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The Constitutional Imperative


Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law put Marshals squarely in the middle of the controversy

Abolitionists and other opponents of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law willfully and as a matter of conscience violated the law by rescuing fugitive slaves from the custody of U.S. Marshals. The freed slaves were taken to Canada. Northern hatred of slavery and Southern protection of their peculiar institution resulted in Southern session from the Union and national Civil War.

Engraving that depicted enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law

School Integration

Deputy Marshals escorting Ruby Bridges; a first grader; to school

As part of the famous Compromise of 1850, Congress passed one of the most roundly hated and violently opposed laws in American history. The Fugitive Slave Act required U.S. Marshals in the north to return escaped slaves to their masters in the South. Northern abolitionists, who were intent on abolishing the institution of slavery, turned on the Marshals in a number of slave rescue cases.

But the Marshals, regardless of their personal feelings, had no choice. The Constitution itself required the free states to return fugitive slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law merely implemented that Constitutional provision. To deny the law, even a hated law, meant a denial of the Constitution itself. The Marshals enforced the law.

A century later, continuing to enforce the nation's laws, Marshals were sent South to protect black citizens in the exercise of their civil rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. As depicted above, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Deputy U.S. Marshals escort black first grader into a school in New Orleans. Throughout the South, Marshals escorted black children to school and protected black college students who simply wanted to get an education. The Marshals also walked with blacks from Selma to Montgomery to register to vote, they stood beside Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach when he confronted Governor George Wallace on the steps of the University of Alabama, and they rode buses with the Freedom Riders.

In doing so, the Marshals were upholding the Constitutional rights of all citizens to enjoy equal access to society's benefits. When rioters attacked the Deputy Marshals at the University of Mississippi on September 30, 1962, they were challenging the Constitution. The basic American concepts of liberty and equality hung in the balance.