What happened when a slave fled his master and entered a free state or territory?
The Articles of Confederation of the New England Confederation of 1643 contained a provision calling for the return of fugitive slaves.
Article VI of the the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated “that any person escaping into the same [Territory], from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be 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.”
Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution contained a similar provision, which stated that “No Person held to Service or Labour 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 Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
In response to a conflict between Pennsylvania and Virginia, the U. S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law denied both current and former slaves constitutional rights. For instance, escaped slaves were not allowed jury trials or the right to present proof of their freedom in court. Assisting an escaped slave was now a federal crime.
Despite such laws and the emergence of a growing number of “slave catchers,” opponents of slavery continued to defy the peculiar institution. Abolitionist societies grew, the Underground Railroad became more sophisticated, and Northern states began passing Personal Liberty Laws. For example, Indiana and Connecticut passed laws that allowed jury trials for accused runaway slaves. New York and Vermont allowed jury trials and provided the accused with attorneys.
The United States Supreme Court entered the fray in 1842. Prigg v. Pennsylvania established the precedent that state authorities could not be forced to act in fugitive slave cases, but that national authorities must carry out national law. Free states such as Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island responded by passing laws forbidding state officials from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws.
Today marks the 157th anniversary of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act trumped the personal liberty laws throughout the North. Special commissioners had jurisdiction with the U.S. Circuit and District Courts, as well as courts in the territories. Marshals who refused to enforce the law were fined. Anyone who assisted a runaway slave was brought to justice as well.
Accused runaways were not allowed to testify on their own behalf and were also denied trial by jury. The marshal received $10 for every runaway he returned to slavery, while he received just $5 for every accused runaway that was declared free.
As a result, the number of abolitionists increased and with it the Underground Railroad. Northern states passed new Personal Liberty Laws. In 1859, the Wisconsin Supreme Court even declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.
Abraham Lincoln spoke about the Fugitive Slave Act. Though he did not think free state residents should be compelled to assist in returning runaway slaves, he did not think the law was unconstitutional, nor should it go unenforced. He understood that it was part of the compromise that kept the Union together. Both Lincoln and Douglas refer to the Fugitive Slave Act throughout the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
However, the issue did not go away. South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas each cited their frustration with Northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in their Declaration of Causes for Secession.