The national debates over slavery underscored, from the South's perspective, the greater issue of states' rights. Southern states, which were increasingly pressured by northern and federal policies regarding their handling of slavery, were quick to argue for a more autonomous relationship with the federal government. In a message addressed to Congress in 1820, a former New Hampshire representative, Daniel Webster (1782–1852), said that states were constitutionally not empowered to individually decide the issue of slavery because they were ultimately bound by the federal Constitution; "and this very qualification necessarily excludes the idea that Congress were not to be at liberty to impose any conditions … which were consistent with the principles of that Constitution" (Greeley 1856, p. 23).
While in their master's care, a slave possessed no legal rights. Masters had little legal responsibilities to care for their slaves, although there were restrictions on the level of punishment a master could inflict on a slave: "The slave [was] entirely subject to the will of his master, who may correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour, or so as to maim or mutilate him, or to expose him to the danger of loss of life, or to cause his death" (Stroud 1827, p. 22).
Slave laws did not only apply to slaves, but also to whites that attempted to aid slaves. In 1851 in South Carolina, a schoolteacher called Mr. Edmond was caught teaching slaves how to read and write. When he was discovered by the slaves' owners, he was "tarred and feathered, and ordered … to depart out of the State, on pain of being shot" (The Liberator, January 10, 1851).
The following list of slave law propositions based on a slave act of South Carolina, is, according to George Stroud, representative of general slave laws:
- The master may determine the kind, and degree, and time of labour, to which the slave shall be subjected.
- The master may supply the slave with such food and clothing only, both as to quantity and quality, as he may think proper, or find convenient.
- The master may, at his discretion, inflict any punishment upon the person of his slave.
- All the power of the master over his slave may be exercised not by himself only in person, but by any one whom he may depute as his agent.
- Slaves have no legal rights of property in things, real or personal; but whatever they may acquire belongs, in point of law, to their masters.
- The slave being a personal chattel, is at all times liable to be sold absolutely, or mortgaged or leased, at the will of his master.
- He may also be sold by process of law for the satisfaction of the debts of a living, or the debts and bequests of a deceased master, at the suit of creditors or legatees.
- A slave cannot be a party before a judicial tribunal, in any species of action, against his master, no matter how atrocious may have been the injury received from him.
- Slaves cannot redeem themselves, nor obtain a change of masters, though cruel treatment may have rendered such change necessary for their personal safety.
- Slaves being objects of property, if injured by third persons, their owners may bring suit, and recover damages, for the injury.
- Slaves can make no contract.
- Slavery is hereditary and perpetual (1827, p. 25).
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 set a federal mandate in which escaped slaves were subject to being reclaimed by their masters and were considered fugitives of the law. The act also provided federal funding for commissioners (who would act as bounty hunters) and an increased police presence to apprehend and return escaped slaves. Northern states saw the act as yet another law whose purpose was the continued subjugation of blacks. In response, states such as Ohio in 1851 countered the federal law with a state law that would, according to a Boston Daily Atlas article (January 24, 1851): "secure the rights of habeas corpus to its citizens … [and] protect and defend all persons arrested as fugitive slaves." Surprisingly, the slave state of Alabama did the same in 1851, granting habeas corpus to its slaves.
In 1850, a southern pro-slavery political party calling themselves the States' Rights Party, issued a short manifesto describing their feelings toward the current state of American politics in response to the resistance of the Fugitive Slave Act. In it, they claim that the possible repeal of the fugitive slave laws "would be nothing in the list of wrongs, indignities, and spoliations, which the South has already suffered, but far worse may be done by an uncurbed and dominant majority a deed that would justly bring about an immediate dissolution of the Union, and it is to prevent this that we demand, for our safety, a Southern Congress" (Southern Rights Association of Yazoo County 1850, p. 5). That specialized southern Congress was not granted, and the South's sense of political isolation led to greater tensions with the North. Nearly fifteen years before the Civil War (1861–1865), the States' Rights Party addressed Congress directly, saying, "[W]e prefer equality out of the Union, to inequality in it, and if we must submit to dependence and vassalage as conditions of remaining in it, we would seek independence and freedom, even if we had to go out of the Union to find them" (p. 6). The States' Rights Party was seeking, in effect, what they considered a more laissez-faire Constitution, to wit:
A clause denying to Congress the power to legislate about slavery at all (except with the consent of all the States) would make [the Constitution] more perfect—another clause obliging Congress to admit any State formally and regularly applying for admission into the Union, whether its laws recognize slavery or not, would make it more perfect still. (ibid., p. 4)
Author Horace Greeley tells us that, "the States where Slavery existed not only claimed the right to continue it, but it was manifest that a general emancipation of slaves could not be asked of them. Their political existence would have been in jeopardy; both masters and slaves must have been involved in the most fatal consequences" (1856, p. 10). What was truly at stake in these debates, as the South saw it, was not the institution of slavery or the maintenance of the southern economy, but the South's ability to express its political liberty in the form of individual laws.
In 1857, the Supreme Court was called to rule on a case involving a slave named Dred Scott (1795–1858) who had lived for over two years in the free state of Illinois. Because of Illinois law, Scott had a legal basis for suing his master for freedom. The court found that "[E]ach State may determine by law, what rights and privileges the citizens, or any class of citizens thereof, shall have and enjoy in it. By the Constitution of the United States, 'The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States'" (Foot 1859, p. 5). In a crushing blow to slaves and abolitionists, the court ruled that Africans and their descendants were not, nor could they become, citizens of America and were therefore not protected by the Constitution. Because of this ruling, Dred Scott was not legally permitted to sue, and the case was dismissed.
"American Slave Laws," The Liberator (Boston, MA), January 10, 1851.
The Boston Daily Atlas (Boston, MA), March 20, 1851.
Foot, Samuel. An Examination of the Case of Dred Scott against Sandford, in the Supreme Court of the United States, and a Full and Fair Exposition of the Decision of the Court, and of the Opinions of the Majority of the Judges. New York: W.C. Bryant, 1859.
"Maryland: The Two Slave Laws Lately Enacted," Observer and Telegraph (Hudson, OH), May 3, 1832.
"The Slave Laws of Alabama," New Hampshire Statesman, January 24, 1851.
Southern Rights Association of Yazoo County, Mississippi. Address of the Southern Rights Association of Yazoo County. Jackson: Mississippian Power Press, 1850.
Stroud, George. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America. Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827.
United States. Laws, statutes, etc., 1849–1850 (31st Congress, 1st session). Evanston, IL: Priv. Print, 1942.