"Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that ever I took half the pains to preserve it." -John Adams

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fugitive Slave Laws, Jury Nullification and Reality

In regards to the discussion on the radio show yesterday, I've found some information on how jury nullification played an instrumental role in the abolition of the institution of slavery in the united states, against the Supreme Court's own rulings mind you. It's important to remember that it was the Federal Government itself which was upholding slavery against the citizenry who were trying to raise the moral standard of society at the time). Read the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling if you think I'm distorting anything here.

In regards to nullification:
The Fugitive Slave Law

Until the middle of the 1800s, federal and state judges often instructed the juries they had the right to disregard the court's view of the law. (Barkan, citing 52 Harvard Law Review, 682-616) Then, when northern jurors began to refuse to convict abolitionists who had violated the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, judges began questioning jurors to find out if they were prejudiced against the government's position and dismissed any who were. In 1852 Lysander Spooner, a Massachusetts lawyer and champion of individual liberties, complained "that courts have repeatedly questioned jurors to ascertain whether they were prejudiced against the government. ... The reason of this ... was that 'the Fugitive Slave Law, so called' was so obnoxious to a large portion of the people, as to render a conviction under it hopeless (if the jurors were taken indiscriminately from among the people)." Modern treatments of abolitionism praise these jury-nullification verdicts for the role they played in helping the anti-slavery cause – rather than condemning them for "undermining" the rule of law and the uniformity of justice.

Spooner's work on slavery and nullification is also online thanks to the Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty.


  1. More on the history of the Right of the Juror.

  2. It's interesting and very telling if you look at the Declaration of Independence that one of the grievances the colonist had was their Right to trial by Jury was not given to them, as guaranteed by the contract the king had with the people, the Magna Charta.
    The first one was this: He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
    Second:For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury
    And third:For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses.
    The War for Independence was just as much over the the Right to Trial by our peers than it was over taxes. The Right to judge the law itself, to keep the "King" in check with the people he was governing.