John Bingham and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

John Bingham was a politician.  It is easy to forget that when we look back at major constitutional leaders.  Their articulation of fundamental concepts makes us think that they were above pandering and always consistent. But that is not true.  Let’s look at the best example from Bingham’s career: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  (BTW, I like this picture because it’s quirky–Bingham in retirement with a top hat, standing with bicycle guy).

The Compromise of 1850 was very controversial among abolitionists.  They were particularly incensed the new Fugitive Slave Act, which strengthened the protection given to slaveowners in exchange for admitting California as a free state.  Many in the North argued that this law was unconstitutional or should be met with civil disobedience.  What was Bingham’s view?

In November 1850, a political meeting was held in Cincinnati (where he was living at the time) to discuss the Compromise of 1850 and consider a series of resolutions.  Here are the two critical ones:

Resolved, That we utterly condemn and will oppose all forcible resistance to the execution of the law of the General Government for the recapture of fugitives owing service or labor—that we regard such law as constitutional—in accordance with the compromise which formed the Union, and that we will sustain and enforce it by all proper and legal means, as a matter of constitutional compromise and obligation.

Resolved, That we regard any further agitation of the slave question in Congress or among the people of the States where slavery does not exist, as unwise—productive of mischief—awakening sectional animosities, and that no man who continues the agitation of such question to the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the country, is entitled to public confidence or should be elevated to any office or honor or trust either in the State or general government.

Bingham supported these resolutions criticizing anti-slavery agitators, which probably comes as a surprise given his subsequent record.  Why did he take this view? (more below the fold)

Here was Bingham’s statement on this issue:

“Mr. Bingham was then called upon, and in a most eloquent and feeling manner referred to the prophetic admonitions of Washington, Jackson, and other great men, to suffer no appeals engendering sectional prejudice, and weaken attachment to our Union.  That the laws must be obeyed and enforced so long as they stand unrepealed upon the statute book, whether they agree or not with the peculiar notions of any individual or set of persons.  That those who so much abuse our Constitution and government on account of slavery, should remember that slavery existed here prior to the Union or Constitution; that the very first check to slavery was given by this much-abused Constitution; that under its operation, and the benign influence of the Union, slavery melted away from the hills of New England.  The Empire State and the great North-West were protected against slavery under the ordinance, in conformity with the spirit of both; that all should unite in support of the Union and the laws against the attempted inroads of Northern Nullifiers.”

Daily Ohio State Journal, Nov. 21, 1850.

Now this is the position that most moderates held at the time.  A flawed Union was preferable to secession and slavery should be eliminated gradually.  Furthermore, this position was consistent with Bingham’s actions.  He supported Zachery Taylor, a slaveholder who was the Whig nominee for President in 1848.  He supported Henry Clay, a slaveowner who was the Whig nominee for President in 1844.  He never joined the Liberty Party, which took a much stronger stand against slavery in the 1840s.

Unfortunately, this stand became an embarrassment for Bingham in later years, and he claimed later that his comments were not reported accurately or that he just forgotten that he had taken the view that he did (sort of the 19th century equivalent of “I don’t recall”).  By 1861, he was with the “Northern Nullifiers” and strongly opposed all efforts to put together another compromise to appease the South.  By then, though, Lincoln was the President-elect and public sentiment was rather different.

John Bingham:  He was for the Fugitive Slave Act before he was against it.

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3 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    Abolitionists did not walk in lock-step on all issues pertaining to slavery. My research for a project demonstrated this well with Wm. Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips on the side that the Constitution was evil because of its fugitive slave clause and other slavery-silent provisions. Some abolitionists took the position that that slavery was unconstitutional, e.g., Lysander Spooner. (Randy Barnett posted an article on SSRN regarding how the views of several abolitionists led to the 14th Amendment.) Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Spooner proposed how it could be challenged under his theory that slavery was unconstitutional. But he seemed to change after several prominent fugitive slave cases and Dred Scott. Query if Bingham’s views changed after 1850 but before 1860 election?

  2. Joe says:

    The slavery side’s actions in the 1850s made avoiding ‘further agitation’ somewhat moot. Did Bingham support the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in 1860? Or, was he firmly on the side of those who resisted it?

  3. Shag from Brookline says:

    Barnett’s article is titled “Whence Comes Section One? The Abolitionist Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment” available at:

    It is 96 pages in length. Since my focus was on Lysander Spooner, I printed out only the portion on him. I think it will be worthwhile printing out the remainder.