When examining government enforcement of the laws about slavery before the Civil War, historians tend to focus on federal law, especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This focus is understandable because that is where the controversy lay in the 1850s, becoming the focus of media and political attention, generating high-profile historical documentation. Would and could federal law regarding fugitive slaves be enforced?
What tends to be forgotten is that most of the legal machinery that kept slavery functioning existed at the state level. It was state law that defined the legal parameters of slavery and provided for its enforcement. Federal legislation only came into the picture when a slave escaped beyond the bounds of the state where they were in bondage, especially into the free states where slavery was not legal.
It also should be remembered that although the weight of slave law fell on the slaves to keep them in bondage, it also affected anyone who might try to interfere with the property rights of the slaveholder. That was an important reason station masters on the Underground Railroad operating in the South kept their activities secret–they were breaking a law that was assiduously enforced.
One man who learned that reality for himself in 1861 was Joseph Bowers. Bowers, a peddler, on April 25, 1861 assisted a slave, Henry Stanton, in attempting to escape from his owner in Allegany County, Maryland. Bowers was prosecuted for this act.
According to the Maryland State Archives:
Bowers had his case removed to Washington County from Allegany County. The Washington County Circuit Court heard the case on Nov 22, 1861, and Bowers entered a not guilty plea. The witness that testified in Bowers’ defense was Rev. John Alexander Adams, preacher at St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Washington County. Bowers was declared guilty, and sentenced to confinement in the Maryland State Penitentiary for eight years and six months starting Dec. 21, 1861. The Washington County Circuit Court charged Bowers with enticing, assisting & persuading Henry Stanton, a slave, to abscond from his owner. Bowers was recommended for clemency by several respectable citizens, due to the nature of his good character, and “by the terms of the Constitution lately adopted in this state, the offence of which he was convicted can no longer be committed.” Bowers was pardoned on May 30, 1865 by Governor A.W. Bradford.
So as this case demonstrates, even as the Civil War was breaking out the state-level enforcement machinery for slave law continued to function. However, the war would push the machinery to the breaking point and ultimately destroy it. But in 1861 it was still operative and ensnaring persons like Joseph Bowers for acting in a manner 150 years later that would be described as heroic.