Millard Fillmore signed James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act into law on September 18, 1850. Slave catchers from Georgia reached Boston in search of the Crafts on October 25. The Boston abolitionists chased them out of town and packed the Crafts off to England. On February 15, 1851, federal marshals seized Shadrach Minkins and the local abolitionists stormed the courthouse to take him back and spirit him off to Canada. He arrived there on the seventeenth or eighteenth.
Fillmore did not take that flouting of the law laying down. On the eighteenth he issued a proclamation
calling on all well-disposed Citizens, to rally to the support of the Laws of their Country, and requiring and commanding all officers, civil and military, and all other persons, civil or military, who shall be found within the vicinity of this outrage, to be aiding and assisting, by all means in their power, in quelling this, and other such combinations, and assisting the Marshal and his Deputies in recapturing the above mentioned prisoner; and I do, especially, direct, that prosecutions be commenced against all persons who shall have made themselves aiders or abettors in or to this flagitious offence; and I do further command, that the District Attorney of the United States [George Lunt], and all other persons concerned in the administration or execution of the Laws of the United States, cause the foregoing offenders, and all such as aided, abetted, or assisted them, or shall be found to have harbored or concealed such fugitive, contrary to law, to be immediately arrested and proceeded with according to law.
Daniel Webster, disgraced in Massachusetts but now Fillmore’s Secretary of State weighed in on the 20th. After some hagiography about Washington on the occasion of his birthday, Webster wrote that:
We have recently been informed, Gentlemen, of an open act of resistance to law, in the city of Boston; and if the accounts be correct of the circumstances of this occurrence, it is, strictly speaking, a case of treason. If men combine and confederate together, and by force of arms or force of numbers effectually resist the operation of an act of Congress, in its application to a particular individual, with the avowed purpose of making the same resistance to the same act in its application to all other individuals, this is levying war against the United States, and is nothing less than treason.
Setting aside for the moment that the act of Congress in question was the Fugitive Slave Law, I have trouble disagreeing. Trying to overthrow national laws by main force sounds like the acme treason.The Boston abolitionists did not state sit-ins or non-violent protests. They literally stormed the courthouse.
For their treason or, to use Calhoun’s idiom, their nullification, eight people, four black and four white, received indictments. Boston juries refused to convict them to the delight of the abolitionist press and the outrage of Southerners and northern conservatives.