Eric Foner on Fugitive Slave Act

(December 24, 2016) As I progress through the Civil War class lectures that Dr. Eric Foner has posted on YouTube I continue to find errors and a persistent, unjustified, sarcastic dismissal of Southern viewpoints. In today’s example he misrepresents the Southern attitude toward state’s rights. When summarizing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act he says:

Most [Americans] acquiesce to [the 1850 Compromise.] But the Fugitive Slave Law will very quickly become a volatile issue….If you look at the…Law you can forget about the idea that the South believed in state’s rights. That is completely absurd….

The professor then proceeds to explain that the Law put the recapture of fugitive slaves into the hands of federal commissioners instead of state authorities. That, he concludes, made the Law “the strongest violation of the rights of the states enacted by Congress before the Civil War.” It would, said Foner, “override state laws interfering with the capture of fugitive slaves.”


Unfortunately, he overlooks important context, some of which he may have forgotten that he mentioned in an earlier lecture.

First, in the 1842 Prigg v. Pennsylvania case involving the Fugitive Slave provisions of the Constitution and an earlier 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court ruled that the states individually had no responsibility to enforce the return of runaway slaves. According Foner’s earlier lecture in plain language the decision meant, “that it was a federal responsibility to go and get those slaves.” If the Court was to be obeyed, Congress simply had no choice but to adopt a Fugitive Slave Law.

To pretend that an 1842 Supreme Court decision requiring the adoption of a federal law to override state authority meant that Southerners did not “believe” in state’s rights is an distortion beyond the truth.

Second, between the 1842 Court case and passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a number of Northern states adopted laws forbidding state law enforcement agents to assist “in the rendition of a fugitive slave.” To Southerners such laws signaled that the applicable Northern states were prepared to renege on the fugitive slave provisions of the Constitution and the 1793 Act.

Third, even after the 1850 Act it quickly became apparent that selected Northern states would simply refuse to comply. Foner employs a euphemism when he says such states made the Law “inoperative” and cited an incident as early as 1851 in Massachusetts. He does not explain why such actions by Northerners fail to be regarded as outright defiance of federal law whereas later Southern defiance that led to Civil War was condemned as “treason.”

It begs the question of whether “treason” was merely a matter of a state’s geographic location with a free pass for the North and a “go-to-jail-card” for the South.

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2 thoughts on “Eric Foner on Fugitive Slave Act

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      This is kind-of like the lectures you were listening to on the American Revolution. In this case, however, I am learning where a lot of the hostility toward the South among academic historians and their students originates.


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