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
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
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
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
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
“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,”