Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during a meeting with President Trump at the White House on Feb. 22. Sessions’s claim that sanctuary cities are on the wrong side of history shows a misunderstanding of the politics of resistance in the Civil War era. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Judith Giesberg is professor of history at Villanova University, where she specializes in the Civil War era.

Standing last month beneath a likeness of Abraham Lincoln at the Union League — an institution that was key to Lincoln’s 1864 reelection — Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named after two men who raised arms against their country in response to Lincoln’s election, received the League’s Lincoln Award.

The irony of the moment was not lost on Sessions, who joked about his namesakes and assured the audience that, unlike Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who denied it until his dying days, the attorney general accepted that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Lincoln would have been relieved to hear it.

What came next, however, showed that Sessions’s grasp of history was as tenuous as that of many of his Trump administration peers. Claiming the mantle of Lincoln, Sessions compared today’s opposition to the administration’s immigration policies to 1860s proslavery secessionism, chastising sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia for being on the wrong side of history — and of the law.

“One hears activists and a few officials even talk of nullification and secession,” Sessions said of those extolling the virtues of sanctuary policies. “Let them come here to the Union League — or Gettysburg — if they’d like a legal and historical lesson on those subjects.”

The problem with Sessions’s analogy is that those driving sanctuary-city policies are the heirs to an entirely different states’ rights tradition — one based in the North that helped to topple slavery, thanks to its resistance to immoral laws. Viewed through this lens, the resistance to the administration’s immigration policies looks as if it might be on the right side of history, after all.

In endorsing the truth that slavery caused the Civil War, Sessions seemed to want to put distance between himself and Neo-Confederates who continue to insist that secessionists were standing up to federal power, that it wasn’t slavery for which Confederates fought but, rather, states’ rights. But when trying to understand the history behind local resistance to the administration’s deportation policies, the attorney general needed to go back further than 1860. He should have started with the 1854 case of Anthony Burns.

Thousands lined the streets of Boston to watch Burns, a fugitive slave in federal custody, led out of the city for deportation. Months earlier, activists had tried to free Burns but were beaten back. There were meetings and speeches, lawyers who stepped up to help and judges who were identified and consulted.

A portrait of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854. A bust portrait of the twenty-four-year-old Burns is surrounded by scenes from his life. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

But then the president stepped in, ordering out the Marines, and the activists’ strength in numbers collapsed under the threat of federal retaliation. Six years later, federal agents captured another fugitive, Moses Horner, in Philadelphia, and a crowd of activists tried to rescue him. Five of them wound up in jail for violating federal law.

Overall, historians estimate that more than 300 suspected fugitives were sent back to slavery under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Under the law, private citizens could be fined or jailed if they failed to assist marshals returning fugitives. Those who claimed the fugitive as their property did not have to have a warrant, and fugitives were not allowed to defend themselves in court. For the men and women sent back to slavery, or even those who lived in fear of being captured or kidnapped, the law was terrifying.

Both Burns and Horner were returned to slavery, but the highly public attempted rescues in Boston and Philadelphia forced witnesses to take sides, widening political divisions and hardening opinions. Even many who were not opposed to slavery felt as if they had witnessed an abuse of federal power.

Local resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act made it increasingly difficult to remain neutral about slavery. As attitudes hardened, the North lost the will to compromise. And in the South, resentment over Northern resistance to the fugitive slave law was a major cause of secession.

The primary source of Southern fury was personal liberty laws that President James Buchanan described as “palpable violations of constitutional duty.” South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession called out the 13 states that enacted these “laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.”

Like the rules of sanctuary cities, personal liberty laws sought to protect residents from capture and rendition by declaring locales off limits to agents of the federal government who sought to execute the Fugitive Slave Act. These state laws threatened to punish those who cooperated with the enforcement of the measure. Massachusetts’s law threatened to arrest and jail any state official who assisted in the rendition of a purported slave.

These personal liberty laws, which drew on a long Northern states’ rights tradition, fueled the political crisis that drove the United States to Civil War — something that sometimes is downplayed in our effort to establish that slavery, not states’ rights, caused the war. While the war was our greatest national trauma, it wiped out a deep moral stain, revealing in the process that, when confronted with a great injustice, states and localities can assert themselves and force a resolution that rights wrongs. The same thing is happening today.

This time last year, huge rallies were held in major cities to protest the rollout of President Trump’s new immigration policy. Since then, grass-roots activists have been working at a number of locales to prevent deportations. With Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections set to expire, activists are ready to spring into action to protect residents from deportation.

Where the showdown between local activists and federal officials will go down is anyone’s guess, but California seems a likely possibility.

Volunteers in San Diego operate as “solidarity teams,” warning communities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities. Like 19th-century Vigilance Committees, solidarity teams show up at raids and at times become human shields; volunteers record the events to share on social media, growing the numbers of people who witness them and who are then forced to take a side.

Californians are also registering their homes as safe houses. One report hinted that Los Angeles homeowners were remodeling homes to accommodate what activists expect to be a growing number of people threatened with deportation. And on Jan. 1, SB54, or the California Values Act, went into effect; much like a personal liberty law, the act forbids federal officials from enlisting local law enforcement in the business of rounding up and deporting immigrants.

Kevin de León (D), president pro-tem of the California Senate, provocatively likened the law to “a wall of justice” built by the state to protect residents from “President Trump’s xenophobic, racist and ignorant immigration policies.”

It remains to be seen whether Los Angeles, San Diego or some other sanctuary city will witness an event as big as Boston’s Anthony Burns case. But the standoff between federal officials and local human rights activists is already forcing people to take sides. The history of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act teaches us that, if these confrontations continue, they will leave few disinterested bystanders. Deportations that elicit resistance and become media events will confront Americans with the nagging sense that failure to act against evil is tantamount to complicity in it.

“Shall these men throw themselves across the track of the general government and be crushed by that monstrous juggernaut of organized villainy?” poet Francis Watkins Harper asked after witnessing Moses Horner be returned to slavery and as several men served time for attempting to rescue him, while “we sit silent, with our hands folded, in selfish inactivity?”

In moving to align themselves with local activists against the “organized villainy” of federal immigration policy, states and localities are leading the nation to a humane resolution to today’s immigration crisis.