Fugitive slave laws in the United States

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The fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of enslaved people who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The idea of the fugitive slave law was derived from the Fugitive Slave Clause which is in the United States Constitution (Article IV, Section 2, Paragraph 3). It was thought that forcing states to deliver fugitive slaves back to enslavement violated states' rights due to state sovereignty and was believed that seizing state property should not be left up to the states. The Fugitive Slave Clause states that fugitive slaves "shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due", which abridged state rights because forcing people back into slavery was a form of retrieving private property. [1] The Compromise of 1850 entailed a series of laws that allowed slavery in the new territories and forced officials in free states to give a hearing to slave-owners who slaves without a jury. [2]


Pre-colonial and colonial eras

Enslavement in the 13 colonies, 1770. Numbers show actual and estimated slave population by colony. Colors show the slave population as a percentage of each colony's total population. Boundaries shown are based on 1860 state boundaries, not those of 1770 colonies. Slavery in the 13 colonies.jpg
Enslavement in the 13 colonies, 1770. Numbers show actual and estimated slave population by colony. Colors show the slave population as a percentage of each colony's total population. Boundaries shown are based on 1860 state boundaries, not those of 1770 colonies.

The New England Articles of Confederation of 1643 contained a clause that provided for the forced re-enslavement of free blacks. However, this only referred to the confederation of colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, and was unrelated to the Articles of Confederation of the United States formed after the Declaration of Independence. Both Africans and Native Americans were enslaved in New England beginning in the 18th century. [4] The Articles for the New England Confederation provided for the forced re-enslavement of free people in Section 8:

It is also agreed that if any servant ran away from his master into any other of these confederated Jurisdictions, that in such case, upon the certificate of one magistrate in the Jurisdiction out of which the said servant fled, or upon other due proof; the said servant shall be delivered, either to his master, or any other that pursues and brings such certificate or proof. [5]

As the colonies expanded with waves of settlers pushing eastward, slavery went along with them, prompting further legislation of a similar nature. [6] Serious attempts at formulating a uniform policy for the forced re-enslavement of free people began under the Articles of Confederation of the United States in 1785. [7]

1785 attempt

There were two attempts at implementing a fugitive slave law in the Congress of the Confederation in order to provide slave-owners who enslaved free people with a way of forcing enslavement on free people.

The Ordinance of 1784 was drafted by a Congressional committee headed by Thomas Jefferson, and its provisions applied to all United States territory west of the original 13 states. The original version was read to Congress on March 1, 1784, and it contained a clause stating: [8]

That after the year 1800 of the Christian Era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty.

Rufus King's failed resolution to re-implement the slavery prohibition in the Ordinance of 1784. Resolution.1785.prohibit.slavery.Ordinance.of.1784.jpg
Rufus King's failed resolution to re-implement the slavery prohibition in the Ordinance of 1784.

This was removed prior to final enactment of the ordinance on 23 April 1784. However, the issue did not die there, and on 6 April 1785 Rufus King introduced a resolution to re-implement the slavery prohibition in the 1784 ordinance, containing a freedom seeker provision in the hope that this would reduce opposition to the objective of the resolution. The resolution contained the phrase: [9]

Provided always, that upon the escape of any person into any of the states described in the said resolve of Congress of the 23d day of April, 1784, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the thirteen original states, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and carried back to the person claiming his labor or service as aforesaid, this resolve notwithstanding.

The unsuccessful resolution was the first attempt to include a freedom seeker provision in U.S. legislation.

While the original 1784 ordinance applied to all U.S. territory that was not a part of any existing state (and thus, to all future states), the 1787 ordinance applied only to the Northwest Territory.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Congress made a further attempt to address the concerns of people who wanted to enslave free people in 1787 by passing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. [10] The law appeared to outlaw enslavement, which would have reduced the votes of enslaving states in Congress, but southern representatives were concerned with economic competition from potential holders of enslaved people in the new territory, and the effects that would have on the prices of staple crops such as tobacco. They correctly predicted that enslavement would be permitted south of the Ohio River under the Southwest Ordinance of 1790, and therefore did not view this as a threat to enslavement. [11] In terms of the actual law, it did not ban enslavement in practice, and it continued almost until the start of the Civil War. [12]

King's phrasing from the 1785 attempt was incorporated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 when it was enacted on 13 July 1787. [8] Article 6 has the provision for freedom seekers:

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid. [13]

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

When Congress created "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters", or more commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Act, they were responding to slave owners' need to protect their property rights, as written into the 1787 Constitution. Article IV of the Constitution required the federal government to go after runaway slaves. [14] The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was the mechanism by which the government did that, and it was only at this point the government could pursue runaway slaves in any state or territory, and ensure slave owners of their property rights. [15]

Section 3 is the part that deals with fugitive or runaway slaves, and reads in part:

SEC. 3. ... That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or of the Territories on the Northwest or South of the river Ohio ... shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due ... is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor ... and upon proof ... before any Judge ... it shall be the duty of such Judge ... [to remove] the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.

Section 4 makes assisting runaways and fugitives a crime and outlines the punishment for those who assisted runaway slaves:

SEC. 4. ... That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant ... shall ... forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. [16]

In the early 19th century, personal liberty laws were passed to hamper officials in the execution of the law, but this was mostly after the abolition of the Slave Trade, as there had been very little support for abolition prior; Indiana in 1824 and Connecticut in 1828 provided jury trial for fugitives who appealed from an original decision against them. In 1840, New York and Vermont extended the right of trial by jury to fugitives and provided them with attorneys. As early as the first decade of the 19th century, individual dissatisfaction with the law of 1793 had taken the form of systematic assistance rendered to African Americans escaping from the South to Canada or New England: the so-called Underground Railroad.

The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842 (16 Peters 539)—that state authorities could not be forced to act in fugitive slave cases, but that national authorities must carry out the national law—was followed by legislation in Massachusetts (1843), Vermont (1843), Pennsylvania (1847) and Rhode Island (1848), forbidding state officials from aiding in enforcing the law and refusing the use of state jails for fugitive slaves.

1850 Fugitive Slave Act

Massachusetts had abolished slavery in 1783, but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required government officials to assist slavecatchers in capturing fugitives within the state. Slave kidnap post 1851 boston.jpg
Massachusetts had abolished slavery in 1783, but the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required government officials to assist slavecatchers in capturing fugitives within the state.

The demand from the South for more effective Federal legislation was voiced in the second fugitive slave law, drafted by Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia, grandson of George Mason, and enacted on September 18, 1850, as a part of the Compromise of 1850. Special commissioners were to have concurrent jurisdiction with the U.S. circuit and district courts and the inferior courts of territories in enforcing the law; fugitives could not testify in their own behalf; no trial by jury was provided.

Penalties were imposed upon marshals who refused to enforce the law or from whom a fugitive should escape, and upon individuals who aided black people to escape; the marshal might raise a posse comitatus ; a fee of $10 ($311 in today's dollars) [17] was paid to the commissioner when his decision favored the claimant, only $5 ($156 in today's dollars) [17] when it favored the fugitive. The supposed justification for the disparity in compensation was that, if the decision were in favor of the claimant, additional effort on the part of the commissioner would be required in order to fill out the paperwork actually remanding the slave back to the South. [18] Both the fact of the escape and the identity of the fugitive were determined on purely ex parte testimony. If a slave was brought in and returned to the master, the person who brought in the slave would receive the sum of $10 ($311 in today's dollars) [17] per slave.

The severity of this measure led to gross abuses and defeated its purpose; the number of abolitionists increased, the operations of the Underground Railroad became more efficient, and new personal liberty laws were enacted in Vermont (1850), Connecticut (1854), Rhode Island (1854), Massachusetts (1855), Michigan (1855), Maine (1855 and 1857), Kansas (1858) and Wisconsin (1858). The personal liberty laws forbade justices and judges to take cognizance of claims, extended habeas corpus and the privilege of jury trial to fugitives, and punished false testimony severely. In 1854, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin went so far as to declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. [19]

These state laws were one of the grievances that South Carolina would later use to justify its secession from the Union. Attempts to carry into effect the law of 1850 aroused much bitterness.[ citation needed ] The arrests of Thomas Sims and of Shadrach Minkins in Boston in 1851; of Jerry M. Henry, in Syracuse, New York, in the same year; of Anthony Burns in 1854, in Boston; and of the two Garner families in 1856, in Cincinnati, with other cases arising under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, probably had as much to do with bringing on the Civil War as did the controversy over slavery in the Territories.[ citation needed ]

A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862) by Eastman Johnson Brooklyn Museum A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves (recto) Eastman Johnson.jpg
A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862) by Eastman Johnson Brooklyn Museum

With the beginning of the Civil War, the legal status of the slave was changed by his masters being in arms. Benjamin Franklin Butler, in May 1861, declared black slaves are contraband of war. The Confiscation Act of 1861 was passed in August 1861, and discharged from service or labor any slave employed in aiding or promoting any insurrection against the government of the United States.

By the congressional Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves of March 13, 1862, any slave of a disloyal master who was in territory occupied by Northern troops was declared ipso facto free. But for some time the Fugitive Slave Law was considered still to hold in the case of fugitives from masters in the border states who were loyal to the Union government, and it was not until June 28, 1864, that the Act of 1850 was fully repealed. [20]

See also


  1. Baker, Robert (2014). "A Better Story in Prigg v. Pennsylvania?". Journal of Supreme Court History 39: 171.
  2. Finkelman, Paul (2012). "State Rights, Southern hypocrisy, and the crisis of the Union". Akron Law Review: 453.
  3. New York and New Hampshire claimed what was to become Vermont. Kentucky was a county of Virginia. Tennessee was a county of North Carolina. Even less neatly, delegates attended the colonial Virginia House of Burgesses from north of the Ohio River in what would later be Ohio and Illinois.
  4. Rausch, David A.; Schlepp, Blair (1994). Native American Voices. VNR AG. ISBN   978-0801077739.
  5. "Avalon Project - the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England; May 19, 1643".
  6. Jackson, L. P. (1924). "Elizabethan Seamen and the African Slave Trade". The Journal of Negro History. 9 (1): 1–17. doi:10.2307/2713432. JSTOR   2713432. S2CID   150232893.
  7. Bernstein, R.B. (1999). "Parliamentary Principles, American Realities: The Continental and Confederation Congresses, 1774–1789". In Bowling, Kenneth R. & Kennon, Donald R. (eds.). Inventing Congress: Origins & Establishment Of First Federal Congress. pp. 76–108.
  8. 1 2 Merriam 1888 :308–310, Leg. Hist. Ord. of 1787.
  9. Merriam 1888 :314, Leg. Hist. Ord. of 1787
  10. "Avalon Project - Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787". avalon.law.yale.edu. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  11. Pohlmann, Marcus D.; Whisenhunt, Linda Vallar (2002). Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Civil Rights . Greenwood Publishing Group. p.  14. doi:10.1336/0313313857. ISBN   0-313-31385-7. northwest ordinance tobacco .
  12. "Evading the Ordinance: The Persistence of Bondage in Indiana and Illinois", Paul Finkelman, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1989), pp. 21.
  13. "Avalon Project - Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787". avalon.law.yale.edu. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  14. "Article IV". LII / Legal Information Institute. 2009-11-12. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  15. Pohlmann, Marcus; Linda Whisenhunt (2002). Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Civil Rights . Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. p.  22. ISBN   0-313-31385-7.
  16. "Redirection of: The President's House". www.ushistory.org. Archived from the original on 2009-09-23. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  17. 1 2 3 1634 to 1699: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy ofthe United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700-1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How much is that in real money?: a historical price index for use as a deflator of money values in the economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–" . Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  18. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era , p. 80 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003 paper edn.)
  19. Wisconsin Supreme Court (1855). Unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. Milwaukee.
  20. 12 Stat. 200, c.166.

Related Research Articles

Underground Railroad Network for fugitive slaves in 19th-century U.S.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. One estimate suggests that, by 1850, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.

Compromise of 1850 American political compromise

The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress in September 1850 that defused a political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired in the Mexican–American War. It also set Texas's western and northern borders and included provisions addressing fugitive slaves and the slave trade. The compromise was brokered by Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas, with the support of President Millard Fillmore.

Northwest Ordinance American legislation creating Northwest Territory

The Northwest Ordinance enacted July 13, 1787, was an organic act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States. It created the Northwest Territory, the new nation's first organized incorporated territory, from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British North America and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the territory's western boundary. Pennsylvania was the eastern boundary.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Act of the United States Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern interests in slavery and Northern Free-Soilers.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was adopted by the United States Congress of the Confederation on May 20, 1785. It set up a standardized system whereby settlers could purchase title to farmland in the undeveloped west. Congress at the time did not have the power to raise revenue by direct taxation, so land sales provided an important revenue stream. The Ordinance set up a survey system that eventually covered over 3/4 of the area of the continental United States.

Slave states and free states Division of United States states in which slavery was either legal or illegal

In the United States before 1865, a slave state was a state in which slavery and the slave trade were legal, while a free state was one in which they were not. Between 1812 and 1850, it was considered by the slave states to be politically imperative that the number of free states not exceed the number of slave states, so new states were admitted in slave–free pairs. There were, nonetheless, some slaves in most free states up to the 1840 census, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 specifically stated that a slave did not become free by entering a free state.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an Act of the United States Congress to give effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the US Constitution, which was later superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment. The former guaranteed a right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Act, "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

Fugitive slaves in the United States

In the United States, fugitive slaves or runaway slaves were terms used in the 18th and 19th century to describe enslaved people who fled slavery. The term also refers to the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Such people are also called freedom seekers to avoid implying that the enslaved person had committed a crime and that the slaveholder was the injured party.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the court held that the federal Fugitive Slave Act (1793) precluded a Pennsylvania state law that prohibited blacks from being taken out of the free state of Pennsylvania into slavery. The Court overturned the conviction of slavecatcher Edward Prigg as a result.

Free Negro Not enslaved African Americans

In the British colonies in North America and in the United States before the abolition of slavery in 1865, free Negro or free Black described the legal status of African Americans who were not enslaved. The term was applied both to formerly enslaved people (freedmen) and to those who had been born free.

Confiscation Act of 1862

The Confiscation Act of 1862, or Second Confiscation Act, was a law passed by the United States Congress during the American Civil War. Section 11 of the act formed the legal basis for President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Slave catcher People who tracked down slaves in the United States

In the United States a slave catcher was a person employed to track down and return escaped slaves to their enslavers. The first slave catchers in the Americas were active in European colonies in the West Indies during the sixteenth century. In colonial Virginia and Carolina, slave catchers were recruited by Southern planters beginning in the eighteenth century to return fugitive slaves; the concept quickly spread to the rest of the Thirteen Colonies. After the establishment of the United States, slave catchers continued to be employed in addition to being active in other countries which had not abolished slavery, such as Brazil. The activities of slave catchers from the American South became at the center of a major controversy in the lead up to the American Civil War; the Fugitive Slave Act required those living in the Northern United States to assist slave catchers. Slave catchers in the United States ceased to be active with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

History of slavery in Indiana Aspect of history surrounding slavery in Indiana

Slavery in Indiana occurred between the time of French rule during the late seventeenth century and 1826, with a few traces of slavery afterward. When the United States first forcibly removed the Native Americans from the region, slavery was accepted as a necessity to keep peace with the Indians and the French. When the Indiana Territory was established in 1800, William Henry Harrison, a former slaveholder, was appointed governor and slavery continued to be tolerated through a series of laws enacted by the appointed legislature.

The Fugitive Slave Clause in the United States Constitution of 1789, also known as either the Slave Clause or the Fugitives From Labor Clause, is Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, which requires a "person held to service or labor" who flees to another state to be returned to their master in the state from which that person escaped. The enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery except as a punishment for criminal acts, has made the clause mostly irrelevant.

The Ordinance of 1784 called for the land in the recently created United States of America west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River to be divided onto separate states.

Underground Railroad in Indiana

The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger, unofficial, and loosely-connected network of groups and individuals who aided and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the southern United States. The network in Indiana gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, reached its peak during the 1850s, and continued until slavery was abolished throughout the United States at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is not known how many fugitive slaves escaped through Indiana on their journey to Michigan and Canada. An unknown number of Indiana's abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, and people of color, as well as Quakers and other religious groups illegally operated stations along the network. Some of the network's operatives have been identified, including Levi Coffin, the best-known of Indiana's Underground Railroad leaders. In addition to shelter, network agents provided food, guidance, and, in some cases, transportation to aid the runaways.

Admission to the Union Process of states joining the United States

The Admission to the Union Clause of the United States Constitution, also called the New States Clause, found at Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, authorizes the U.S. Congress to admit new states into the Union. The Constitution went into effect on June 21, 1788 in the nine states that had ratified it, and the federal government began operations under it on March 4, 1789. Since then, 37 states have been admitted into the Union. Each new state has been admitted on an equal footing with those already in existence.

Slavery has been forbidden in the state of Minnesota since that state's admission to the Union in 1858. The second section of the first Article of the state's constitution, drafted in 1857, provides that:

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude from the State otherwise there is the punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

Winny v. Whitesides alias Prewitt was the first freedom suit heard by the Supreme Court of Missouri. The case established the state's judicial criteria for an enslaved person's right to freedom. The court determined that if a slave owner took a slave into free territory and established residence there, the slave would be free. The slave remained free even if returned to slave territory, engendering the phrase "once free, always free."



Further reading