Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New and Noteworthy: Fugitive Slaves, Their Rescuers and The Coming of the Civil War

Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, Steven Lubet. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 367 pp., notes, index, hardcover, 2010, $29.95.

H-Net, H-Law review: Triumph of Law, Failure of Justice, Steve Peraza Published on H-Law, May, 2011.
Excerpt: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 affirmed the U.S. government’s support of slavery, catalyzing conflict in the process. The law required federal officials to aid in the search for and seizure of alleged runaways anywhere in the United States. It also criminalized efforts to stall or block the law’s enforcement. Therefore slave catchers and U.S. Marshals hunted fugitives with impunity, even in states and territories where positive laws had abolished slavery. Moreover black and white abolitionists who refused to help slave catchers, or who chose to rescue recaptured runaways, faced federal fines and imprisonment. The fugitive slave law thus protected southern slaveholders’ rights to their human chattel, but as one historian has noted, “To secure these rights the law seemed to ride roughshod over the prerogatives of the northern states.”

Excerpt: That the fugitive slave law overcame social, political, and legal challenges is one of the lessons of Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, a well-researched and elegantly written monograph by Williams Memorial Professor of Law Steven Lubet. But the purpose of the study is not to measure the effectiveness of the law. Rather, Fugitive Justice explains how federal enforcement and prosecution of the law pushed abolitionist lawyers to advance radical legal theories in defense of the runaways and rescuers they represented. To do so, the monograph retells the stories of three high-profile fugitive slave trials in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio, respectively, focusing acutely on the legal arguments delivered for and against the fugitive slave law during each case. In this way readers experience both the palpable drama of antebellum trials in the United States as well as the ideological and rhetorical battles among prosecutors, defense attorneys, U.S. commissioners, and federal judges.

Excerpt: Professor Lubet’s Fugitive Justice convincingly argues that fugitive slave trials were a contributing factor to the coming of the Civil War. It also explains clearly how notions of “higher law” evolved from mere rhetoric to antislavery legal theory. In the final analysis Lubet’s study tells a compelling story about the fugitive slave law and its challengers from which both legal scholars and historians will benefit.

Full Text Review: H-Net, H-Law May 2011.

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