Albany Law Professor Addresses Underground Railroad Law

To honor the underground railroad is to celebrate lawbreakers.

That is what Paul Finkelman, professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School, said to those attending the spring continuing legal education seminar at the Robert H. Jackson Center, 305 E. Fourth St., Jamestown. On Tuesday, Finkelman was the keynote speaker for Underground Railroad: Law and Legacy. Finkelman said because of the first federal fugitive slave law in 1793, it was illegal for people to help escaped slaves, even in the North.

”People were helping people in violation of public law,” he said.

Finkelman said the fugitive slave law led to kidnapping in the North because slave masters just had to find someone who looked similar to the slave who ran away. At the time, there were no photos or fingerprints to identify someone. Identification was just an age, weight and height description. Because of this, a slave master would just find a lesser known African-American living in a northern city or town who fit the description of the runaway slave and said they were their property. The kidnapping of free African-Americans in the North led to states passing personal liberty laws to prevent free people from being taken to the South to be slaves.

”If you’re going to remove a slave you had to have proof, real proof,” Finkelman said.

After several different law cases, the Supreme Court ruled the federal Fugitive Slave Act supersedes any laws passed by states. In 1850, there was a new Fugitive Slave Act passed that led to federal law enforcement in each state and in larger cities to rule on fugitive slave law cases. This added enforcement led to chaos in the North, Finkelman said.

”The fugitive slave law is one embarrassment after another for the federal administration,” he said.

Finkelman said in 1854 the state of Wisconsin became the first to say the federal law was unconstitutional. When the case reached the Supreme Court to be reviewed, the decision by Wisconsin lawmakers was stalled because they refused to open any mail from the higher court. However, after four years, Wisconsin officials published information from their case when they ruled the federal fugitive slave law was unconstitutional. This misstep allowed the Supreme Court to finally have the information they needed to rule against Wisconsin lawmakers.

Finkelman is a specialist in American legal history, constitutional law, race relations and the law and the First Amendment. An author of more than 150 scholarly articles and 30 books, his work has been cited by the United States Supreme Court and in many appellate briefs.

Finkelman received his bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Syracuse University in 1971 and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Chicago in 1972 and 1976, respectively. He was a fellow in law and humanities at Harvard Law School in 1982-83. He is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy and a senior fellow in the Government Law Center at Albany Law School.