November 20, 1860 to December 1, 1860
New York City
State laws often have an outsized influence on discussions of national politics. This is despite the fact that one state’s laws have no binding effect in other states; then, add to that the fact that some states will pass laws with little intent or resources backing the enforcement of those laws. Those are the laws that can be nothing more than pieces of paper as props in the political theater. But, when those laws touch on an inflammatory issue, the practicalities of the laws become irrelevant. The only thing that matters then is that the laws exist and that they could spread to other states, disrupting the status quo and creating concern as to the path that the nation and its states have chosen.
These dynamics have played out many times in American history, and some of the most consequential examples arose during the years leading up to the Civil War.
On November 20, 1860, George Templeton Strong, a New York City attorney and Republican, recorded an entry in his diary—a diary that he had been maintaining for 25 years. In this entry, he was reflecting on the political temperature of the moment, and it was an inflamed moment. He noted that people of common sense were “still intimidated and silent” in the face of the “revolutionary movement in South Carolina and the Gulf States . . .” but predicted that “Border States, led by Virginia, [would] try to mediate and pacify.” The only logical solution, to Strong, was a true compromise between northern states and southern states. But that required both sides to take drastic, and unlikely, steps.
States like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wisconsin had been passing “personal liberty” laws that undermined the purpose of the Fugitive Slave Act—according to Strong, those states had to repeal their laws. However, “the South has no right to demand their repeal and make their enactment an excuse for treason, because they are utterly unconstitutional and mere nullities . . . .”
The “personal liberty” laws were northern states’ attempts at undermining federal law: the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause, (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While southerners argued that those federal laws required northerners to return fugitive slaves, the “personal liberty” laws gave those northerners cover to ignore their obligations to return slaves to the South—much to the chagrin of southerners.
A week later, on November 27, Strong continued in his diary: “These ‘personal liberty laws’ are unconstitutional and void. They are mere nullities, and do no harm to the South. What one nigger has South Carolina lost by the legislation of Vermont or Wisconsin? The clamor about them is a palpable humbug. Still they ought to be repealed, being wrong in spirit and interest.”
Two days later, Strong wrote that what the people wanted was “a strong government, instead of a ‘government of opinion.'” As he saw it, if there was disunion, people in the North and the South would want a strong government; and more than that, in the inevitable civil war that followed disunion, the question would be: “To which party will God give a great general, when that crisis is upon us?”
On December 1, Strong pondered how the country had reached this point. “Why do the people so furiously rage together just now?” he wrote. People in the North had, until 1850, “not hostility to slavery, but indifference to it, and reluctance to discuss it,” but it was “a disagreeable subject with which we had nothing to do.” But as it became a focus of national politics, then featured in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“that set all Northern women crying and sobbing over the sorrows of Sambo”), and further then with the Fugitive Slave Act having “stimulated sectional feeling by making slavery visible in our own communities, and above all, the intolerable brag and bluster and indecent arrogance of the South has driven us into protest against their pretensions, and into a determination to assert our own rights in spite of their swagger.” And with such shows of tension and friction between the North and South, Strong could have pondered how the country had a chance to avoid a civil war.