Frederick Douglass

Problems with New York’s Personal Liberty Bill of 1859

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. He was editor and publisher of the Frederick Douglass Paper and Douglass’ Monthly.

This commentary appeared in the April 1859 issue of Douglass’ Monthly.

The Personal Liberty Bill

Nearly nine years after the passage by Congress of the Fugitive Slave Bill, nine years of insulting triumph on the part of the South, and shame-faced, puling submission on the part of the North, three of the free States, Vermont,Massachusetts and New York, have been roused by abolition appeals to take op the consideration of the subject whether their soil is their own, and whether their souls are their own, whether the State has eminent domain over the territory thereof, and the right to determine the status of all persons who may be within said territory.

These are grand, stirring questions. The stern Nemesis which watches over our commonwealth,is arousing the public sense to a consciousness of the fact, “for as much as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it also unto me.” “Poor, and black, and friendless,as were the victims aimed at by the Act of Sept. 18th, 1850, yet that act pierced the heart of State sovereignty, and crushed thefree States beneath the iron heel of slavery.”

Vermont has passed her Liberty Bill, New York has under discussion, and Massachusetts will soon report and pass her Act. We have already printed the Bill now before our State Legislature. It is the same as that of Vermont down to the 6th section; we propose to examine this bill and see whether it be equal to the object it aims to compass.

“Sec. 6. Every person who may have been held as a slave, who shall come, or He brought, or be in this State with the consent of his or her alleged master or mistress, or who shall come or be brought or be in this State, shall be free.”

“Sec. 3. Whenever any person in this State shall be deprived of liberty, arrested or detained,on the ground that such person owes service or labor to another person, NOT AN INHABITANT OF THIS STATE, either party may claim a trial by jury,” &c.

There is a strange clashing between these two sections. The 6th section declares that all persons who may be in this State are free. What is the jury under “Sec. 3.” to determine? What question can come before them? The man, or woman, or child, arrested, is surely a person. It does not require a jury to determine that fact; and such person being in the State of New York, is free. It does not require a jury to determine that fact. It is a palpable absurdity to empanel a jury to determine whether JOHN JOHNSON be a person,and whether he be in the State of New York.

Sec. 3, therefore, is surplussage. Not surplussage either; it is in favor of the claimant. He may demand a jury to determine whether the person arrested, is his slave. And if the jury so determine–and such can be found in New York City–then he carries back his slave in spite of the assertion in Sec. 6, that “all persons who may be in this State, shall be free.”

The real difficulty of State interference in fugitive slave cases is not provided against in this Act. We have a State law granting jury trial to fugitive slaves, dating back as far as 1840, and for which we are mainly indebted to Governor SEWARD. This law has been utterly inoperative since the passage of the fugitive slave bill, for the reason that the State courts, or rather the State judges refuse to come in collision with United States commissioners or judges, who may have a fugitive slave case before them.

In the cases of HENRY LONG and JOHN BOWLING, not a judge could be found on any court of record, who dared assert the sovereignty of the State of New York by granting jury trial to an alleged fugitive slave. This deficiency which must be well known to those who drew it up is not provided against in the Act before us; “five years imprisonment, and a fine of ten thousand dollars should be imposed on any judge in this State, who shall refuse to secure by prompt issue of ‘habeas corpus’ writ, and a prompt trial by jury, the liberty of any person arrested as a fugitive slave.”

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Mr. Garrison, in a few words, demolishes the fiction that slavery restriction is anti-slavery work:

Asks the South, ‘If you are ready to give us your aid and support and protection in holding four millions of slaves, why not allow us to have twenty millions if we can get them? Where is your conscience — where your morality — what are your ideas of right and wrong? What is damnable in Massachusetts, morally, must be damnable in Virginia; and you must either go against slavery everywhere, or admit that slavery is right everywhere.’ Here, I say, the South has us in the argument, and drives us to the wall, because we occupy a foolish, inconsistent and criminal position.

We hope this bill will pass, and become a law of the State. It is a step in the right direction: one will breathe freer in a State which declares all its inhabitants to be free whether of a day or twenty years residence therein. Whatever imperfections may be betrayed in its workings, can be amended by future enactments.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

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