1.3.1. New England (1833-1865): New England Against Slavery



Rhode Island

New Hampshire



1836:  Supreme court holds that all slaves entering state become free


1843:  State officials prohibited from helping recapture fugitive slaves




1836:  Supreme court, following Massachusetts, holds that all slaves entering state become free







1846:  State officials prohibited from helping recapture fugitive slaves

1857-58:  Legislature:  all slaves state become free upon entering state

1838:  State officials prohibited from helping recapture fugitive slaves

1857-58:  Legislature:  all slaves become free upon entering state

1843:  State officials prohibited from helping recapture fugitive slaves



1858:  Legislature:  all slaves become free upon entering state

Transit Cases and Personal Liberty Laws

Commonwealth v. Aves – Massachusetts, 1836 (18 Pick. 193); Jackson v. Bulloch – Connecticut, 1837 (12 Conn. 38); In re Sims – Massachusetts, 1851 (61 Mass. 285); Opinion of the Justices – Maine, 1861 (46 Me. 567)

  • New England judges, like their colleagues in most other regions, drew a line between “fugitive cases” involving resistance to federal efforts to capture fugitive slaves, and “transit cases” raising the issue of whether slaves passing through New England automatically became free when they entered the region.  In Aves, New England’s leading transit case, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw rejected arguments that Massachusetts should respect property rights in slaves conferred by Southern law.  He reasoned that slavery was so deeply contrary to Massachusetts law and policy that traditional rules of comity between states did not apply. 
  • Aves attracted national attention and was highly influential in other northern states.  In Jackson, Connecticut’s supreme court adopted the Aves rule soon after it was created – but did so only narrowly, by a 3-2 vote.  All of the judges noted that Connecticut, unlike Massachusetts, had provided only for gradual emancipation; the dissenters concluded, albeit with real reluctance, that because of that policy Connecticut should not free slaves in transit.
  • But in Sims, New England’s leading fugitive case, Shaw had no trouble holding that Massachusetts was obligated to bow to the federal 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required local officials to help federal authorities capture slaves and respect federal procedures (much more summary than most New Englanders wanted) for returning slaves.  Shaw valued preservation of the Union far more than he hated slavery.  
  • In 1857 Maine’s legislature, like several other northern states, enacted a personal liberty law prohibiting local officials from helping federal officials recapture fugitive slaves notwithstanding the Fugitive Slave Law.  On the eve of the Civil War, the legislature asked the supreme court to opine whether the law was constitutional.  One judge replied that Maine was obligated to honor Fugitive Slave Act, but three other judges disagreed.  John Appleton, one of the court’s most respected members, argued that the federal government infringed state rights by imposing duties on state officials, although he conceded Congress could impose such a duty on private citizens.  Only one other state (Wisconsin) witnessed such a judicial rebellion against the Act.  The Civil War and emancipation soon rendered both rebellions moot.

Fanueil Hall, Boston, site of many antislavery
rallies and speeches (1851) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Poster for antislavery rally, Boston (1852) - courtesy Boston Public Library

“[Slavery], being contrary to natural right, and effected by local law, is dependent upon such local law for its existence and efficacy, and being contrary to the fundamental laws of this State, such general right of property cannot be exercised or recognized here. … [S]uch an application of the law would be wholly repugnant to our laws.”  - Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, in Aves


“[A]re we prepared to hold, that the moment a slave touches our soil, he becomes free?  And to say, that the air of Connecticut is too pure for a slave to breathe?  Why, we know, there has not been a moment for more than a century, in which such language could be held, without conveying a bitter sarcasm, both upon our laws and our practice. … [I]t can be of no avail to attempt to make ourselves purer in this matter than we really are; or to reprobate in others a practice, the blood of which is yet to be found on our own skirts.” – Justice __  Bissell (dissenting), in Jackson

“[Acquiescing to federal fugitive slave laws] is absolutely necessary to the peace, union and harmonious action of the state and general govts.  The preservation of both, with their full and entire powers, each in its proper sphere, was regarded by the framers of the const, and has ever since been regarded, as essential to the peace, order and prosperity of all the United States.” – Chief Justice Shaw, in Sims