with them their slaves, and retain them without molestation a fixed number of months or days. The laws, that we know of, worked no harm. Nobody feared, or pretended to fear, that these free States were in danger of having slavery fastened upon them as an institution. But the times are changed, and we are on the road to the free soil millennium. Rhode Island, as yet, occupies a sort of road-side position. But she is to be invited, next month, to wheel into line. An attempt is to be made to have her adopt the radical policy of Massachusetts and Vermont – to even outstrip New York in her opposition to the rendition of fugitives. Perhaps it will be successful. But we hope moderate men, before consenting to such a result, will look candidly at the inevitable consequences.