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A Historical Perspective

From about 1619 until 1865, people of African descent were legally enslaved within the boundaries of the present United States by whites, American Indians and free blacks. The economy of the country was enhanced by the labor afforded by slavery.

The US Constitution, written in 1787, made slavery officially legal in the newly-created United States. This was upheld by seven out of nine Justices on the Supreme Court in 1857. In fact, Lincoln continued to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act during his presidency. The authoritative academic source on enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 during the Lincoln administration Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, by Stanley W. Campbell (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968/2011) contains numerous examples, documented with official government documents, of runaway slaves being returned to their “owners” by federal judges and marshals during the Lincoln regime.

The Fugitive Slave Act was being so vigorously enforced by the Lincoln administration, writes Professor Campbell, that there was “a veritable stream of fugitive slaves headed for the Canadian border.  On April 8 [1861], 106 fugitive slaves were counted boarding the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad.  Their destination was Canada and freedom from arrest” (p. 188).

Campbell points out that “In his [first] inaugural address, president Lincoln once again disclaimed any intention of interfering with slavery in the states . . . nor had his views about the Fugitive Slave Law changed” (p. 189).  Indeed they had not.  Professor Campbell quotes an August 27, 1858 speech by Lincoln in which he said, “I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave Law” (p 189).

On May 27, 1861 a number of runaway slaves appeared within the military command of Union Army General Benjamin Butler, who offered the opinion that the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply there since the South was “a foreign country,” something that Lincoln himself never, ever, maintained.  Lincoln had his secretary of war Simon Cameron, send Butler a letter of rebuke in which he was ordered NOT to “prevent the voluntary return of any fugitive to the service from which he may have escaped” (p. 190).

When General John C. Fremont instituted martial law in Missouri on August 30, 1861 and declared all the slaves there to be freed, “Lincoln overruled the proclamation” and “removed Fremont from his command at St. Louis on November 2, 1861” (p. 191).  Some seven months later, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, issued instructions that “It is the President’s constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’  This means all laws” (p. 192).  He was referring exclusively to the Fugitive Slave Law.

The Fugitive Slave Act was as vigorously enforced in Washington, D.C. Lincoln’s wartime home town, as well as it was in Springfield, Illinois, his peacetime home town during his administration.  As Professor Campbell further writes, "In May, 1862, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled that the Fugitive Slave Law was as applicable to the District of Columbia as it was to any of the states.  The docket of the court for 1862 listed the claims of twenty-eight different slave owners for 101 runaway slaves.  In the two months following the courts decisions, 26 fugitive slaves were returned to their owners from the fugitive slave tribunal in the nation’s capital." (p. 193).

Runaway slaves were still being sent back to their “owners” by Lincoln’s judges and marshals after the Emancipation Proclamation  of January 1863.  “On June 12, for example, 3 women and 4 children were arrested as fugitive slaves and taken before the United States Commissioner Walter S. Coxe, in Washington.  After a hearing they were remanded to the claimant from Prince Georges County, Maryland, and on June 18, Commissioner Coxe remanded 2 fugitive slaves to claimants from the same county in Maryland.” (p 193).

When Brigadier General T.W. Tuttle wrote to Chicago Mayor Sherman claiming to have “a large number” of “contraband negroes” and asking the mayor if he could find “work” for them, the mayor “seemed horrified at such a suggestion” and wrote back that since the Illinois Constitution of 1848 made it illegal for black people to emigrate into the state, “Your proposition to send negroes to Chicago to work would be in violation of the laws of this State” (p. 193, emphasis in original).

Governor John Albion of Massachusetts did the exact same thing when confronted with a similar situation on October 30, 1862.  The governor “promptly refused to permit them to come” into his state, writes Campbell (p. 194).

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the United States had no official, national flag. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution. Thus the “Stars and Stripes” became the official American flag.

During the crises of secession and prior to the outbreak of the War Between the States, the majority of bills passed by Congress had protected slavery. However, the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States was proposed to the legislatures of the several states by the Thirty-eighth United States Congress on January 31, 1865. The amendment was declared, in a proclamation of Secretary of State William Henry Seward, dated December 18, 1865, to have been ratified by the legislatures of twenty-seven of the then thirty-six states; the necessary three-quarters.

Thus, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution officially abolished slavery…almost 90 years after the United States official adoption of the “Stars and Stripes”.

The Confederate States of America was the government formed by eleven southern states between 1861 and 1865. The first official flag of the Confederacy, called the “Stars and Bars,” was adopted on March 5, 1861. The more commonly recognized Confederate Battle Flag was used in battle beginning in December 1861 until the fall of the Confederacy in April 1865.

The “Stars And Bars” flew over slavery a total of 50 months.

Historically, which flag should most represent slavery to the rest of the world?