Southern Editorial Praises Fugitive Slave Act, Condemns Abolitionists
By 1850, the issue of slavery was dividing North and South and threatening to plunge the nation into civil war. The rupture almost exploded in 1846, 1847 and 1848, when the Wilmot Proviso was before Congress three times. This legislation would have banned slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican-American war; it passed the House but Southern senators managed to defeat it in the Senate votes.
Congress finally passed the Compromise of 1850 in an attempt to appease both pro- and anti-slavery advocates and avoid war. The congressional debates leading up to the Compromise were fierce, including the famous “Plea for Harmony and Peace” speech of Senator Daniel Webster—in which the famed orator, an abolitionist, nonetheless powerfully argued in favor of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act—and the equally compelling “Higher Law” speech of Senator William Henry Seward refuting Webster.
The Compromise of 1850 was comprised of five measures: 1) California was admitted into the Union as a free state; 2) New Mexico and Utah were added as territories—settlers there would be allowed to vote on the slavery issue (this came to be known as the “popular sovereignty” approach); 3) Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico; 4) slave markets were outlawed in Washington, D.C.; and 5) the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened.
Abolitionists were certainly pleased that: another free state had been added to the Union; Washington, D.C.’s slave markets were shut down; and Texas (a slave state) was not allowed to expand into land that instead was designated the New Mexico territory. However, they were not content that there was at least a chance, however slight, that slavery might be adopted in New Mexico and Utah, and they were utterly opposed to the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. Consequently, abolitionists agitated to have these measures repealed.
Typical of this sentiment was an editorial run by the Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) in its October 25, 1850, issue, that described several instances of fugitive slaves being run down and forced back into bondage, and concluded “Is it possible to contemplate these workings of the Fugitive Slave Act with any other feelings than those of shame, disgust and abhorrence? Can the Freemen of Wisconsin lend their countenance or sanction to such a law?”
The Southern press was equally vitriolic in defense of the pro-slavery provisions of the Compromise of 1850—those measures were now the law of the land, and in defying them abolitionists were threatening illegal action. The following editorial, run by the Daily Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama) in its October 26, 1850, issue, warned ominously that if the abolitionist sentiment in the North prevailed, “the course for the South is plain—it can protect its own interests.” Here is that entire editorial:
The Prospect.—The evidence furnished by the Advertiser and Atlas, of the efforts of the abolitionists to destroy the late Compromise by the repeal of the fugitive slave bill, [induces us] to show the importance and necessity of sustaining those measures by the South. The fierce and bitter opposition of those fanatics to those measures as a whole, explains the light in which they regard them. They consider, and so announce, that “the South has triumphed,” that the cause of abolitionism has retrograded, and has been “put back twenty years.” The abandonment and prostration of the [Wilmot] Proviso, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, has rendered useless the efforts of years of agitation. Their insane trouble and expense has been vain, and their wicked schemes nipped in the bud, “their occupation is gone,” unless they can destroy and break down the Compromise measures, which bring them directly in collision with the laws and authorities of the country. While there were several of these measures which they approved of, the material ones such as the Texas boundary bill, the abandonment of the Congressional proviso in the territories of New Mexico and Utah, and the fugitive slave bill--these they opposed with all the fierceness and venom known to fanaticism, and as a whole, opposed the whole series with ten thousand times the bitterness of the most ultra disunionist of this section. They are determined to destroy this Compromise, and carry out their schemes or destroy the Union. Hence it becomes the policy of the South to sustain those measures, by which it has gained the abandonment of the usurpation of the power by Congress, to exercise a slavery restriction proviso in the territories, and a stringent fugitive slave bill, drawn by and in accordance with the wishes of Southern members—measures which place the interests of the South far in advance of the position they have occupied for many years. There is no doubt but that there will be a strenuous and despotic effort made by the abolitionists, to break up the Compromise, by the repeal of the fugitive slave bill, which is all that they can reach. Appearances indicate that a fierce contest will ensue, to effect this result. The abolitionists will fight with the energy of despair, but we have the fullest assurance that they will be disappointed and prostrated, by the patriotism of the masses. The battle will be fought at the North. If the conservatives should be overwhelmed by the torrent of fanaticism, and these bills be repealed, and no equivalent granted, the course for the South is plain—it can protect its own interests. In the meantime it is the policy of the South, not to aid the efforts of the abolitionists in their assault on this system of measures, but to demand their execution in good faith.
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