"Surrender of Fugitive Slaves," New Orleans (LA) Picayune, March 26, 1850, p. 6.
New Orleans (LA) Picayune
Surrender of Fugitive Slaves
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Surrender of Fugitive Slaves.
We have received from Mr. J.M. Porter, chair, man of the Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a copy of the report recently made by that committee on the subject of fugitive slaves. The existing law of Pennsylvania, made in 1847, under a strong antislavery excitement, is very severe in its prohibitions of any aid by State officers of Pennsylvania in the arrest of negroes claimed as runaway slaves, under the act of Congress of 1793. It is the law which has been so much complained of in the Southern States, and particularly in the late debate in the U.S. Senate, as a direct breach of the obligations of the constitution of the United States. Its provisions are extremely stringent. It forbids any judge, justice, or alderman in the State, from taking any cognizance of a fugitive slave case, under the act of Congress named, or grant any order of removal, under the penalty of a charge of misdemeanor in office, and a punishment by a fine of not less than $500, nor more than $1000. It makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine not less than $100, or more than $1000, with costs of prosecution, and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court, for a space of three months in the county jail, for any owner of a fugitive slave, to claim and seize him on any authority whatever, “violently and tumultuously,” with or without the intention of carrying him before a judicial tribunal!
Another section makes it unlawful to employ for any of the prisons of the State for the custody of any fugitive slave, and a fine of $500, with perpetual exclusion from office, is made the penalty for any act of disobedience, in so using the prison, by any jailer or keeper.
A bill has now been introduced into the Legislature to repeal all those clauses which prohibit the officers of the State from aiding the enforcement on the law of the United States, made to carry into effect the constitutional direction for the surrender of slaves. Upon this bill the Judiciary Committee has made the report, which is before us. It unanimously – nine members signing the report – recommends the passage of the bill, and the total repeal thereby of all the prohibitions against the action of the State officers, and the penal enactment against the seizure of slaves by their masters in person, or by their agents.
The grounds assumed for this recommendation are purely those of courtesy. The report expressly says that the passage of the repealed act was a legal and constitutional exercise of State legislative power, but that the excitement which exists in the country brought about by “ultra views on each side of the question,” makes it evident that the act had better been never passed, and that its repeal would have a tendency to promote harmony. The repeal is called “a concession” which will have a “soothing” effect on the Southern States, and show that Pennsylvania is willing to make some sacrifices for the peace and safety of the Union.
The intention thus expressed is doubtless extremely civil. The abrogation of such an offensive law is a sign of a better disposition than that which passed it, but the special reservation of the right to reenact it makes the concession of little permanent value. If made through a desire to preserve the peace of the Union, what is to prevent its being reenacted, if another legislature shall think there is no danger to the Union, or be more willing to encounter it?
The effect of the measure, if carried, will be to leave the question undetermined, how far State Magistrates are bound to assist in the execution of a law of Congress, but with the prevailing opinion especially in the Northern States, that the aid, if afforded at all, is entirely voluntary, and may be refused at will. The subject, though relieved from the hostile action of the State, is left without any State cooperation in favor of the constitutional right of the master. The permission to seize a fugitive where there is no obligation to give a legal warrant for his surrender, amounts to very little in favor of the owner.
While we are grateful for the indications of improved feeling shown in the report of the Judiciary Committee, which we hope will be sanctioned with equal liberality by the whole Legislature, we would look for some better assurance for the observance of the constitutional injunction to deliver fugitives than the spontaneous action of individuals in the free States, whether officers or citizens. When such sentiments as those of Gov. Seward find applause, and the doctrine is seriously held, that individual conscience is the guide to be followed, above and against the express injunctions of the constitution, we must hold it to be very unsafe to leave the enforcement of an unpopular right to voluntary action. It is for these reasons the prevalence of such loose notions, and the want of any well ascertained and universally acknowledged rule for the effective administration of the law of 1793 that the fugitive slave bill now before the United States Senate has been brought forward. With the powerful aid of Mr. Webster, it is hoped that it will become a law of the United States, thus obviating, by the specific injunctions of an authority which must be obeyed, the necessity of such political concessions, by courtesy, as are offered in this report.