Document Type

Article

Publication Date

11-27-2021

Abstract

After the election of 2016, many who opposed President Trump and his policies argued that local governments and local power would be the best tools to resist those policies and strengthen democracy. Among the most prominent acts of local resistance in the last decade have been resolutions that declare a town or a city a “Sanctuary” and refuse to cooperate with federal authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. This Article situates these resolutions in a long tradition of local opposition to state and federal laws that towns and cities deem unjust by examining local opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Drawing on original archival research, this Article exposes striking similarities between contemporary tactics of local resistance and the tactics of local governments in 1850–1851 that passed formal resolutions opposing the Fugitive Slave Law. This examination of how local governments responded to the Fugitive Slave Law poses two broad questions: what did local governments think they were doing when they passed these resolutions? And how much power did local governments really have to achieve those goals? The answers to these questions are complex and context specific. The local struggles that resulted in these resolutions were part of an ongoing political struggle against the seemingly intractable problem of slavery. The local resistance chronicled here is exceptional neither in its heroism nor its effectiveness. Rather it is striking in its familiar messiness and ambition. In some cases, towns seemed to have modest expressive goals that could be met by their resolutions. In other cases, the towns’ resolutions seem to suggest a much broader set of substantive goals that were beyond the power or capacity of the town to achieve. Examining these responses to the Fugitive Slave Law offers a new analytical perspective on local responses to the deportation crisis. Examining what local governments think they are doing when they pass sanctuary ordinances and comparing that with what they are empowered or willing to do helps us think more clearly about how and by what means local governments can resist national policies and engage in broad political struggles.

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