Professor's book reveals slavery's role in developing legal defense

Oct 13, 2010 By Hilary Hurd Anyaso

A new book by a Northwestern University School of Law professor tells the stories of three dramatic fugitive slave trials of the 1850s. Each of the trials underscores the crucial role runaway slaves played in building the tensions that led to the Civil War, and the three trials together show how “civil disobedience” developed as a legal defense.

Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers and Slavery on Trial (Harvard University Press, November 2010) also highlights the role of the lawyers who took on these cases and pioneered the idea of civil rights litigation.

“It’s an untold story, and, as both a lawyer and an American, I wanted to tell it,” said author Steven Lubet, the Williams Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Strategy at the School of Law. “The heroes, of course, were the fugitive slaves themselves, who risked their lives for freedom, and that story hasn’t been told very much either. But it is also important that lawyers put their careers on the line to defend fugitives and resisters to slavery.”

Most significantly, Lubet said, the fugitive slave trials revealed the risks fugitives were willing to take to set themselves free. They also showed how much support for fugitive slaves was within the free African-American community in the North.

“Being a free black person in 1854 was difficult enough, and being willing to risk even their own freedom to come to the assistance of other fugitives was remarkable,” said Lubet. “It is a story of courage and commitment. And those people were supported by white abolitionist allies, who included some of the most daring and inventive lawyers of the era.”

The fugitive slave trials also revealed how much slavery dominated both legal and political discourse in the United States -- even in the free states -- and how much the free-state political establishment was committed to protecting the rights of southern slave owners.

“We had judges who quite sincerely would say they were personally opposed to slavery, but the law and Constitution required them to condemn fugitives to be returned to slavery,” said Lubet. “It is a conundrum because the evil of slavery should have been obvious by 1859, and yet, in the name of the law, we had free-state judges quite calmly ordering people to go back in chains.”

Initially, the lawyers representing the fugitive slaves limited themselves to conventional factual and legal arguments, but as political divisions in the country increased regarding the institution of slavery, the lawyers progressively became more militant in their arguments. By 1859 they were urging judges and juries simply to disobey the law.

“They moved from a position [in 1851] of saying, ‘The Fugitive Slave Act is valid and enforceable, but we have a factual defense,’” Lubet said. “By 1859 they were saying, ‘To hell with the .’ ”

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Baby boomers are reinventing retirement

Oct 11, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The challenges faced by recent retirees are changing how we plan for and expect to experience retirement in the future, say the academics working on a new University of Melbourne study.

Depression not so clear cut for teens

Oct 12, 2010

Teenagers think mental illness carries much more stigma than it actually does, according to new research from The Australian National University.

Figuring out suicidal behavior

Oct 13, 2010

Matthew Nock is the son of an auto mechanic, a Harley-Davidson aficionado, and the first member of his family to graduate from college. He’s now also a tenured member of the Harvard faculty.

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

10 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

frajo
1 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2010
Unfortunately, the proponents of torture think - and act - the same way: "to hell with the law".

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.