Fugitive Slaves - Complaints of the Southern States

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"Fugitive Slaves - Complaints of the Southern States," Ohio State Journal, March 12, 1850, p. 1.
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Ohio State Journal
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Fugitive Slaves - Complaints of the Southern States
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Sayo Ayodele
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Fugitive Slaves – Complaints of the Southern States.

Justice requires that we should examine the complaints made by the slave States against the free States, to find if there is anything in the conduct of the free States, to complain of. No matter in what temper these complaints are made, if just, the remedy should be applied. We should permit no jot or tittle of cause for disunion to lie at our doors. This the people of the free States owe to themselves, if not to others. Most of these complaints have been referred to, and shown to be groundless. But one cause remains, laid rather particularly at the door of Ohio, which seems to be considered weighty, and we regret to notice that Mr. Clay concurred with others in charging the free States with a want of hospitality and good neighborhood in this one particular. We allude to the fact that when slaves are brought by their masters to a free State, they become free. It seems to be supposed that the free States should at least, allow the master to travel with his slaves, and sojourn a short period, without entitling them to freedom. The fact that they are not so allowed, is attributed to local, unneighborly, anti-slavery legislation. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The principle of law by which a slave passing into a free State becomes liberated, is an old and general principle, and it is recognized with as much distinctness in slave States as elsewhere. The Courts of Louisiana and Kentucky have gone as far into the application of this doctrine, as Massachusetts and Ohio, and neither of these have gone farther than England and France. This principle is not peculiar not local; nor has it been adopted because of an unneighborly feeling, nor should it be the cause of complaint.

Moreover, the north-western States have provided in their Constitutions, Ohio among the rest, that slavery should not exist here. We could not change the present law by legislation; nothing short of a change of our Constitution could change the law. Thr only real cause of complaint consists in the fact that we do not change our Constitution for the accommodation of slaveholders. But why should we? We deny them no right, no convenience which we allow ourselves. No citizen of Ohio is allowed to hold a slave here even for a moment. Why then should citizens of other States claim to be treated here with privileges which are not allowed to any citizen of Ohio? Hospitality does not require it. We adopt the theory that “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” If any one wishes to be waited upon by servants, he can hire them, and pay them. This is what our own citizens are obliged to do. We see no reason why a Kentuckian or Virginian should be allowed here to force others to wait upon him without pay. The men and women who do service here for pay, frequently accumulate their wages, and become employers in their turn. They buy farms, and workshops, and become heads of families. They are voters. They are component parts of the State; to bone and sinew; its strength and wealth. Their opinions are a part of public opinion. Everything tending to lower them either in their own estimation, or in the estimation of others, is an injury and a wrong to the body politic. If Kentuckians and Virginias were allowed to throng our hotels and thoroughfares, and lounge about our cities and villages, with slaves to perform the same work now performed for pay, by free men, the effect could not fail to be injurious. Neither policy nor friendship, nor hospitality, requires this at our hands.

But they say we do not help them recapture their fugitive slaves. There was a law of Congress providing that when a slave owner claimed to have his runaway, he should take him before a magistrate and show some evidence that he had been a slave, and had run away. The process was summary, and gave to the claimant every reasonable facility. The State of Ohio has heretofore enacted laws providing for the recapture of such fugitives, and going far enough to satisfy Kentucky on this subject. But the Supreme Court of the United States has decided all these laws unconstitutional. They say that the constitutional right to recapture a fugitive slave is a right that executes itself. That the owner pursues and captures his negro without aid, let or hindrance, as he might and would an estray horse, cow, jackass. That all trials are an obstruction to his right, and consequently all laws of Congress and of the States, providing for such trial, are unconstitutional and void. In other words, the laws we have made are void, and any we might make would also be void, if they required any sort of trial of the right of the claimant. Why then should we be blamed for doing what we have no right to do?

As it stands, then, we are in this situation: A man comes here, whom nobody knows, and says he is from Kentucky or Virginia. He points to a negro, whom nobody knows, and says, “that negro used to be my slave and has escaped – come help me catch him and carry him back.” One naturally inquires, “How am I to know that you are what you pretend to be? How am I to know that the negro ever was a slave, or that you ever owned him? You are a stranger, and for ought I know, a mere kidnapper. Before taking a part in this matter, I must see that you have the law in your favor, else I might do a great wrong.” Here, then, is something to be tried, but they say, and the Supreme Court says a trial is an obstruction. The owner has a right to recapture his slave wherever he can find him, without any trial. We assent to this, because the law says so. We didn’t seek to have the law that way, but preferred it should be otherwise. Now it is so, and we submit. But it can not be both ways at the same time. If you consider the slave as you would a horse, or a cow, or a jackass, let it be so. You have no right to demand, and never would think of demanding assistance to catch your cow or your jackass. You would have somebody to lock up and drive back the animal, and would never dream of calling for volunteers. There is a law prohibiting under severe penalties the putting any hindrance or obstruction in the way of the owner. There are doubtless a good many persons who would assist slaves to escape. But the main portion of our population desire to live up to their constitutional obligations. And our courts and juries always enforce the law. The heavy verdicts against Van Zandt and Parish are evidence of this. There were the result of the law and of the respect which Ohio juries pay to the law. The law then is sufficiently severe, and is uniformly administered when appealed to. Our juries are not mobs. In this respect, neither Congress nor the State Legislatures could mend this matter.

Will they ask, whenever a white man comes along who claims to own a negro, that he shall have a right to command our assistance, without our being permitted to ascertain, by any sort of trial, whether he does in fact own the negro, and whether the negro has in fact been a slave? If they do not ask this, they can ask nothing. The law already gives them all they can have, except that; and we take it, no one would expect that. No slaveholder, of any sense or decency would expect or ask it, nor would the people of Ohio for a moment consent to it. Instead of merely catching slaves, if they were thus obliged to move at the back of every stranger, they would be little better than slaves themselves.

Either so arrange the matter that when a man is claimed to be a runaway slave the right can be tried, or if fugitives are to considered mere animals, with only the rights of animals, let it be so. It cannot be both ways. If they are mere animals; then there is no law nor any reason why we should help catch them more than other animals which have strayed from the owner. If they are in any sense persons, then, if they should happen to be slaves, a seizure would be an assault, and battery, subjecting the person attempting it to the penalties of the law, besides making him guilty of a great wrong. Before requiring this at out hands, we should have an opportunity to know by some sort of trial whether the negro is a slave or not. As the law now is, the runaway is treated as an animal. The owner pursues and catches him. The law prohibits all obstruction under severe penalties. It is a matter solely between pursued and pursuer, as it would be in the case of a colt that had broken from his pasture. The people of the free States are not pleased with this view of the matter, but the law is so, and they submit. While they are asked not to interfere, they will mind their own business as well they can. But if you propose to put them under command of every stranger that comes along and claims to own a runaway negro, they claim the right to inquire into your authority – that’s all! They are not so accustomed to be driven or commanded, but that they think it right to know, by some sort of trial, whether they are called upon to do a legal or an illegal act. But as the Supreme Court says that such a trial cannot be allowed, all they can do with propriety is to land neutral, and see the row go on.

We deny, therefore, that the people of Ohio can be fairly charged with a disregard of law, or with unneighborly conduct. The difficulty lies in the nature of the case, and is intrinsic. Slavery is a peculiarity and occasions peculiar difficulties.
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