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Slave Labour

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In U.S. history, the federal acts of 1793 and 1850 saw many escaped black slaves being returned to the states where they ran away from. As slavery was abolished in the north, many northern states passed Personal-Liberty laws that would allow fugitives a jury trial, a right that black slaves never had before. Many states also passed laws forbidding state officials to help capture alleged fugitives slaves or lodge them in state jails. As a compromise to the South, a second and much more precise fugitive slave law was passed in 1850 ( By it "all good citizens" were "commanded to aid and assist [federal marshals and their deputies] in the prompt and efficient execution of this law" ( This new act saw steep penalties that were enforced on anyone who assisted or supported slaves fleeing from oppression. When an offender was apprehended, the fugitive was taken before a federal court or commissioner and was denied a jury trial and his testimony was not admitted. The statement of the owner claiming ownership was taken as main evidence regardless of their presence in the courtroom ( Many opposed Northerners who were once unconcerned with this matter felt obligated to rise up and fight against this act. Although this was a very controversial matter at the time, many judges felt obligated to look past the morality of the matter and uphold the law and the Act of 1850.

The first major infringement of this act happened shortly after the Act of 1850 was passed when Thomas Sims, a slave from Savannah, Georgia stowed away on a ship to Massachusetts to escape from slavery. He was discovered in Boston within a few months and was arrested. This led to an immense public debate regarding whether or not he should be returned to Georgia. Sim's lawyers, Samuel Sewall, Robert Rantoul and Richard Henry Dana argued both that the Act of 1850 was unconstitutional and that a judge in Massachusetts should not be the one who has total control over the life of Thomas Sims.

In two separate trials, one before the United States Fugitive Slave Commissioner, Curtis, and the other before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, Shaw, both rejected the arguments laid out for them and demanded Sims return to Georgia (107).

Although, Sims lawyers lost, they paved the way for other fugitive cases and many lawyers used the same arguments that Sewall, Rantoul and Dana used for their trials. Similarly, other commissioners would use the arguments that Curtis used to aid them in making their decisions.

When Rantoul, Sims lawyer, presented his case to Judge Shaw of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, his first argument was that the Act of 1850 supposed judicial power to an official who was not a judge which went against Article III which states that only a judge appointed properly under Article III of the constitution could hear a case involving the rendition of a fugitive slave. Secondly, Rantoul argued that the fee differential denied due process to the alleged fugitive, as it made the commissioner an interested party the outcome (112).

Shaw's judgment was a powerful blow to the antislavery laws; he concluded that the Act of 1850 was free from any constitutional doubts and that Sims be remanded. He also related his conclusions to the Act of 1793 saying that the difference between the two acts are irrelevant when referring to the constitutional questions. Shaw's final decision closed the doors of the Massachusetts state courts and that the only trial that could be given to Sims would be from the commissioner (112).

After a disappointing result, Rantoul brought his case to the Commissioner, Curtis; although this time he steered away from his old points and crafted new ones. He first touched on the idea that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was unconstitutional and laid out a comprehensive attack. He stated that the commissioner could not exercise the power of a judicial ruling and therefore could not make the decision. He also said that Sims should be awarded a Ð''trail by jury' but because the law did not allow Sims to do so, the law was unconstitutional. Rantoul also said that the evidence that was collected was Ð''incompetent' because the "captive was not represented at taking thereof and had no opportunity for cross-examination" (108). Finally, he also pointed out that Congress was not authorized by the constitution to pass the Act of 1850

Despite the logical arguments that Rantoul presented, Commissioner Curtis was not persuaded by his points and concluded that Sims be returned to his owner, James Potter of Georgia. Curtis also affirmed that he was not acting as a judge but simply returning a fugitive and upheld that the Act of 1850 was indeed constitutional.

This case was the corner stone to all fugitive slave cases in American history; although the results were not in the favour of Sims and Rantoul, it was a stepping stone and made people realize the moral-formal aspect of the conflict.

Since this case, many philosophers have examined what they feel is the true meaning of law and how it relates to this case. Thomas Aquinas, H.L.A. Hart, Ronald Dworkin and Duncan Kennedy give their opinion on whether or not prior judicial rulings made a difference in this case.

Thomas Aquinas says that a law is derived from the word ligare, meaning to bind, as man is bound to act out of duty to the maintain status and order within society. This social order is maintained by encouraging either proactive duty, such compelling one to pay taxes, or by forcing restraint such as making it illegal to assault another member of that society. Similarly, the strength of the law is only as powerful as the members of society comprehend, and equally important, accept that law. As argued by Aquinas, "Promulgation is necessary for law to obtain its force" (13). Aquinas goes on to say that the rule and measure of human acts is reason, which is the first principle of human acts; and that in order for a law to obtain its binding force which is proper for a law, it must be applied to men who have been ruled by it (12).

Aquinas refers to laws as being either just or unjust; if they are just, then humans have the duty to follow them to maintain order in society. If a law is said to be unjust, then it must fall into either two categories. Firstly, the law is contrary to human good and that whoever imposes that law, is using it to help benefit themselves as individuals and not the common good. Secondly, a law can be unjust if it goes against the divine good and we are compelled to obey man instead of God (13).

When relating this back to the Sims case, we see that using Aquinas theories, on the one hand, Sims should be prosecuted because the law stated that all fugitive



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