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Jones v. Van Zandt


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5 How. (46 U.S.) 215 (1847), submitted on printed argument 1 Feb. 1847 and decided 5 Mar. 1847 by vote of 9 to 0; Woodbury for the Court. Jones v. Van Zandt presented abolitionists with their first opportunity to mount a direct legal challenge to the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. A conductor of the Underground Railroad was exposed to civil liability under the act for harboring a fugitive. Salmon P. Chase, then in private practice, contended in argument that the statute was unconstitutional because: (1) the federal government lacked power to support slavery; (2) slavery was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence and contrary to “natural right”; (3) the statute violated various provisions of the Bill of Rights, including the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment; and (4) the Fugitive Slave Clause of Article IV, section 2 of the Constitution was merely an interstate compact giving no power of enforcement to Congress.Justice Levi Woodbury for the Court spurned these arguments. He stated that the legitimacy of slavery was a political question for the states to resolve, and that the Fugitive Slave Clause was “one of [the] sacred compromises” of the Constitution (p.231). Whatever a judge's views of the morality or policy of slavery, Woodbury went on, he was bound to uphold the Constitution and statutes as he found them and could not refuse to enforce them because of their conflict with moral obligation. As Justice Joseph Story had before him in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), Wood-bury upheld the constitutionality of the 1793 statute. Jones therefore was one in an unbroken line of proslavery decisions of the antebellum Court.

(1) the federal government lacked power to support slavery; (2) slavery was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence and contrary to “natural right”; (3) the statute violated various provisions of the Bill of Rights, including the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment; and (4) the Fugitive Slave Clause of Article IV, section 2 of the Constitution was merely an interstate compact giving no power of enforcement to Congress.

William M. Wiecek

Subjects: Law.


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