At Fresno State, I help my students to understand the mid-19th century “personal liberty laws” passed by many anti-slavery Northern states to impede Southern slave owners from sending slave-catchers, such as Edward Prigg, north to retrieve their runaway slaves.
Understandably, Southerners believed that sending Edward Prigg and others like him north for such a purpose was their constitutional right per Article IV, Section 2, which states that “No person held to Service or Labour, in one State . . . escaping into another, shall be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
However, by the 1830s, the prelude to the American Civil War, many Northern states embraced the anti-slavery impulse and passed “personal liberty laws.” These laws levied heavy fines on Ed Prigg-types who kidnapped a state’s free black or escaped slaves with the intention of returning them to their slave-owners, or required state judges to give accused runaways the due process of law. Northern states with these personal-liberty laws were offering “asylum” to fugitives fleeing another “nation,” soon to be the Confederate States of America.
Personal-liberty laws were based on the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, which ensured no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Today, sanctuary cities, in defiance of INS law, also take this amendment as their philosophical departure and grounding.
Ultimately in the 1842 case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Prigg was accused of violating Pennsylvania personal-liberty law when he kidnapped the slave woman, Margaret Morgan, and returned her to Maryland where her new owner, Margaret Ashmore, awaited. Morgan’s forced return separated her from her daughter and free-born husband. Separating children from parents strikes a morbid similarity to what is happening at the U.S. southern border today. Strangely, Prigg, unlike ICE agents today, was arrested and tried for violating the law.
Somewhat similar to the federal judiciary today, which is being stacked with conservative jurists, the federal commissioners, who presided over fugitive slave courts, were paid $10 for each fugitive ordered returned to enslavement in the South, but only $5 if found to be a free black unjustly kidnapped.
As with the contentious issue of sanctuary cities and ICE today, issues of law, family separation, moral justice, and federalism during the slavery era make it seem as if history is repeating itself. However, both sanctuary cities and personal-liberty laws, in the words of Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, are cries for “safe haven” or “asylum” from unjustified attacks from forces perceived as the devil incarnate, may they be Edward Prigg historically or ICE agents contemporarily.
Abraham Lincoln famously observed that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” just as the context of WWII and America fighting for the Rockwellian four freedoms — freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech — led to this nation to embracing the post-war’s inclusionary theme song, “The House I Live In.” This song includes these words: “What is America To Me? . . . all races and religions, that’s America to me.” It was sung as a civil rights clarion by Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson, but made famous by Frank Sinatra, who sang it at state dinners for Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan, both of whom were quasi-compassionate conservatives.
Today’s Republican conservatives are myopic and ahistorical in that they desire to return to the national immigration quotas system of 1924 that excluded “dark-skinned” eastern and southern Europeans in favor of “white-skinned” northern and western Europeans. Obviously, conservatives want a “pale” America protected by a wall and deportations of dark-skinned Central Americans and Mexicans.
Just as slave-catchers and slavery were defeated by the progressive forces of history, so will ICE agents and the bigoted, nativist policies they represent be defeated and hopefully consigned to the dustbin of history. Give me your tired, poor, and dispossessed is an idea that has made America a beacon of hope for the world. This idea has transformed Americans and America into a more enlightened, humane, and progressive nation.
Malik Simba is a Fresno State professor emeritus in history-Africana studies. He has published numerous academic articles and essays. His book, “Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter,” is in its 4th edition. He also serves on the advisory board of www.blackpast.org, the Google of the black experience.