Key Facts & Summary:
- The Fugitive Slave Laws were among the most controversial laws of the 19th Century America.
- The first fugitive slave Act was passed by Congress in 1793 that permitted local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owner.
- The Second fugitive slave law was enacted in 1850 and provided for more stricter measures against runaway slaves
Laws regarding slave refugees were as early as slavery itself. In 1643, the New England Confederation enacted several rules that were sought to prevent runaway slaves from fleeing to Canada. Virginia and Maryland specifically had bounties laws for slave escapees.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts had abolished slavery. Southern states were therefore apprehensive that these states where slavery was abolished would become safe havens for runaway slaves. They, thus, ensured a constitutional fugitive slave clause that guaranteed “no person held to service or labour” would be released from bondage by escaping to free states.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
Antislavery sentiment in the US was very high, even in the face of its inclusion in the US Constitution and many Northerners petitioned Congress to abolish the practice in the 1780s to ‘90s.
However, Congress, bowing to pressure from the Southerners passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1973 which strengthened the constitutional fugitive slave clause. The Act provided that slave owners and their “agents” who were brokers had the right to search for runaway slaves within the borders of free states.
Once captured, owners were required to present slaves before a judge and prove that the person was their property. Once satisfied, the law allowed that owner would be entitled to take the slave home. The Act also penalised persons aiding slave refugees to a penalty of $ 500.
The Act was highly criticised by the northern states, noting that the Act turned the states into “stalking ground for bounty hunters” and many thought that the law legalised the kidnapping of blacks as an affidavit from a white person was sufficient evidence of ownership. There were instances in which slave-catchers caught free slaves and brought them to the south. This prompted the northern states to pass the Personal Liberty Laws that provided for the right to a trial by jury for accused free slaves.
In 1842, the Personal Liberty Laws were challenged in the US Supreme Court in the case of Prigg vs Pennsylvania. Edward Prigg was convicted of kidnapping after capturing a suspected slave in Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Prigg, thus setting the precedent that the federal Fugitive Slave Law superseded state measures countering the Act.
However, through the underground railroad, about 50,000 and 100,000 thousand of slaves escaped the south to the northern free states with some never managing to evade capture and re-enslavement. The south, therefore, sought measures to strengthen the law to curtail slaves from running away and provide mechanisms for the arrest and re-enslavement if they managed.
Harriet Tubman was among the celebrated heroes of the underground railroad network. She was born a slave in Maryland in 1822, she lived under very harsh conditions as a slave, but found consolation in Christianity and escaped in the late 1840s. She returned to the south to help her family, friends and other slave escape through the underground railroad.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Therefore, there was intense lobbying for stricter Fugitive Slave Act, and in 1850, Congress revised the Act as part of the Compromise of 1850.
The new Act compelled white citizens to capture and return runaway slaves and further denied slaves the right to trial by jury. It also increased the penalty for interfering with powers of a slaveowner to $1,000 and six-months imprisonment.
The law caused the abolitionists’ movement to increase the fervour of their campaigns and further, the number of slaves escaping through the underground network was the highest during the law.