Is it ever right to force Americans to violate their deeply held beliefs? Abortion and LGBTQ advocates certainly think so. But history teaches us differently.
If you’ve listened to BreakPoint over the past several years, you’ve heard us talk about the ongoing threats to religious freedom. We’ve talked about pharmacists in Washington State being forced to dispense abortion-inducing drugs or losing their licenses. We’ve talked about Christian adoption agencies forced out of business because they will not place children with same-sex couples. And of course you’ve heard about cake artist Jack Phillips, who refused to use his artistic talents for a same-sex wedding.
These cases and others like them remind me of another time, long ago, when our government attempted to bully citizens into engaging in acts they believed were wrong. It had to do with a law called the Fugitive Slave Act.
This Act, first passed in 1793, was an effort to force free states to return escaping slaves to their owners. But many in defiant Northern states found creative ways to circumvent this law.
As Jared Brock writes in his fabulous new book, The Road to Dawn, (by the way, highly recommended), he says “throughout the mid-1800s, slaves continued to pour north,” settling in free states or Canada. Southern slave owners “grew more and more agitated with each passing month,” he writes, and began pressuring northern states “to stop helping escapees.”
Congress, attempting to tamp down tensions between free and slave states, passed the Compromise of 1850, which amended the Fugitive Slave Act. It included a demand that “everyone—law enforcement and ordinary citizen alike—[be] required to help catch fugitive slaves.”
For example, Brock writes, the law made it illegal for any American to “withhold knowledge he might possess of any chance meeting with the fugitive.” If a citizen helped a slave escape, he could be arrested. And law enforcement agents “who refused to assist slave-catchers could spend six months in prison and be fined up to $1,000,” which is the equivalent of about $30,000 today.
In effect, freedom-loving Northerners—especially the many Quakers who assisted escaped slaves—would now be forced to take an active part in an evil system—even if doing so violated their consciences.
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