The 2017 Fugitive Slave Act

Posted on September 8, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’re re-running this post because, sadly, it is more relevant than ever after the blow to DACA this past week. People who participate in DACA give all of their information (country of birth, birth date, any IDs like a driver’s license, home address, relatives’ names and addresses, etc.) to the federal government in return for its aid. Now that information might be used against them, to locate and deport them and their families. It’s one more way in which a federal act filters down to local law enforcement, which filters down to all of us, just as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act did:

 

We’re interrupting our series on Barack Obama’s Farewell Address once again, but this time not because it was removed from whitehouse.gov, along with pages on civil rights, healthcare, and climate science, by the Trump Administration. Instead, we are struck by how much the war on Latin American immigrants (and this one group is the real focus of  anti-immigrant activism in this country) reminds us of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law).

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about enslaved blacks, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

When we hear people today, in 2017, talking about the laws and acts they are going to put in place to stop the alleged democracy-killing overflow of Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States, they sound a lot like people who would have liked the Fugitive Slave Act. Here is an NPR interview with Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, from yesterday:

INSKEEP: What do you think about the president’s effort to compel, if he can, local and state authorities to be more helpful to the Border Patrol and immigration authorities in doing their jobs and rounding up people who are here illegally?

JUDD: Well – so my understanding is that he’s not compelling them to help us round them up. But what he is saying is if they come in contact, if a police officer, say, from Phoenix Police Department – if a police officer from the Phoenix, Ariz., police department comes in contact with somebody that he knows is here or suspects that is here illegally, then his responsibility is to contact an immigration enforcement officer to come in and find out. It’s the same with me. As a Border Patrol agent, if I make a vehicle stop and I find that illegal activity is taking place outside of the laws that I enforce…

INSKEEP: Drunk driver for example.

JUDD: Exactly – it’s my responsibility to call the local law – the local law enforcement so that they can come out and take care of the problem.

INSKEEP: Are we not actually arguing about that much then? Because there are local authorities who are saying, yeah, yeah, if we find somebody who’s obviously in violation, we have to turn them over, but we do not want to make that our job. We don’t want it to be our job to seek them out or to hold people when otherwise there would not be reason to hold them.

JUDD: And it’s not going to be their job. It’s not going to be their job to go seek out illegal immigrants in the United States. That is immigrations officers’ jobs and it’s not theirs. But if they do come in contact with people that are in the country illegally, they should have a responsibility and duty to report people that are breaking the law.

Judd’s statements are disingenuous. How would that police office in Phoenix “know” that someone he meets is “here illegally” without a mechanism in place to track all immigrants and make their data available at all times to police, and require the police to consult it? There’s no way to “know” someone is a legal immigrant or not without looking up their information, which means asking/forcing the person you have “come in contact with” to give you their name, address, etc. And of course, “come in contact” with is blandly disingenuous as well: when do police officers “come in contact” with people? We’d wager that 95% of the time it’s by stopping them on the premise of a violation of the law. Judd himself puts contact in the context of a vehicle stop. So already we have a question of who is being stopped and why which has, of course, been asked for over a century in this country, beginning with black Americans stopped by police for no reason and extending to brown Americans getting the same treatment.

The reporter’s characterization of police officers resisting being turned into immigrant-catchers is in line with all white Americans being forced into being slave-catchers in 1850. Judd says it won’t be the police officer’s job to “seek out illegal immigrants”, but reiterates that police officers who don’t turn in people who are here illegally are violating their duty and the law. If you get in trouble for failing to do something, you will find ways to do it. If police officers will be sanctioned for failing to turn in illegal immigrants, they will begin turning in illegal immigrants. They will look at the data, identify people here illegally in their cities and towns, stop them on another pretext, and turn them in.

And if the police must do this, eventually they will enlist the general public in helping them to do this. They will paint all immigrants here illegally as murderers, as Judd does later in the interview by saying “I think the country is going to be a lot safer. I really do, yes, absolutely. I mean, I was there with what they call the angel families, families that had children that were killed by persons that were in the United States illegally.” And once all illegal immigrants are child-murderers, it will be against the law not to seek them out and turn them in, for everyone.

And then we are all slave-catchers.

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The 2017 Fugitive Immigrant Act

Posted on January 27, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Slavery | Tags: , , , , |

We’re interrupting our series on Barack Obama’s Farewell Address once again, but this time not because it was removed from whitehouse.gov, along with pages on civil rights, healthcare, and climate science, by the Trump Administration. Instead, we are struck by how much the war on Latin American immigrants (and this one group is the real focus of  anti-immigrant activism in this country) reminds us of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law).

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about black slaves, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

When we hear people today, in 2017, talking about the laws and acts they are going to put in place to stop the alleged democracy-killing overflow of Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States, they sound a lot like people who would have liked the Fugitive Slave Act. Here is an NPR interview with Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, from yesterday:

INSKEEP: What do you think about the president’s effort to compel, if he can, local and state authorities to be more helpful to the Border Patrol and immigration authorities in doing their jobs and rounding up people who are here illegally?

JUDD: Well – so my understanding is that he’s not compelling them to help us round them up. But what he is saying is if they come in contact, if a police officer, say, from Phoenix Police Department – if a police officer from the Phoenix, Ariz., police department comes in contact with somebody that he knows is here or suspects that is here illegally, then his responsibility is to contact an immigration enforcement officer to come in and find out. It’s the same with me. As a Border Patrol agent, if I make a vehicle stop and I find that illegal activity is taking place outside of the laws that I enforce…

INSKEEP: Drunk driver for example.

JUDD: Exactly – it’s my responsibility to call the local law – the local law enforcement so that they can come out and take care of the problem.

INSKEEP: Are we not actually arguing about that much then? Because there are local authorities who are saying, yeah, yeah, if we find somebody who’s obviously in violation, we have to turn them over, but we do not want to make that our job. We don’t want it to be our job to seek them out or to hold people when otherwise there would not be reason to hold them.

JUDD: And it’s not going to be their job. It’s not going to be their job to go seek out illegal immigrants in the United States. That is immigrations officers’ jobs and it’s not theirs. But if they do come in contact with people that are in the country illegally, they should have a responsibility and duty to report people that are breaking the law.

Judd’s statements are disingenuous. How would that police office in Phoenix “know” that someone he meets is “here illegally” without a mechanism in place to track all immigrants and make their data available at all times to police, and require the police to consult it? There’s no way to “know” someone is a legal immigrant or not without looking up their information, which means asking/forcing the person you have “come in contact with” to give you their name, address, etc. And of course, “come in contact” with is blandly disingenuous as well: when do police officers “come in contact” with people? We’d wager that 95% of the time it’s by stopping them on the premise of a violation of the law. Judd himself puts contact in the context of a vehicle stop. So already we have a question of who is being stopped and why which has, of course, been asked for over a century in this country, beginning with black Americans stopped by police for no reason and extending to brown immigrants getting the same treatment.

The reporter’s characterization of police officers resisting being turned into immigrant-catchers is in line with all white Americans being forced into being slave-catchers in 1850. Judd says it won’t be the police officer’s job to “seek out illegal immigrants”, but reiterates that police officers who don’t turn in people who are here illegally are violating their duty and the law. If you get in trouble for failing to do something, you will find ways to do it. If police officers will be sanctioned for failing to turn in illegal immigrants, they will begin turning in illegal immigrants. They will look at the data, identify people here illegally in their cities and towns, stop them on another pretext, and turn them in.

And if the police must do this, eventually they will enlist the general public in helping them to do this. They will paint all immigrants here illegally as murderers, as Judd does later in the interview by saying “I think the country is going to be a lot safer. I really do, yes, absolutely. I mean, I was there with what they call the angel families, families that had children that were killed by persons that were in the United States illegally.” And once all illegal immigrants are child-murderers, it will be against the law not to seek them out and turn them in, for everyone.

And then we are all slave-catchers.

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What is conservative and what is radical? 1860 and 2016

Posted on August 4, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post seven in  our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Today we extrapolate a parallel between Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

Speaking of slavery, a New York Times editorial from October 1861 focuses on whether or not newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln really intends to end slavery as southerners insist. Despite the fact that Lincoln represented a party founded in large part to stop the spread of slavery, and that Lincoln had, over the previous four years (since his debates with Stephen Douglas) been more and more clear that he found slavery morally wrong and dangerous to the political Union and American democracy, and that most Republican voters expected Lincoln to “teach the South a lesson” after having its way in Washington for four score and seven years, the author of the editorial is sure that Lincoln will do nothing to stop slavery:

After Mr. Lincoln shall be elected we think he will very promptly take steps to dispel the fogs that have been thrown around his political position – and that he will present himself to the country as a Conservative, devoted to the Union, considerate equally of every section and of every State, and resolved faithfully and with firmness to maintain the Constitution in all its parts. We have no doubt that he will proclaim himself opposed to the extension or increase of Slavery, and equally opposed to any interference of Congress, or of the North, with Slavery in the Southern States. He has repeatedly declared himself in favor of an efficient Fugitive Slave Law, and opposed to negro suffrage and the political equality of the negro race. We regard these as eminently conservative views, and if his Administration adheres to them with firmness and fidelity, we believe it will contribute largely to the restoration of the public peace, and fortify the Constitution and the Union still more thoroughly in the affection and confidence of the American people…

In this short paragraph we have a wealth of contradictions:

—The idea that Lincoln’s plans as a Republican president were unclear, shrouded in “fog” by outsiders, is an amazing example of wishful thinking. Very few people in the U.S. in the election year of 1860 felt unclear about what Lincoln would do regarding slavery. Northerners assumed he would stop it from spreading and eventually end it in the South; Southerners assumed he would immediately abolish it throughout the Union. This is because of Lincoln’s many statements about hating slavery and wishing to help it along to oblivion, and because of his party’s antislavery basis.

—The statement about a conservative being equally devoted to every section and state is also pretty astounding. The 1860 election was the first in which no presidential candidate represented the entire country. The Republicans were Northern, the Southern Democrats were Southern, the Democrats were primarily Southern, and the Constitutional Union party was created to attract loners who did not take a side—of whom there were vanishingly few. That was the whole point of the 1860 election: the country had irretrievably divided over slavery. There was no going back, and certainly not with a candidate like Lincoln who was antislavery. He did not represent the South.

—The characteristics of “eminently conservative views” given here are shocking, as they are three examples of radical race hatred against black Americans and, in the case of the FSL, a violation of the Constitution (state antislavery laws were overruled by federal law insisting that slavery must be acknowledged in those states while slave states were not forced to acknowledge abolition). This is what passes for normal in a country driven to extremes of sectionalism: maintaining the horrible, anti-democratic status quo is “conservative” while attempting to restore democracy is “radical”.

—How is it possible to confidently claim that if Lincoln does continue to maintain the proslavery status quo it will restore the Union and public peace, and fortify the Constitution? The Constitution is already violated, and it’s the status quo of appeasing slaveholders itself that has led the Union to the brink of rupture and destroyed the public peace.

If we look to the present 2016 presidential race, we see unsettling similarities between this article and how Trump is often described by his admirers. He may seem like a dangerous radical, but that’s just a “fog” of misinformation spread by his detractors, all of whom are themselves dangerously biased. Trump is devoted to the United States and its Constitution, and will treat all Americans with the same love and respect, no matter how much he targets certain populations for his hatred. His deeply racist, sexist, and anti-democratic views are actually “eminently conservative”, representative of the established status quo and traditional American values.

At the same time, the editorial writer’s willful blindness to the reality that the nation has changed and is on a very dangerous course toward civil war is seen today in writers and speakers and average Americans on both the Democratic and Republican sides. Pretending that the 2016 election is business as usual is as crazy as pretending that the 1860 election was. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you live in dangerous times, and that the status quo is being fundamentally challenged. Presenting radical hate as common sense, threats of nuclear war as protecting national security, and an unstable character as “honest” is as much an attempt to say that nothing is changed when everything has changed as anything written in 1860.

Next time: the end of our journey

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TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

Posted on August 27, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Historians | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

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