Fugitive slave laws

Fugitive slave laws

The fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another or into a public territory.

Colonial era

The [http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/art1613.htm Articles of Confederation] of the New England Confederation of 1643 contained a clause that provided for the return of fugitive slaves. This seems to have been the only instance of an intercolonial provision for the return of fugitive slaves; there were frequent escapes by slaves from one colony to another, but it was not until after the growth of anti-slavery sentiment and the acquisition of western territory that some considered it necessary to adopt a uniform method for the return of fugitive slaves. These were found in the Ordinance of 1787, which in Article VI provided, "That any person escaping into the same (i.e. the Territory), 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."

The same process of compromise between free and slave states continued when the Federal government was established. It was written in the Fugitive Slave Clause at Article Four of the United States Constitution, Section 2, Clause 3, that, "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

1793 statute

The first specific legislation on the subject was enacted on February 12, 1793, and like the Ordinance for the Northwest Territory and Article Four of the Constitution, it did not contain the word slave; by its provisions any Federal district or circuit judge or any state magistrate was authorized to decide finally and without a jury trial the status of an alleged fugitive.

The measure soon met with strong opposition in the Northern states and Personal Liberty Laws were passed to hamper officials in the execution of the law; 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 of the United States 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 statute

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 was paid to the commissioner when his decision favored the claimant, only $5 when it favored the fugitive; and 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 a hefty sum of $10, today equivalent to a value of $257, 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). These Personal Liberty Laws forbade justices and judges to take cognizance of claims, extended the Habeas corpus act and the privilege of jury trial to fugitives, and punished false testimony severely. In 1859, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin went so far as to declare the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.

These state laws were one of the grievances that South Carolina used to justify their secession in the coming future. Attempts to carry into effect the law of 1850 aroused much bitterness. The arrests of Sims and of Shadrach 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.Fact|date=June 2007

Civil War-era legal status of fugitive slaves

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 contraband of war. A confiscation bill was passed in August 1861 discharging from his service or labor any slave employed in aiding or promoting any insurrection against the government of the United States. By an act of July 17, 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 repealed.


* [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=104468814 Stanley W. Campbell, "The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860" (1970)]
* Don E. Fehrenbacher, "The Slaveholding Republic : An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery" (2002)
* [http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=64471325 John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, "Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation" (1999)]

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