Current Events

The Fugitive Slave Act and Sanctuary Cities: An historical precedent for a modern practice

I’m reading through Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings and am continually struck by how relevant and fresh Douglass’s work feels to this day. Early on, the editor described a situation leading up to the writing of a letter by Douglass that reminded me of our modern discussion of sanctuary cities

Douglass sent a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, a major abolitionist figure, about the case of George Latimer, a fugitive slave. Latimer had been captured and a judge had refused the writ of habeas corpus to him, basically condemning him into slavery. But Bostonians went “wild with excitement” (see editorial note in the book cited above, p. 5) and raised enough money to purchase Latimer’s freedom. After this case, Bostonians rallied and got the state legislature to pass laws prohibiting state officials from assisting people trying to arrest fugitive slaves and also making other limits on state entities for cooperation with marshals and others attempting to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

One thing noticeable as one reads contemporary debates about the Fugitive Slave Act is how Southerners and those who supported slavery in the North did not go around calling for “states’ rights” at that point. Indeed, they were calling for the federal government to toss aside states’ preferences and laws in order to enforce slavery. It’s demonstrable that many states made this explicit in their articles of secession. This, in turn, shows the Civil War was manifestly about slavery.

But what does this have to do with sanctuary cities? Well, sanctuary cities are, once again, local and states’ rights being contrasted with the laws of the federal government. But time and again, you don’t see those groups who are calling for “states’ rights” standing up and crying out when the federal government attempts to impinge on states’ rights to make sanctuary cities. Nor do you see people complaining when the President tweets about how he wants to ban sanctuary cities or complains about his ban being blocked in the courts. 

Douglass wrote of Latimer: “Slavery, our enemy, has landed in our very midst, and commenced its bloody work. Just look at it; here is George Latimer a man–a brother–a husband–a father, stamped with the likeness of the eternal God, and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, out-lawed, hunted down like a wild beast, and ferociously dragged through the streets of Boston, and incarcerated within the walls of Leverett-st. jail… what crime had George Latimer committed? He had committed the crime of availing himself of his natural rights…” (6). 

Sanctuary cities seem to parallel this in so many ways, and as Christians our call for justice for those who are being given sanctuary ought to echo his. For the immigrant also has natural rights. One might protest and say–ah, but “illegal” immigration -is- a crime by the laws of the United States! But how much moreso could others have claimed that violation of the Fugitive Slave Act was a crime or that running away from slavery was criminal! Yet Douglass cuts through that rhetoric and points out the true nature of the crime: that people are attempting to exercise their natural rights as human beings. 

The immigrant is also stamped by the likeness of the eternal God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Sanctuary cities offer solace for these fellow image-bearers. Douglass’s words ring as true today as they did then.



About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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