Oakes, Napolitano, and Lincoln’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act


Phillip W. Magness
philmagness.com
March 25, 2014

A little over a week ago I strongly criticized Judge Andrew Napolitano’s recent appearance on the Daily Show for his slipshod handling of Civil War history and for a couple of factual errors in his presentation about the Morrill Tariff. I was not the only critic, and others also seized upon Napolitano’s claim that Lincoln enforced the Fugitive Slave Act in “the South.”

This strikes me as more of an issue of inexact wording – “the South” and the CSA are usually used interchangeably in the context of Civil War discussions, although technically Lincoln did enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the southern border states and the District of Columbia. In the larger scheme of things it was a minor point relative to the tariff, which is why I did not pursue it, though on that narrow sense Napolitano was in fact right.

James Oakes – one of Stewart’s panelists on the same segment – has continued to press the issue though in an article that appeared today on HNN. The relevant passage appears as follows:

“Perhaps I misunderstood Judge Napolitano’s point.  When he insisted that he was talking specifically about Lincoln, that Lincoln “enforced” the Fugitive Slave Act, that he “used” federal marshals to enforce the law—I somehow thought Napolitano was suggesting that Lincoln personally ordered marshals to return fugitives—which Lincoln never did.”

Now Oakes is normally a thoughtful historian, even as I disagree with some of his interpretations on how aggressively and when Lincoln pressed his emancipation policy. But on this point of fact he is simply wrong. While Lincoln could hardly be described as a “slave hound” like some of his predecessors in the White House, he did in fact directly support the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act in at least one notable instance.

Lincoln’s appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia was Ward Hill Lamon, a close personal friend from Illinois who briefly served as his junior law partner. Lamon’s job allowed him to double as Lincoln’s informal bodyguard and to carry out various personal and political tasks for the president throughout the war. In this sense he was something of a political consigliere to Lincoln, which is also the reason Lincoln gave him a position that kept him nearby.

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