Some opponents of nullification measures – both politicians and people in the grassroots – would have you believe that such efforts in state legislatures are only symbolic and have no real effect.

One has to wonder if these folks think that the personal liberty laws passed by northern states to block enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were merely symbolic. I’m sure northern blacks spared the agony of getting dragged off by some slaver didn’t think so.

And Southern states didn’t either. South Carolina listed northern nullification of fugitive slave laws as its first complaint when it explained its reasons for secession in an official “declaration of causes.”

“An increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. 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 Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.”

Pretty powerful symbolism.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 counts among the most disgusting acts ever passed by Congress. This so-called law denied a black person accused of escaping slavery any semblance of due process. A white man could basically drag a black man or woman south into slavery on the power of his word.

“In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.”

Many northern states simply refused to comply and took steps to block implementation.

The Michigan legislature passed its personal liberty law in 1855. 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 it a crime punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,000. Finally, it made any attempt to send a freedman South into slavery a crime.

Every person who shall wrongfully and maliciously seize, or procure to be seized, any free person entitled to freedom, with intent to have such person held in slavery, shall pay a fine of not less than five hundred nor more than one thousand dollars, and be imprisoned five years in the State Prison.

Note that the penalties apply to “any person,” including federal marshals and slave commissioners.

Michigan wasn’t alone in passing Personal Liberty Laws.

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 prosecuted fugitive slaves.

Any person holding any judicial office under the constitution or laws of this Commonwealth, who shall continue, for ten days after the passage of this act, to hold the office of United States commissioner, or any office…which qualifies him to issue any warrant or other process…under the [Fugitive Slave Acts] shall be deemed to have violated good behavior, to have given reason for the loss of public confidence, and furnished sufficient ground either for impeachment or for removal by address.

The Act to Protect the Rights and Liberties of the People of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts also provided criminal penalties for any person who removed a fugitive slave from the state without proving his or her servitude in a state court under the criteria set up by the act – no easy task. And like the Michigan Act, the Massachusetts law did not exempt federal agents.

How effective was this “symbolic” act? After passage, there is no record of a fugitive slave ever being returned from Massachusetts.

The Ohio legislature took a slightly different tack. In 1857, it passed An Act to Prevent Kidnapping. “Forcibly or fraudulently carrying off” a free black person or mulatto would get you three to eight years of hard labor. Anybody trying to take an escaped slave out of Ohio was subject to the same charges if they failed to go to the proper court and prove “ownership.”

You simply cannot categorize these acts as merely “symbolic.” They were binding. They were substantive. They were enforced.

And they were effective.

Most importantly, they were morally justified.

These days, states across the U.S. are considering bills very similar to these personal liberty laws. They address different issues, but their substance differs little from these powerful acts. This modern day nullification legislation will seek to stop indefinite detention without due process, blatant violations of rights protected by the Second Amendment, and the glaring overreach of federal power claimed in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, these federal power grabs do violence to the Constitution and violate the fundamental law of the land.

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They are illegal.

They are criminal.

And they must be stopped.

The states can and must interpose for that purpose. The federal government will never relinquish power seized. Judges have proved themselves unreliable protectors of the people for more than 100 years. Our protests in D.C. fall on deaf years.

Nullification stands as our last hope.

To call these efforts “merely symbolic” mocks the courage and tenacity of those champions of liberty who stood up and said, “No!” to the feds, “rendering useless any attempt to execute” the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

I’m sure if you asked any of the men or women protected by the personal liberty laws passed by northern legislatures in the 1850s, they would agree with Thomas Jefferson. Nullification is the “rightful remedy.”

It’s no less so today.

Mike Maharrey

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