Don Pesci: Of 'sanctuary cities' and the Fugitive Slave Act

Sanctuary, when practiced by governors rather than churches, is nullification, a common practice infamously deployed by the Southern states during and after the Civil War.

Henry David Thoreau, author of “Slavery in Massachusetts,’’ was what might be called a-party-of-one nullifier. Thoreau famously refused to pay a tax that might have been traced, even indirectly, to the purchase of a bullet used by slave owners to recover the “property” they had lost after the infamous Fugitive Slave Act had been passed. That law lit the bonfire of resistance among abolitionists in Massachusetts. Thoreau no doubt would have encouraged those in his audience who heard his address – for reasons unknown, seldom circulated in schools – to do the same, but the monk of Walden Pond knew the limits of audacity. Refusing to pay a tax, he went to jail himself, as ever a party of one.

The Fugitive Slave Act was for Thoreau an offense to the moral sense, and he was particularly incensed with the churchmen and journalists of his day who did not condemn a law that forced honest citizens to return self-liberated slaves to their owners. His fiery comments on the media of his day were far more severe than those of a petulant Donald Trump.

The reader is invited to speak the words aloud as they were delivered; he will then hear the notes Christian morality adds to defiance:

“Your tax is commonly one cent daily, and it costs nothing for pew hire. But how many of these preachers preach the truth? I repeat the testimony of many an intelligent foreigner, as well as my own convictions, when I say, that probably no country was ever ruled by so mean a class of tyrants as, with a few noble exceptions, are the editors of the periodical press in this country. And as they live and rule only by their servility, and appealing to the worse, and not the better, nature of man, the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit.

“The Liberator and the Commonwealth were the only papers in Boston, as far as I know, which made themselves heard in condemnation of the cowardice and meanness of the authorities of that city, as exhibited in '51. The other journals, almost without exception, by their manner of referring to and speaking of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the carrying back of the slave Sims, insulted the common sense of the country, at least.”


What should we do when we meet a law so morally offensive it begs to be defied? The brief answer is -- disobey the law and go to jail.

However, once defiance of the law is taken up by governors, the moral calculus on sanctuary cities changes. One cannot listen long to Governors Mario Cuomo (of New York) and Dannel Malloy (of Connecticut) without realizing that – possibly for political reasons – they seem incapable of making work-a-day distinctions between legal and illegal immigration. Mr. Cuomo speaks as if Jean Jacques – an illegal alien sentenced to 17 years in a Connecticut prison for attempted murder -- were his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who likely was legally processed at Ellis Island in New York.

On release from prison, Mr. Jacques, a convicted criminal illegal alien, was supposed to have been deported to Haiti by The U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). That never happened. Released from prison, Mr. Jacques murdered Casey Chadwick in Norwich, Conn., stabbing her 17 times and disposing of her brutalized body in a closet. Mr. Jacques was an illegal alien and a criminal, and he had precisely nothing in common with Mr. Cuomo’s grandfather, a legally processed immigrant.

ICE is authorized to enforce immigration law – but not in Connecticut’s sanctuary cities, whose chief executive officers defy federal law and ICE’s Congress approved mandate. When this defiance of law is sanctioned by governors, the umbrella of sanctuary is raised over the whole state. Would Mr. Malloy, a supporter of sanctuary cities in his state, cooperate aggressively with a federal action to prosecute mayors in his state who defy federal law?

Legal immigrants are not illegal immigrants, and illegal immigrants who have additionally committed illegal acts while in the United States illegally fall into a separate category that should not be welcomed in sanctuary states like Connecticut. These distinctions should not be lost on mayors and governors who have determined – for political rather than moral reasons – to engage in precisely the kind of nullification practiced by Jim Crow Democrats in the post-Civil War South for political rather than moral reasons. There is no direct moral umbilical cord connecting ICE’s failure to deport Mr. Jacques and Mr. Cuomo’s grandfather or Mr. Malloy’s defense of governmental sanctuary for illegal-alien criminals.

Don Pesci ( is an essayist, mostly on political and cultural matters, who lives in Vernon, Conn.