The slavery issue was a major part of states rights.
In the decades preceding the civil war the states rights issue hung over the nation like a sword. The doctrine held that certain rights and powers remained as part of the sovereignty of individual states and that the exercise of that sovereignty lay in the will of the states’ citizens. Through elected officials the citizenry bestowed certain powers to the federal government such as conducting diplomacy and declaring war. But the states had powers denied to the federal government.
In the antebellum years authority granted the federal government by the Constitution was held to be vague and differing opinions about that authority tended to be regionally held. Conflicting interpretations about slavery escalated into regional disputes.
Congress passed a fugitive slave act in 1793 as a means to protect Southern “property” rights concerning chattel slavery. As the Northern states abolished slavery they instituted personal liberty laws to safeguard free blacks and over time these laws made the 1793 act ineffective.
With the spread of Northern and Western antislavery sentiments, a new fugitive slave act became a critical part of the Compromise of 1850. It was the one concession to Southern states written into the legislation and a test of the North’s commitment to personal property rights. Under the act, Northern officials were responsible for returning fugitive slaves to their owners. Any person found guilty of assisting a fugitive slave was subject to six months imprisonment and a $1000 fine (at this time a skilled workman like a blacksmith or carpenter made a wage of about $1 per day) plus, if the slave had not been recaptured, reimbursement of the market value of the slave. The act denied fugitives a jury trial or habeas corpus protection. Many Northerners regarded the act as a flagrant violation of fundamental personal rights and Northern state legislatures passed new personal liberty laws which weakened the 1850 fugitive slave act.
Although politicians had expected the fugitive slave act to relieve regional tensions, they soon saw that it had become a propaganda tool for abolitionists, who deliberately violated the act. In the decade before the civil war fugitives who made it to the North were rarely returned to their masters. The act sharpened the rift between North and South. More than anything, it grew into a symbol of determined resistance for both pro- and anti-slavery factions and became one of the key issues leading to irreconcilable disunion in 1861.