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Threatened Civil War Between Virginia and Pennsylvania

Original Citation
"Threatened Civil War Between Virginia and Pennsylvania," New York Herald, January 31, 1856, p. 4: 2-3.


In late 1855 and early 1856, both the Pennsylvania and Virginia legislatures wrestled angrily with the issue of fugitive slaves and their respective states' rights. The irony, of course, is that here it was a northern state (Pennsylvania) that was asserting its right to resist the national government and a southern state (Virginia) that was trying to compel obedience to federal statutes. In early 1856, the Virginia House of Delegates adopted a resolution calling on the Federal government to compensate southern slaveholders for any escaped slaves. The article below also refers to several of the most important legal cases surrounding these issues of state and federal sovereignty - Abelman v. Booth (1859) concerning personal liberty laws in Wisconsin and The Lemmon Case (1860) concerning slaves traveling through New York.


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Threatened Civil War Between Virginia and Pennsylvania.

We give place in another part of the HERALD to the debate in the Virginia Legislature on the subject of the arrest, some months ago, of James Parsons, Jr., a citizen of Virginia, who was in pursuit of a fugitive slave by the local authorities of Pennsylvania. We also publish reports from a committee-majority and minority-of Pennsylvania Legislature, on the proposed right or transit of slaves through that State. The subject is one of profound interest, and the proceedings of the two legislative bodies indicate that the time has come when the rights of the States must be thoroughly tested in this matter of fugitive slaves and the legal privilege of transit claimed by the South through the territories of the North.

Aside from the more legal bearings of the matter, it is remarkable indeed that there should be a conflict between members of the federal Union on the subject either of the surrender of slaves or of transit through each other's territory. The common courtesies of life, good-neighborhood between members of the same general family, without any special constitutional or legal guarantees, should have been sufficient to induce the State of Pennsylvania to aid the people of Virginia to enforce the rights of her citizens to such property as is recognized in the latter States. We can imagine nothing better calculated to sow the seeds of permanent estrangement than even to confine a neighbor strictly to his legal rights; to deny him those rights under an assumed condemnation of their immoralities, is an offence against justice, the obligations of law, and the comities of good neighborhood.

But we must take things as we find them, and call them by their right names. The federal constitution provides for the surrender of fugitive slaves to their masters on proper demand. It is not too much to claim that the object of this provision was two fold-to give to the slaveholder a legal right to claim his fugitives from labor, and to impose an obligation upon the free States-indeed, upon all the States-to make the surrender. In order to give effect to this constitutional right and obligation the act of 1703 was passed. That act, in process of time, became powerless, by reason of the refusal of citizens of the free States to discharge their general obligations-to act in good faith towards the slaveholders in the matter of escaped slaves. The supplementary act of 1850 was finally passed, the necessity for which arose entirely from the bad faith of the North. We had substantially refused to meet and discharge our solemn constitutional obligations. We became technical. We refused to surrender slaves, and interposed every species of factious obstacle to the enforcement of the law.

So far has this work of repudiation and bad faith and offensive intermeddling been carried that no means have been spared to render the pursuit and capture of a slave a work of vast expense and personal annoyance to the pursuer. States have entered the field with distinct projects to obstruct the execution of the laws of Congress. In the present instance, the State of Pennsylvania not only prevented a citizen of Virginia from reclaiming his property, but pursued him as a criminal, indicted him as an abductor, and now holds him for trial. This is a species of nullification which has grown into an enormous national disgrace; and we rejoice that Virginia has at length determined to assume the responsibility of her citizen and conduct his defence.

The question involved in this controversy is one which has a broader bearing than that which is connected with the rights of James Parsons, Jr., a citizen of Virginia, now under indictment for crime in Pennsylvania. It has an enlarged political feature. It involves the integrity of the constitution of the United States and the power of the federal courts to execute the laws of Congress. That constitution has given the right of capture to the slaveholder, and it is absurd to claim that such a right does not imply the security of the pursuer from the operation of State laws. The legal basis of this notion is laid in the organic law; the statues of Congress merely point to facilities to enable him to execute his rights. The criminals in the case of Pennsylvania, who, by obstructing Parsons in the capture of his slave, were obstructing the laws of the United States. The act of the authorities of Pennsylvania was illegal, criminal, and should be punished; and it is the duty of the commonwealth of Virginia to assume, as far as possible, the place of her injured citizen, and prosecute the case to a final hearing in the federal court. It is a duty she owes alike to Mr. Parsons and to the future peace and harmony of the Union, which, in respect to the constitutional rights of the slaveholders, has become a rope of sand.

The State of Wisconsin, in the Booth case, has directly nullified the federal compact. That case is before the Supreme Court of the United States, and its decision may be regarded as certain. The [act?] of the State Judges of Wisconsin was one of those palpable assumptions of power by an inferior and an ignorant tribunal to nullify the obligations of the constitution.

The celebrated Lemmon case will come up in February before the Circuit Court of the United States in this city, involving another point, not so clear; but still it is believed in that case it will be decided in favor of the right of transit of slaves through the States and Territories by virtue of the spirit of the federal Union. It would be more creditable to the country to place this right on the comities of intercourse, than to deduce it from the positive provisions of the constitution. It is an unspeakable disgrace, indeed, to the free States that their brethren of the South are compelled to resort to extreme remedies to enforce their rights of property in our territory. The mere privilege of transit of slaves would seem to follow from the general objects and nature of the federal government. It is a right fairly deducible from the act of Union itself; from the fact that slaves are made the basis of representation in Congress, have been sold on execution from the federal courts, and title given by federal officers. If they enter thus into the very structure of the government, what sense is there in regarding them, when they are conducted through our territory, in a light different from that which attaches to them in their own country? They are the creation of municipal laws; but their mere transit through free territory should not be construed as divesting them of the legal character which attaches to them under those laws. In any just sense-in the spirit of our Union-by the comities of our inter-State intercourse-by our common history and brotherhood-by the interests and honor of our people-by their trade and commerce-by their faith and friendship, the right of transit should be regarded as the right of hospitality: sacred and unsullied.


Citation for this page

New York Herald, "Threatened Civil War Between Virginia and Pennsylvania," January 31, 1856, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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