Ableman v. Booth

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ABLEMAN V. BOOTH, 62 U.S. 506 (1859). In 1854, a United States deputy marshal, acting on behalf of the Missouri slave owner Benjamin S. Garland, seized Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave, living in Racine, Wisconsin, and took him to Milwaukee. The mayor of Racine quickly issued an arrest warrant for Garland, while abolitionists in Racine obtained a writ of habeas corpus from a county judge ordering U.S. Marshal Stephen V. Ableman to bring Glover before him. Before these could be served, the abolitionist activist and newspaper publisher Sherman Booth led a mob that rescued Glover, who soon disappeared, presumably going to Canada.

Marshal Ableman then arrested Booth and John Rycraft for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but in In re Booth (1854), the Wisconsin Supreme Court released the men. Ableman then rearrested both men, who were subsequently convicted in federal court. However, in In re Booth and Rycraft (1854), the Wisconsin Supreme Court again issued a writ of habeas corpus, forcing Ableman to release Booth and Rycraft.

With Booth out of jail, Ableman turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court ignored the national court and refused to forward the record of the case to Washington. The case remained suspended until the Wisconsin Supreme Court published its opinions. The U.S. Supreme Court then used these opinions as the basis for overturning the state supreme court in Ableman v. Booth.

In a powerful opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney condemned the Wisconsin court's actions, emphatically denying that any state courts could interfere with the federal courts. With some irony, Taney declared that the states' rights position of the Wisconsin court was "preposterous" and "new in the jurisprudence of the United States, as well as the States." Taney emphatically asserted national power and state subordination to the Constitution and to the Supreme Court, writing that each state is obligated "to support this Constitution. And no power is more clearly conferred than the power of this court to decide ultimately and finally, all cases arising under such Constitution and laws."

After the decision, Ableman once again arrested Booth, who was soon rescued from custody and remained at large for about two months, giving speeches in Wisconsin and challenging Ableman to arrest him. Ableman ultimately did arrest him, and he remained in jail for another six months, until President James Buchanan pardoned him in March 1861.


Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Hyman Harold M., and William M. Wiecek. Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835–1875. New York: Harper Collins, 1982.


See alsoFugitive Slave Acts .