EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is based off a speech given at the Vermont Freedom and Unity Festival, 08-17-13
In a 1987 documentary, this is what Rosa Parks had to say, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Under the provocative headline “The Administration and Nullifying Vermont,” the Memphis Daily Eagle, in its lead editorial for December 18, 1850, share some alarming news. The paper reported that “the President and the entire Cabinet are very much exasperated at the course of proceedings in the Vermont legislature; and that, at a long Cabinet council, held on the 7th, they determined to enforce the fugitive slave law in Vermont, should a case arise there, if it required the whole military force of the United States to do it.” 1
THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT
In 1850, when President Millard Fillmore signed the “Fugitive Slave Act” into law, due process was under serious attack by the federal government.
The act claimed the power to compel people of all states to “assist” federal marshals and their deputies with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves. It brought all trials involving alleged fugitive slaves under federal jurisdiction. It included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in their escape, even by simply giving them food or shelter.
On top of it, bounties were paid to commissioners in fugitive slave cases. $10 was paid if a person was sent back to slavery, and $5 if the person was allowed freedom. The federal government was paying people to capture other people and send them to slavery.
The act also suspended habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury for alleged “slaves,” and made their testimony inadmissible in court. The written testimony of the supposed slave master, on the other hand, which could be presented to the court by slave hunters, was given preferential treatment.
The act was supposedly intended to only protect the “property” of slave holders. But beyond that horrible injustice, many free black people also found themselves accused of escaping slavery and faced the prospect of living out their life on a plantation. Kidnapping of free black people was not unusual. And many good people understood that even an accused runaway should have basic due process.
Here’s what the famous Vermont poet John Greenleaf Whitter had to say about the Act:
“Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, I find myself in a position with respect to it, which I fear my fellow citizens generally are not prepared to justify. So far as that law is concerned, I am a nullifer.”
When Whittier was attacked by the press in DC, William Lloyd Garrison came to his defense and wrote,
“The nullification advocated by Mr Whitter…is loyalty to goodness.”
STATE RESISTANCE IN THE 1850s
In response to the federal act, Northern States intensified efforts to pass what were known as “personal liberty laws.”
The Michigan Personal Freedom Act guaranteed any man or woman claimed as a fugitive slave, “all the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus and of trial by jury.” It also prohibited the use of state or local jails for holding an accused fugitive slave, and made any attempt to send a freedman South into slavery a crime.
A Massachusetts Act called for the removal of any state official who aided in the return of runaway slaves and disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive slave rendition. Another section authorized impeachment of state judges who accepted federal commissioner positions authorizing them to prosecute fugitive slaves.
On November 13, 1850, the Vermont legislature passed a bill known as the “Habeas Corpus Law.” It required the state to “protect and defend…any person in Vermont arrested or claimed as a fugitive slave.”
These state personal liberty laws were extremely effective in stopping the federal fugitive slave act. President Fillmore did not follow up on his threat to send the military to Vermont, and with just a few exceptions, the Fugitive Slave Act went totally unenforced in the New England. Over the 10 year period of 1850-1860, there were only four documented cases in which fugitive slaves were returned from New England, the last being a man named Anthony Burns from Boston in 1854. 2
In fact, Northern states in general were so successful overall that when South Carolina seceded, the people there named this as one of their primary reasons for leaving the Union. From their publicly-released “Declaration of Causes,” was this:
“The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the [Fugitive Slave Acts] or render useless any attempt to execute them…”
Mississippi, Texas and Georgia also publicly named the successful nullification efforts of Northern States against the Fugitive Slave Act in their secession declarations.
Back in the 1920s, people drank. Keep in mind, this was happening even after a constitutional amendment for alcohol prohibition. In a 1925 address to Congress, Maryland’s Senator Bruce stated, “national prohibition went into legal effect upward of six years ago, but it can be truly said that, except to a highly qualified extent, it has never gone into practical effect at all.” And by 1928, 28 states had stopped funding for alcohol prohibition enforcement.
Back in 1996, millions of people in my home state of California decided that they wanted to authorize the use of marijuana for certain limited, medicinal purposes. Obviously, people had been smoking and consuming weed in California – just like virtually everywhere else – much earlier than the mid 90’s. But this new legalization effort -even on a limited scope – has had a great impact on People in California – and around the country.
Today, there are 21 states defying the so-called federal “laws” which give you marijuana prohibition. And it’s working.
In 2002, there were 119,000 medical marijuana patients and today there are nearly 1.1 million. And that’s in the face of massive increases in federal enforcement efforts. Spending has gone up 15 times, and the number of raids have increased 15 times. 3 But yet, the number of medical marijuana users keeps going up no matter what they do.
This kind of resistance is effective, and it works. It stopped alcohol prohibition, and is putting an end to marijuana prohibition. It stopped the fugitive slave act, and can be put in practice in response to virtually anything else.
This is something that I refer to as Nullification. At the Tenth Amendment Center, we define nullification like this: “Any act or set of acts which has as its end result a particular law being rendered null and void, or unenforceable within a particular area.”
In 1798, Thomas Jefferson authored a document known as the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Here’s a little of what he had to say:
“The several states composing the united states of america are not united on a principle of unlimited submission to their general government.”
“whensoever …the general government assumes undelegated powers, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy.”
James Madison chimed in with a similar resolution in Virginia that year. He wrote that states are “duty bound to interpose”, to stand between residents of the state and the federal government to prevent the harm that would result from a “deliberate, palpable, and dangerous” unconstitutional action by the federal government.
In other words, according to those two guys, we’re not supposed to wait 2 or 4 years for some new politicians to get in office and give us permission to be free. We’re not supposed to wait 2 or 4 or 6 years for some federal court to tell us, “OK, you can be free now.” We’re supposed to stand up resist, refuse to comply and nullify unconstitutional federal acts – as soon as they happen.
Looking around us, with the wars, drones, spying, mandates, printing and the rest, at this point, like Rosa Parks, we should all be “tired of giving in.”
If you believe in liberty, the game-plan is right in front of you. It’s nullification.
Whether the issue is indefinite detention, or prohibition, nullification is your path to success. Whether it’s mandates or gun control, the method is the same – just say no.
When Rosa Parks refused to move the to back of the bus – she taught us just how to deal with laws that are unconstitutional – immoral – or unjust.
She didn’t comply and then go and spend a bunch of time knocking on doors advocating for a new candidate for office in the hopes that the new bum would change the law oppressing her. She didn’t comply and then spend her time in an expensive and unwinnable lawsuit.
She did something that each one of us needs to start doing more often in our lives. She sat there and said “No.”
This is really nullification in action – every single time a heroic person refuses to comply – they’re helping to render that law, null, void, and unenforceable.
When enough people stand up and say no to the government – there’s not much that the feds can do to force their unconstitutional “laws” – regulations and mandates down our throats.
History proves it, “No” can change the world.
But it’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take time and persistent effort. So in closing, I urge you to heed Murray Rothbard’s advice:
For the libertarian, the main task of the present epoch is to cast off his needless and debilitating pessimism, to set his sights on long-run victory and to set about the road to its attainment.
Our long run victory for liberty isn’t going to come by trying to take over Washington DC, or the republican party, or the democratic party, or your state caucus or a national convention.
I want the government people to get the hell out of my life, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we work together to nullify all of them into oblivion.
1. Another Nullification Crisis: Vermont’s 1850 Habeas Corpus Law
Horace K. Houston Jr.
The New England Quarterly
Vol. 77, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 252-272
2. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860
University of North Carolina Press, 1970, p 184
3. What’s the Cost? A Report on the Federal War on Medical Cannabis Patients
Americans for Safe Access
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