Ableman v. Booth 1859

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Ableman v. Booth 1859

Appellants: Stephen V.R. Ableman and the United States

Appellee: Sherman M. Booth

Appellant's Claim: That Booth, who had been freed from jail by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, should serve the sentence imposed by a federal court for helping a slave escape.

Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Jeremiah S. Black, U.S. Attorney General

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: None

Justices for the Court: John Archibald Campbell, John Catron, Nathan Clifford, Peter Vivian Daniel, Robert Cooper Grier, John McLean, Samuel Nelson, Roger Brooke Taney, James Moore Wayne

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: March 7, 1859

Decision: A state court cannot free a prisoner from confinement by the United States government.

Significance: On one level, Ableman strengthened the federal government's power and weakened state power by declaring federal law supreme. On another level, the decision was a victory for slavery, which would divide the country in a civil war just two years later.

The Ableman cases were part of the turmoil that split the United States apart in the American Civil War. Just like the war, the cases concerned the issues of slavery, the supreme power of the federal government, and states' rights.

Joshua Glover was a slave on a farm in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1852, Glover escaped from his owner, Bennami S. Garland, and fled to the free state of Wisconsin. There Glover found work at a sawmill near Racine.

Article IV of the U.S. Constitution said escaped slaves must be returned to their owners. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Congress set up a procedure to accomplish this. The law allowed slave owners to get a warrant from a federal commissioner to return an escaped slave to captivity. The commissioners were allowed to recruit people to help the slave owner capture the escaped slave.

On March 10, 1854, Glover was playing cards with two African American friends in a cabin on the outskirts of Racine. Garland appeared at the cabin with two U.S. deputy marshals and four other men to capture Glover. Garland and his men injured Glover during a struggle, handcuffed him, and took him to a jail in Milwaukee. At the time, the federal government used state and local jails because it did not have many of its own.


Abolitionists in Milwaukee soon learned of Glover's arrest. Abolitionists were people who wanted to get rid of, or abolish, slavery. Sherman M. Booth, one of their leaders, was the fiery editor of an abolitionist newspaper. Booth rode throughout the streets of Milwaukee shouting, "Freemen! To the rescue! Slave catchers are in our midst! Be at the courthouse at two o'clock!"

On the evening of March 11, a large crowd gathered outside the Milwaukee courthouse where Glover was imprisoned. Booth gave a passionate speech attacking the return of fugitive slaves. The crowd then broke down the courthouse door, took Glover out, and put him on a ship going to Canada.

On March 15, U.S. Marshal Stephen V.R. Ableman arrested Booth under a warrant issued by a commissioner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The commissioner charged Booth with violating the Fugitive Slave Act by helping Glover escape. The commissioner ordered Booth tox be held in jail for trial in the U.S. District Court in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Challenges the Federal Government

On May 27, Booth asked Associate Justice Abram D. Smith of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin for a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is an order to free someone who is being jailed in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Booth said the Fugitive Slave Act, under which he was being held for trial, was unconstitutional because it did not give escaped slaves a fair trial.

Justice Smith agreed with Booth and ordered Ableman to set Booth free. Ableman did so but also asked the entire Supreme Court of Wisconsin to review the case. The court reviewed the case and affirmed Justice Smith's decision, so Ableman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In January 1855, before the Supreme Court had decided the case, Booth was arrested again under a new warrant from the U.S. District Court in Wisconsin. The new warrant charged Booth with the same violation as the commissioner had charged. This time, however, Booth faced a full trial and was convicted and sentenced to one month in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Once again, Booth asked the Supreme Court of Wisconsin for a writ of habeas corpus. On February 3, the court freed Booth a second time, ruling that the United States was holding him in prison under an unconstitutional law. The court said the state of Wisconsin had the power to protect its citizens from wrongful federal laws. The United States appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said it would decide both cases together.

Federal Courts Reign Supreme

With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ableman and the federal government. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney used the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. That Clause says the Constitution and federal laws "shall be the supreme Law of the Land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby." Under this clause, states cannot interfere with federal law because federal law is supreme.

By setting Booth free, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin had disregarded federal law. It made federal law inferior instead of superior. Chief Justice Taney said if states were allowed to do that, the federal government could not survive. Each state would interpret federal law differently, leading to conflict and confusion. The only solution was to require states governments and their courts to obey federal law and treat it as supreme.


I n 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act. The law allowed slave owners to capture escaped slaves in free states and return them to slavery by getting a warrant from a federal or state judge or magistrate. The law gave slave owners the burden of capturing escaped slaves. It also made it difficult to get a warrant because there were few federal judges with that power in each state.

Southern states with slavery pressured Congress to enact a stricter law, which it did in 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed federal judges to appoint commissioners to hear slave cases. These commissioners also had power to recruit citizens to capture escaped slaves. If the commissioner decided in favor of the slave owner, he got a $10 fee. If he decided in favor of the accused slave, he only got a $5 fee. The new law obviously favored slave owners and slavery over humanity and the free states.

Northern states rebelled against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Some called for repeal of the law. Many African Americans in the north left the United States for Canada. Lawyers challenged the new law in court. When those challenges failed, Northerners took to forcible resistance, fighting against slave catchers and hiding escaped slaves. Some states passed personal liberty laws to frustrate the Fugitive Slave Act.

Ableman v. Booth was one of the final victories for slave owners in the federal government. After Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860, the country split apart in a civil war over the issues of slavery and states' rights.

Taney warned Wisconsin that it had no reason to be jealous of the federal government's power. Each state voluntarily joined the United States by agreeing to obey the U.S. Constitution. In return, the states received protection by the federal government from other states and foreign nations. The price of admittance, however, was to make state governments inferior to the federal government.

Because it decided that Wisconsin had no power to disregard federal law, the Supreme Court said it did not have to decide whether the Fugitive Slave Act was constitutional. Without explanation, however, the Court said the law was constitutional and the decisions by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin would have to be reversed.


The Supreme Court of Wisconsin ignored Chief Justice Taney's decision. The federal government, however, arrested Booth in March 1860 and put him in prison in the federal customs house in Milwaukee. A state court issued another writ of habeas corpus to release Booth, but the federal marshal ignored it. Because he would not pay his fine, Booth remained in prison until early 1861.

Suggestions for further reading

Adams, Judith. The Tenth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Batchelor, John E. States' Rights. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Brown, Thomas J., ed. American Eras: 1850–1877. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

Goode, Stephen. The New Federalism: States' Rights in American History. New York: Watts, 1983.