In September of 1850, a group of U.S. residents felt the icy breath of fear. They had been living quiet lives in communities around the country: waiting tables, making barrels, raising children. They had felt, more or less, safe. But a shift in federal policy had changed all that. A new law was about to upend their lives.
According to U.S. law, these people had already committed crimes. By escaping Southern plantations and making the hazardous journey North to freedom, they had taken other people’s property. They had stolen themselves. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which gave new powers to slaveowners, intensified efforts to hunt down and reclaim those “stolen” people. Fear followed in its wake.
I have taught Charlotte teenagers about the Fugitive Slave Law for many years. Never has that subject held such force. This past Sunday, our class discussion was colored by a new policy shift that had left thousands of Charlotteans huddled in their homes, fearing that federal agents charged with enforcing immigration laws would rip them from the lives they had built here. Sometimes students’ eyes glaze. Not this year.
There are differences between escaping slavery and crossing a border. But there are also many similarities. The human beings who fled through forests and swamps to reach free states, and those who crossed rivers and deserts to reach the U.S., drew much of their determination from the same motive – to build better lives for themselves and their families.
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Enslaved African Americans were escaping a violent and immoral system that defined them as property. Those in bondage were required to peacefully accept their servile status. Today’s undocumented immigrants are escaping dead-end, often violent situations by coming to a country that needs their labor, but that has a broken immigration system that makes it virtually impossible for most of them to enter legally.
Considering the current immigration crackdown in light of the Fugitive Slave Law highlights key questions about how a nation deals with situations in which existing laws fail to adequately address on-the-ground human realities.
One question involves terminology. Escaped slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass had indeed broken laws, and angry Southern slaveholders labeled them criminals. But the term “criminal” invokes moral corruption, implies that the violation of a law defines a person’s character. Those who escaped slavery, and those who assisted fugitives, clearly broke existing laws. No one calls them criminals today.
Neither does the term “criminal” effectively define people whose only “crime” is slipping across a border, driving without a license or using a false Social Security number to get a job. In contrast, the term “undocumented immigrants” underscores the fact that most of the undocumented people in this country differ from previous generations of hardworking immigrants only in their lack of official papers.
Another question addresses strategy. The Fugitive Slave Law, which placed new penalties on those who aided fugitives, and created federal commissioners who were paid to return those fugitives to slavery, demonstrates the folly of approaching a politically charged situation with a heavy-handed crackdown. The number of slave-hunters multiplied. Some officials and communities complied with the new orders. Others, however, fought back.
The Fugitive Slave Law was part of a political compromise that sought to temper deepening sectional divisions over slavery, and avert a civil war. But it only heightened tensions.
In free states, abolitionists and non-abolitionists alike were outraged by heavy-handed federal actions. While William Henry was awaiting safe passage to Canada, for example, he laid low in the home of an outspoken proslavery activist who had abandoned his support for the slave system the moment he witnessed the gory spectacle of Henry’s capture. For their part, Southern slaveowners were enraged by the dramatic defiance of the law, and the refusal of local juries to convict participants. We all know what happened in the end.
In terms of immigration, the U.S. currently faces a similar political divide. As in the past, using the power of the federal government to divide families and uproot hardworking individuals who contribute to their communities will make a problematic situation worse. It’s time to look for a solution that centers not on rhetoric or ideology, but on the realities of human lives.
Grundy is consulting historian for Connections Youth Leadership Development.