Charge to Grand Jury Fugitive Slave Law October 1851

The citation for this case is 30 Fed. Cas. 1013, Case No. 18,262. Justice Samuel Nelson, Circuit Justice for New York, gave these instructions to the Grand Jury in the Northern District of New York in October of 1851.

In his instructions, Justice Nelson explained why he was giving this charge: “The district attorney has called my attention to a crime recently committed in one of the most populous towns in the western part of this state-the case of the seizure and rescue of a fugitive slave out of the hands of a federal officer, by an unlawful assemblage of people, more or less armed, pending an examination before a magistrate in pursuance of an act of Congress, passed September 18, 1850 (9 Stat. 462). The crime, as alleged, ‘was committed in the edge of the evening, in the midst of the local police and municipal authorities of a city of intelligence and character; and this, after threats and other unmistakable evidences of intended rescue and crime had been given out. The marshal, and all the authorities associated with him, and other persons coming to his aid and assistance, were overborne by the violence of the mob, and law and legal authority were trampled under foot. The case is one calling for grave and serious inquiry on the part of the public authorities. Neither time nor expense should be regarded in the investigation of the crime, and in bringing the guilty offenders to justice. In a case so serious, striking at the very foundation of a government of laws, and substituting in its place brute force and anarchy, the whole power of the government should be put into requisition to suppress the spirit of disorder and punish the guilty. No government is worth preserving that does not or cannot enforce obedience to its laws.” [30 Fed. Cas. 1013]

After a short discussion about specific sections of the law, Justice Nelson looks at whether the circuit court has jurisdiction in Fugitive Slave cases: “There is some doubt as to whether the circuit court of the United States has jurisdiction of an offence committed under this act of 1850, as the act in terms limits the cognizance of the offence to the district court. I have, therefore, advised the district attorney to present the cases before that court. The 11th section of the judiciary act of 1789 (1 Stat. 78) confers on the circuit court concurrent jurisdiction with the district court of all crimes and offences cognizable therein. But it may be a question whether this provision applies to jurisdiction subsequently conferred on the district court as specifically as that conferred by the act of 1850. There is a provision in a recent act of congress, by which the district court is authorized to adjourn or continue criminal cases pending therein to the circuit court, which, no doubt, embraces, the cases in question. Act Aug. 8, 1846 (9 Stat. 72, § 2).” [Ibid.]

He next discusses why this issue is more important than simply failure to obey the law. “The forcible resistance to and obstruction of the law to which I have referred, involve something more than the simple defeat of the execution of an act of congress. The act of 1850 was passed to carry into effect an important provision of the constitution of the United States, which declares that ‘no person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on, claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.’ The state of New York, in full convention assembled, ratified and adopted the constitution of which this provision is a part, on the 26th of July, 1788, when she entered into the Union, and thereby pledged the faith and honor of the people of the state to the observance and fulfilment of all its provisions and injunctions, and of all laws enacted by congress in pursuance thereof. The faith and honor of the state are involved, therefore, in the discharge of these duties and obligations, and, while these virtues are acknowledged by the people of the state, the constitution will be revered and obeyed, and, so far as she is concerned, the Union will be cherished and preserved. It is not to be believed that, in the comparatively short period, in the being of a nation, of sixty-three years, her sons have so far degenerated as to become recreant to the obligations of the government formed by their fathers and cemented by their blood, and under which they have enjoyed a degree of freedom and prosperity, and a share of all the social blessings flowing therefrom, that never before fell to the lot of the human race. Nor is it to be doubted that, when it is seen that there is a sentiment of treasonable opposition, in some parts of the state, against the government, organized and breaking out into open acts of resistance to the constitution and laws, they will awake to the danger, and put down, with a strong hand, this spirit of disunion, and vindicate the faith and honor of their fathers and the character of their state. The question, whether this provision of the constitution is to be carried into execution in the spirit in which it was adopted, is not one that concerns New York alone. If that were all, the question could be settled among ourselves. But other states have an interest–fifteen of them, a deep and abiding interest–in its observance. The compact has been made with them and with their people, and, until they consent to release us from it, we are bound by it, by every faith and tie that can give sanction to an obligation. It is true, New York may possess the physical power to disregard her obligation, and set the constitution at naught, and abide the consequences. There are, I am sorry to say, acts upon her statute books which, if carried out into practical effect, would have already accomplished it. But they have not been carried into effect, and I trust never will be. They are, fortunately, a dead letter. Before the people of New York, or of any other Northern state, make up their minds to disregard and disobey this provision of the constitution. they will, I doubt not, look well to
the consequences. Common sense, as well as the common prudence and wisdom, would dictate this.” [30 Fed. Cas. 1013, 1013-1014]

Justice Nelson ends by saying failure to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law will end up destroying the Union. Whatever people who resist the FSL do, the state of New York, according to Justice Nelson, must punish the resisters. “Disorderly and turbulent men—the common disturbers of society—are found in every government; and occasional outbreaks against law and legal authority must be expected. They scarcely compromit [sic] the character of a people, when the violence is speedily suppressed and the guilty offenders are sternly punished. New York may thus redeem herself from the odium of suffering the constitution and laws of the Union to be trampled under foot, and from, a just responsibility to the other members of the confederacy. She will thus vindicate herself from the bad example of having broken the compact; and other states will not, so far as her action is concerned. be released from their obligations. But, should she falter in this duty, and in redeeming her own plighted faith to the constitution, how can she expect to preserve the Union, or, that other states, deeply concerned in the observance of her obligations, will remain with her in the confederacy? It would be vain to expect it; and her conduct, in the case I supposed, will have rendered her powerless in any attempt to coerce the association. Having broken the compact herself, and cast off her constitutional obligations, she will have rendered herself morally impotent to exact fidelity from others.” [30 Fed. Cas. 1013, 1014]

This shows how slavery perverted justice and the law, where those who wished to save others from slavery were considered criminals who had to be stopped in order to preserve the Union. This shows how the United States government bent over backwards to accommodate the slave power states, who just kept demanding more and more obeisance.

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One comment

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Justice Nelson’s charge reads more like a prosecutors’ summation of the case. He appears to be arguing against jury nullification before that nullification takes place.
    I concur with you in that state rights applies only to owning human beings and not the provision of freedom to those same people.

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