On September 18, 1850, President Millard Fillmore (13th President of the United States of America) signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, which endangered the lives of Africans in America who had managed to gain their freedom, those living in free states and those who had never been enslaved (born to free parents).
Fillmore had been president for barely two months when he signed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act into law. He was elected Vice President under President Zachary Taylor in 1849 and succeeded to the presidency after Taylor died on July 9, 1850.
As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was supposed to appease the slave holding southern states and halt their intention of seceding (separating) from the Union (United States of America). The law decreed that enslaved Africans who fled captivity could be apprehended anywhere in the United States and returned to their owners if federally appointed commissioners decided that they were “fugitive slaves”.
The law denied any due process to enslaved Africans and allowed authorities to arrest any African in America (free or enslaved) and return them to slave territory. The Fugitive Slave Law cited severe penalties for noncompliance and empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. At that time any White man or woman could claim to be the owner of any African in America.
The Fugitive Slave Law ensured that an African so claimed would have no way of disproving the White person’s claim. In his book Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860; White American history professor Stanley W. Campbell writes: A hearing before a fugitive slave commissioner under the new act was summary in nature, and the evidence of ownership was ex parte; it was therefore possible that a free Negro might be remanded to slavery. Furthermore, because the Act of 1850 permitted the slave holder to pursue his fugitive slave into the free states, capture him and return him without due process of law, the possibilities that free Negroes would be kidnapped and sold into slavery posed a constant threat.
Although many White people living in northern states where slavery had been discontinued in theory did not support slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law applied throughout the USA. At that time the vast majority of White people (including abolitionists) living in the United States thought that Africans and African-Americans were an inferior species. They quoted passages from the Bible and they used pseudo-scientific arguments to “prove” their point.
The Fugitive Slave Law was even defended by Abraham Lincoln before he became America’s 16th president (March 1861). On August 27, 1858 at Freeport, Illinois during his second of seven debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln is quoted as saying: “In regard to the Fugitive Slave Law, 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 the Southern States are entitled to a congressional Fugitive Slave Law.”
Douglas, the Democratic candidate (incumbent elected 1847) and Lincoln, the Republican candidate (newcomer, relatively unknown) were campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat to represent Illinois. On September 18, 1858 in Charleston, Illinois, during the fourth debate with Douglas, Lincoln once again spoke on the hot topic of the day: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.”
Being a virtual newcomer, not surprisingly Lincoln was not elected to the Senate but he did make an impression and three years later he was elected President of the United States of America. Even though the U.S. was plunged into a Civil War which, when it ended, saw the abolition of slavery throughout the states, it is very obvious that from the White House on down to the most illiterate, lowliest shack dweller, White Americans thought that they were superior to African-Americans.
Today, that sense of superiority by White Americans has grown to include anyone who is not White, and it also includes the culture and religious beliefs of racialized people. This White supremacist mindset was aptly demonstrated by the good Christian pastor who gained international attention when he declared that he planned to burn the Quran on September 11. Notice that Christianity has not been condemned because of this man and his followers’ hate filled behaviour.
Wasn’t it Adolph Hitler who wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf: “All propaganda has to be popular and has to adapt its spiritual level to the perception of the least intelligent of those towards whom it intends to direct itself.”
And George W. Bush, on March 31, 2001 in Washington D.C. is quoted as saying: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”