John G. Palfrey: On the Slave Power

Background of the Civil War

During the year 1846, historian John G. Palfrey publishes a series of papers in the Boston Whig.


It is often wisdom, in the prosecution of a scheme, to put forth a thoroughly outrageous proposal at the beginning. If it is disallowed, and cannot be carried, you fall back on something less exorbitant, which then has an air of moderation and compromise. If on the other hand you succeed to carry it, your boldness, and the facile surrender of the other party, make a capital prestige for the future.

The Slave Power.

No. III.

First Step Forward in the Legislature.—Abolition of Jury Trials for the Question of Personal Liberty.


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EVERY person in the United States is the subject of two governments; and it is remarkable how different his political relations are, according as he is regarded as belonging to the one or the other. We, of this Commonwealth, considered as the people of Massachusetts, are free citizens of an excellently constituted republic. Considered as people of the United States, we, with the rest of the so-called free people, both of the free and of the slave States, amounting to some eighteen millions in number, are subjects of an oligarchy of the most odious possible description; an oligarchy composed of about one hundred thousand owners of men.* There are perhaps three hundred thousand slaveholders in the country. Allowing for minors and women, probably not far from one-third of the number are voters; and they administer our affairs.

* Possibly this estimate may be too small. But, on the other hand, it is made on an estimate of three hundred thousand as the whole number of slave-owners, which many considered to be too high by fifty thousand. The number of slave-holding voters ought by all means to be ascertained in the census of 1850. We shall then be able to reason more closely on the matter.

The quiet and steady process by which this rather material change in the character of the Federal Government was brought about, is not more remarkable than the result. Never was it better shown what great things union, perseverance, and impudence will do.

It is often wisdom, in the prosecution of a scheme, to put forth a thoroughly outrageous proposal at the beginning. If it is disallowed, and cannot be carried, you fall back on something less exorbitant, which then has an air of moderation and compromise. If on the other hand you succeed to carry it, your boldness, and the facile surrender of the other party, make a capital prestige for the future.

Four years had not passed after the Federal Constitution went into operation, before the Southern States tried the virtue of this policy, and tried it with an easy success, that must have amazed themselves at the time, and has not been lost upon their subsequent proceedings. On the 12th day of February, 1793, Congress enacted a few to carry into effect the provision of the Constitution respecting the delivering up of persons “held to labor in one State under the laws thereof, escaping into another.” This law, which is still in force, provides that

“When a person held to labor in any of the United States, or in either of the territories on the northwest, or south of the river Ohio, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other of the said States or territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States, residing or being within the State, or before any magistrate of a county, city, or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit, taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or territory, that the person so seized or arrested doth, under the laws of the State or territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or territory from which he or she fled.”

If my neighbor sues me for twenty-one dollars, I have a right to carry the question to a jury. The Constitution has declared that I am entitled to better protection against an unjust claim to that amount, than what might be found in the wisdom or integrity of any town or county magistrate. Not so with my liberty, which I care more for than I do for twenty-one dollars. Let a stranger appear and say that he comes from a distant State, where man holds fellow-men in bondage, and let him persuade a stupid justice of the peace, or bribe a base one, to declare that I am the stranger’s runaway slave, and there is no lawful power in Massachusetts to save me from being conveyed away in handcuffs, and sold in Washington or New Orleans under the whip. Armed with a paltry justice’s warrant, he shall take my wife from my side, or my infant from its cradle, and if I offer resistance, he is clothed with the whole power of the country to strike me down. Do not say that the thing would be prevented, the justice’s warrant to the contrary notwithstanding. Very likely it would. But, if prevented, it would have to be by club law, which is not the kind of dependence that we, the law-abiding people of Massachusetts, approve or like to resort to. Do not say that it is not likely any justice of the peace will be cheated into doing such a wrong. Justices of the peace are not all Solomons. There are Justice Shallows even in Massachusetts, and those, too, with whom a dark complexion makes a bad prima facie case. Do not say that justices are always above bribery. There was a story in 1843 that a representative sold his vote, and with it the administration of the Commonwealth for the year, for a suit of clothes; and Governor Morton tossed him a justice’s commission into the bargain. Do not say, that it is not likely such treatment of a white freeman will be attempted. There is the law; and if they are not often so treated, it is no thanks to their own prudence or self-respect. There is the law, it says nothing of color; and by it the Governor of Massachusetts is just as liable to be carried away and sold in the Southern shambles, as the blackest or least considerable citizen in the Commonwealth. The law may be, for white people, as helpless as it is insolent; but it threatens and insults Harrison Gray Otis as much as his boot-black; George Putnam, of Roxbury, as much as his respectable namesake, of a different complexion, in School street. Do not say that it is not likely black freemen will be often treated in this way. If the blacks had a fair chance to tell their own story in Pennsylvania, we should know, better than we now do, how true that statement would be. At all events, the free States owe it to their good faith to their own citizens, to their decent standing before the world, to their tolerable credit with posterity, to protect their citizens against being carried away as slaves, and to protect the liberty of the humblest citizen as effectually as of the most exalted. Did ever a decent government before decline that duty? Is there any parallel to this monstrous law on the statute book of any civilized people? Did any free government, civilized or not, ever before consent that its constituents should hold their liberty by such a tenure? Did bloated arrogance ever before make such a claim on freemen? Did freemen ever before give up their securities, and agree to a gross affront, with so easy a compliance.

Three years ago, Massachusetts took this thing in hand. But the remedy she applied was necessarily an altogether imperfect one. It does not touch the power to grant warrants, given by the Act of Congress to the Circuit and District Courts, and to town and county magistrates. She made it hazardous for her own justices to do this dirty work. But she could not take from them the power vested by the United States law; and should any one of them, through ignorance or for a sufficient consideration, lend himself to a kidnapper’s job, his warrant would be valid against all the world. Such are the legal safeguards of liberty, in “Columbia, happy land.”

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker