American author, philosopher, and leader of the transcendentalist movement Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) presented his impassioned “Address on the Fugitive Slave Law” to the people of Concord, Massachusetts, on May 3, 1851.
The Fugitive Slave Law (also called the Fugitive Slave Act) was part of the Compromise of 1850, a set of bills passed by Congress soon after the end of the Mexican–American War. The United States had acquired new territory at a time when tensions between the slave-owning states and the free states were growing strong. The Fugitive Slave Law required Northern states to cooperate in recapturing and returning runaway slaves. Emerson found this law to be abhorrent and immoral on many levels. When his townsmen presented him with a letter asking him to deliver an address on this controversial matter, Emerson accepted in spite of the fact that he did not usually engage in political activism. His address is a wake-up call to the conscience. He berates Boston’s “tameness” in reacting to this immoral law and denounces “passive obedience.”
Emerson’s main argument is drawn from the principle that the Fugitive Slave Law is immoral; therefore, no one has an obligation to obey it. He also points out absurd legal inconsistencies that further invalidate this unjust law. For example, Emerson cites a law passed by Congress in 1807: “It is piracy and murder, punishable with death, to enslave a man on the coast of Africa.” However, “by law of Congress September 1850, it is a high crime and misdemeanor, punishable with fine and imprisonment, to resist the re-enslaving of a man on the coast of America.”
Although Emerson believes that slavery will eventually die out, he urges all good people to act in the present moment in order to bring a quicker end to a brutal social institution. He attacks the hypocrisy and inconsistency of party politics, which create “shallow men.” Emerson also soundly denounces then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster (“Mr. Wolf”), a Northern “Cotton Whig” and supporter of slavery, along with all who choose “monied interests” over “reason and charity.”