Rethinking Ableman v. Booth and States' Rights in Wisconsin

40 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2010 Last revised: 31 Aug 2017

See all articles by Jeffrey M. Schmitt

Jeffrey M. Schmitt

University of Dayton - School of Law

Date Written: September 1, 2007


Ableman v. Booth occupies a significant place in constitutional history for upholding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and presenting the antebellum Supreme Court’s theory of federalism. This Note presents a new interpretation of the states’ rights movement in Wisconsin that necessitated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ableman and argues that, viewed in this historical context, the decision was a complete failure. When a fugitive slave was captured in Milwaukee, Wisconsonites wished to reject the principles of the Fugitive Slave Act in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act but were not yet willing to violate the law. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin enabled social change by providing the people with states’ rights as a legal basis to reject the Fugitive Slave Act. Federal attempts to vindicate the Fugitive Slave Act, culminating in Ableman, created a backlash that transformed states’ rights into a popular movement. Party politics exacerbated this backlash, as Republicans opportunistically used states’ rights against the more moderate Democrats. As a result, states’ rights controlled every major election in Wisconsin and nearly precipitated a civil war. Moreover, Ableman nearly pushed other states to use states’ rights to challenge the federal government, as national antislavery leaders hoped to use the theory for their own goals. Conflict was averted only because the theory became inconvenient for Republicans in the 1860 presidential election, not because of federal coercion resulting from Ableman.

Keywords: Ableman v. Booth, Fugitive Slave Act, In re Booth

Suggested Citation

Schmitt, Jeffrey M., Rethinking Ableman v. Booth and States' Rights in Wisconsin (September 1, 2007). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 5, p. 1315, September 2007, Available at SSRN:

Jeffrey M. Schmitt (Contact Author)

University of Dayton - School of Law ( email )

300 College Park
Dayton, OH 45469
United States

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