Reassessing the Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law
This chapter reexamines the legal and sometimes violent contest between antislavery and proslavery forces regarding enforcement of the federal fugitive slave code in the urban North. It argues that recent scholarship on this subject has made clearer that northern vigilance committees and abolitionists were remarkably successful in pursuing various legal and political strategies on the ground, even in cities with strong anti-black, proslavery sentiment and even after passage of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Relying on personal liberty statutes, sympathetic juries, targeted mobbing, and a host of other tactics, the vigilance movement largely succeeded not only in frustrating slave catchers on northern territory but also in protecting their own operatives from violence and legal repercussions.
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