Rhode Island Repeals Its Personal Liberty Law

On January 26, 1861, the New York Times published a short article which stated simply, “PROVIDENCE, Friday, Jan. 25.  The House of Representatives have concurred with the Senate in repealing the Personal Liberty bill. The vote stood 49 to 18. Five members were absent.

Rhode Island, like many northern states, had passed a personal liberty law to frustrate efforts by slave owners seeking to reclaim slaves who had escaped into that state.  The legislature passed its original personal liberty law in 1848, which forbade Rhode Island’s legal machinery from getting involved in fugitive slave cases.

The 1848 law aimed at interfering with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  Its effectiveness was hampered by the tougher Fugitive Slave Act of 185o, which among other provisions significantly lessened the need for the cooperation of state governments to recover fugitive slaves.  In 1854, the Rhode Island legislature passed a new personal liberty law, primarily written to discourage slave catchers from operating in the state.

This law stayed on the books until late January 1861 when, hoping to end secession in the South, Rhode Island’s legislature repealed it.  Its action proved futile, much like one spouse desperately trying to appease the other, even as the second spouse is moving their things out of the marital abode.  Yet Rhode Island also demonstrates how far some white Northerners were willing to go, on the eve of the Civil War, to protect slavery in order to keep the South in the Union and how little sentiment in favor of emancipation existed in the North at that eleventh hour.  We will see more examples of this sentiment next month.

To read the key text of Rhode Island’s 1848 and 1854 Personal Liberty Laws, see: John Codman Hurd, The Law of Freedom and Bondage in the United States, Vol. 2 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1862), 47-48.  This book can be accessed via Google Books.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to Rhode Island Repeals Its Personal Liberty Law

  1. Ron says:

    Thanks for this post — a very interesting event reflecting a certain desperation to keep the Union together, even at the cost of appearing devoid of moral principle.

    I thought you and your readers might be interested in today’s post on my blog, where I cite your post and draw a connection between Rhode Island’s repeal and the Virginia Convention that met in Richmond 150 years ago this month. Here is the link:



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