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Legal historian explores fugitive slave case

Monday, February 19, 2007 – Ann Claycombe

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History professor Robert Baker has published a new book considering the legal, moral and political implications of a pre-Civil War fugitive slave case. The book, The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution and the Coming of the Civil War, addresses issues including nineteenth-century popular culture, abolitionism, state’s rights, and the right to resist unjust laws.

Joshua Glover was a slave who had escaped from Missouri to Wisconsin. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, local authorities were bound to turn Glover over to federal agents, who would take him back to the owner he had fled.

But on March 11, 1854, a crowd of 5,000 gathered outside the Milwaukee courthouse where Glover awaited his fate. They demanded that the federal officers respect Glover’s rights as a citizen, and when the officers refused the crowd rescued Glover, eventually helping him reach Canada and freedom.

The U.S. government brought Glover’s rescuers to trial, but to no avail – the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and freed the accused. The governor of Wisconsin subsequently threatened to raise a militia and fight if the federal government tried to send troops to the state to enforce the Act.

Events in Wisconsin affected the whole country as it moved closer to civil war, Baker said. Abolitionists saw the Glover case as a shining example of what the movement would accomplish, and many became more radical.

In fact, the Glover case was an early example of the tensions between the states and the federal government that would be one of the causes of war. If Douglas, a Democrat, had beaten Lincoln in the election of 1860, he might well have sent troops to Wisconsin.

“It’s possible the Civil War could have started in the North,” Baker said. “Armed conflict could have started there.”

 Finally, the Glover case has proved to be a particularly knotty problem for lawyers and legal historians considering the relationship between states’ rights and civil rights.

Wisconsin refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act on the grounds that it was the state’s right to refuse to enforce federal laws. But states’ rights were also used by Southern states to justify their secession – and, a century later, to buttress attempts to resist integration.

Baker said he admired Glover’s rescuers and their cause. But he began to wonder if, in doing so, he was making too strong a case for the rights of states and citizens to resist the federal government.

“I became very concerned that I was making an argument for perpetual conflict,” he said.

In the end, Baker believes that the difference between Glover’s rescuers and anti-integration forces comes down to the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees that all citizens – of any race – have the same rights and privileges.

The abolitionists of Wisconsin were acting in defense of that principle, though the Fourteenth Amendment had not yet been added to the constitution.

“It makes all the difference,” Baker said.

A portrait of Joshua Glover