"Resist to the Last Extremity": The Repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws

Celano, Daniele, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Elizabeth, Varon, History, University of Virginia
Nicoletti, Cynthia, Law, University of Virginia

In May of 1861, Kentuckian James Holt wrote to his fellow statesman, Joshua F. Speed, anxious over the border state's position as the secession crisis fomented. Holt urged for Unionism, as abdicating the Constitution's legal protections would remove Northern responsibility of fugitive slave recapture and undermine slavery's viability. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law thus provided a catalyst for loyalty in Kentucky, yet historiography has treated the 1864 congressional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law as an effectively symbolic measure. By situating the repeal within the larger context of the Lincoln Administration’s invocation of federal war powers, however, the repeal emerges as a significant political action that reshaped the contours of legal challenges to emancipation. Tracing the wartime evolution of the Fugitive Slave Act's operation in Kentucky exposes how loyal slaveholders resisted military emancipation by launching Constitutional objections to the war powers. Kentuckians did not distinguish, in legal terms, between military usurpation of civil liberties, and the abrogation of their right to recapture slaves that fled to Union lines. The war fundamentally disrupted the civil operation of fugitive slave laws, and prompted major conflict with the federal government over the legitimacy of invoking the laws of war over loyal civilians. Understanding the linkage of these issues by slaveholding Kentuckians is key to understanding slavery's border state erosion. Kentuckians resisted both legally and politically by arresting military officials for violating state slave codes and proposing pro-slavery resolutions in Congress. Far from an insignificant law on the road toward the 13th Amendment, the 1864 Repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law provides insight into how border state citizens resisted military emancipation by challenging the laws of war.

MA (Master of Arts)
Military Emancipation, Slavery, Civil War, Law
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