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Fugitive Slave Acts (1793, 1850)

Fugitive Slave Acts (1793, 1850)

Arthur G. LeFrancois

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the issue of slavery had caused a deep division between North and South. Slavery was an important part of the Southern way of life, and slave labor was a significant aspect of the Southern states' economy. Northerners opposed slavery yet were concerned that the political, economic, and ideological conflict with the South over slavery could threaten a civil war between the two sides.

The conflict intensified over the issue of fugitive, or escaped, slaves. Because slaves were treated as property in the South, slave owners felt it was their right to seek out and recapture slaves who had escaped to free Northern states. Northerners tended to view this practice as kidnapping. Many wondered if officials in the free states had a duty not to interfere with the slave owner or in fact had the power to declare the slave a free person. Article 4, section 2 of the Constitution stated that slaves who escaped to free states had to be surrendered to their owners upon demand. But although the Constitution recognized the institution of slavery and the rights of slave owners, it was still unclear just what the law required of the people and officials in free states in regard to the matter of fugitive slaves. In other words, enforcement of the Constitution on this matter was a gray area decades before the Civil War.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (1 Stat. 302) was an effort to provide a means to enforce the constitutional clause concerning escaped slaves. The act allowed a slave owner to seize an escaped slave, present the slave before a federal or local judge, and, upon proof of ownership, receive a certificate authorizing the slave to be retaken. It also established a penalty of 500 dollars for obstructing an owner's efforts to retake a slave, or for rescuing, harboring, or concealing a fugitive slave.

Some Northerners saw the act as providing an excuse for the kidnapping of free blacks. Others resented the ability of slave owners to reclaim slaves who might have escaped many years ago and who had new lives in the North. As a result, Northern states responded to the act by passing "personal liberty" laws, which protected alleged fugitive slaves in various ways. Southerners saw these laws as objectionable efforts to get around the act and the Constitution.

In 1842, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court held that Pennsylvania's personal liberty law of 1826 was unconstitutional. Edward Prigg had been convicted of kidnapping for taking a black woman and her children from Pennsylvania (a free state) to Maryland (a slave state). The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that state laws could not permissibly interfere with the rights of slave owners reclaiming fugitive slaves. In 1847 the Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the 1793 act in Jones v. Van Zandt.

Opponents of slavery resented these decisions, which sparked protest, resistance, and new laws and policies making the retaking of fugitive slaves more difficult and costly. Abolitionists effectively used the 1793 act and the court decisions upholding it to call attention to the evils of slavery. Southerners grew ever angrier and pressed for legislation that would more strongly protect their right to reclaim fugitive slaves.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462) was an important part of the Compromise of 1850. On one side, Southerners sought to strengthen the fugitive slave law. On the other side, Northerners sought to respect the Constitution's fugitive slave clause and thereby preserve the Union by accommodating Southern anger over the fugitive slave issue. The act represented this effort to hold the country together.

Much longer than its 1793 predecessor, the 1850 act provided for federal commissioners to conduct hearings to grant or deny certificates permitting slave owners to retake fugitive slaves. Slave owners could either seize the person suspected to be a fugitive slave or procure a warrant directing a federal marshal to arrest the alleged fugitive before taking the person before a commissioner for a hearing. Under the act:

  • The alleged fugitive was not allowed to testify at the hearing.
  • Commissioners received twice as much compensation (ten dollars) for granting certificates as for denying them.
  • Federal marshals were financially liable for not trying to execute the warrants and for allowing fugitives to escape.
  • Penalties were increased for obstructing slave owners or helping fugitives, and included imprisonment.

Northerners saw this act as substantially more intrusive than the act of 1793, and their reaction was swift. Many people resisted and defied the law. In 1851, for example, Frederick Wilkins, known as Shadrach, a fugitive slave from Virginia, was rescued from a Boston courtroom and helped to escape to Canada. In some areas it was difficult to find people willing to do the duties required of commissioners under the act. Juries ignored evidence and acquitted people accused of violating the act. In June 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe began publishing her influential antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in weekly installments in the National Era magazine. Shortly afterward it was published in book form and sold widely, increasing Northerners' opposition to slavery.

In 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union, and within months other states followed suit. The Civil War began in 1861. Three years later, in 1864, the Fugitive Slave Acts were repealed.


The acts of 1793 and 1850 highlighted the uneasy accommodation between North and South on the issue of slavery. The acts offended Northern sensibilities that had turned against slavery. Northern social and legal reactions against the acts were threatening and insulting to Southerners. Southerners felt that some abolitionists in the Northand even some Northern legislatureswere encouraging slaves to revolt, a possibility that many Southerners greatly feared.

The Fugitive Slave Acts failed as part of an effort to hold the Union together. Instead, they highlighted differences on the issue of slavery. The acts also raised important issues about what it means to follow the rule of law and pursue justice under a Constitution that both promoted freedom and allowed slavery.

See also: Compromise of 1850; Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854; Missouri Compromise.


Cover, Robert M. Justice Accused. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Slaveholding Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Hall, Kermit L. The Law of American Slavery. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.

Wiecek, William M. The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 17601848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Slave Reparations

Many people believe that the descendents of slaves should be compensated, or paid "reparations," for the injustices that their ancestors endured. Reparations have been paid to other groups who were treated unjustly, such as Japanese Americans interned during World War II. While some believe that reparations should be paid by the U.S. government, others have begun seeking compensation by filing lawsuits against corporations that benefited from slavery. Opponents of reparations argue that many black Americans are not descended from slaves, and that it would be difficult to establish who would be eligible for reparations. Furthermore, many white Americans are descended from people who immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, and so should not be blamed for slavery or made responsible for paying reparations. Proponents of reparations, on the other hand, argue that black Americans as a group continue to suffer from the legacy of slavery, regardless of their particular lineage. Some propose that reparations be paid into a fund that would finance education, health care, and economic opportunities for black Americans rather than be paid to individuals.

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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


The roots of the American Civil War (18611865) were complex, but the conflict-ridden issue of slavery is rightly given prominence by most scholars. At its base, the Civil War pitted fundamentally different regional and socio-economic forces against each other. Although agriculture had dominated the economy of the early American republic, its importance varied by region. Farming defined the economy of the South, which evolved into an agricultural aristocracy based on slavery. The states of New England, however, were shaped by very different natural forces. Deprived of fertile soil, society in New England developed an energetic mercantile culture in sharp contrast with the lifestyle of the South. The Northern region gave birth to influential merchant and business classes, whose wealth had little or no connection to the land. Although the middle colonies enjoyed a more mixed economy, they were inevitably influenced by the great trading and business centers of New York and Philadelphia.

Understandably, both the Northern and Southern cultures viewed its rival as a significant, if not mortal, threat to its way of life. As the first half of the nineteenth century drew to a close, many Southerners tightly embraced safeguards to their way of life as they felt increasingly threatened by the dynamic and often turbulent urban culture of the North. One such safeguard was the cluster of constitutional and legal provisions that mandated the return of runaway slaves to their legal owners.

As part of the sectional compromise that ensured the ratification of the Constitution, Article IV, section 2 of the document directed that "no person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any laws 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." Congress subsequently enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to specify procedures to aid in the recovery of runaway slaves.

Although slaveholders possessed formal legal remedies to recover runaway slaves, these measures, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, were routinely scorned in the North, where anti-slavery sentiment was generally strong. Ironically, Southern slaveholders, who routinely invoked the doctrine of states' rights to help protect the institution of slavery, were often frustrated in the recovery of runaway slaves by personal liberty laws enacted by the legislatures of several northern states. In one variant, personal liberty laws forbade state officials from participation in efforts to return fugitive slaves.

The question of runaway slaves was again placed before Congress in the famous Compromise of 1850. The compromise attempted to solve growing North-South tensions over the extension of slavery, specifically into newly annexed Texas and the territory gained by the United States in the Mexican War (18501853). The compromise measures originated largely from Stephen A. Douglas (18131861) and were sponsored in the Senate by Henry Clay (17771852). The compromise called for the admission of California as a free state, the use of popular sovereignty to decide free or slave status for New Mexico and Utah, the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and the passage of a stricter fugitive slave law. The prospects for the acceptance of these proposals were reinforced by the powerful speeches of statesman Daniel Webster (17821852), and the presidency of Millard Fillmore (18501853), a supporter of the compromise who stepped into office after the death of President Zachary Taylor (17841850). The proposals were passed as separate bills in September 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Law was arguably the most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850. The law carried a number of provisions that strengthened slaveholders in their pursuit of runaways. Federal commissioners were to be appointed with the power to issue warrants and mobilize posses. Suspected runaways were denied due process of law, and could be sent to the South on the basis of an owner's affidavit.

Southern opinion had been inflamed by a long record of Northern obstruction of the recovery of runaways. The so-called Georgia Platform adopted in late 1850 held that the fate of the union itself now depended on the North's faithful observance of the new fugitive slave act. Such cooperation was not forthcoming. Popular opposition to the recovery of slaves received frequent coverage in northern and southern newspapers. At the same time, a number of northern states passed stronger personal liberty laws. In Wisconsin, a reporter was arrested for encouraging a mob to free a captured runaway. The state court released him on a writ of habeas corpus (a court order determining an individual was confined illegally) and held the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. Although the Supreme Court upheld the law in Abelman v. Booth (1859), the effort provided Southerners little comfort.

The single greatest blow to the Fugitive Slave Act and to the Southern cause came from northern printing presses. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act prompted Harriet Beecher Stowe (18111896) to write her famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. The novel was a powerful and convincing indictment against slavery, and over 300,000 copies of the novel were sold in a year, an astronomical amount for that time. Although the injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act and the emotions stirred by Stowe's novel did not likely convince most Americans that the abolition of slavery would justify a civil war or the dissolution of the Union, the outcomes of the Fugitive Slave Act did lead many Americans to reject any future efforts at political compromise over differences between the North and South.

See also: Civil War (Economic Causes of), Slavery, States' Rights


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

David, Paul A. et al. Reckoning With Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Elkins, Stanley. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Franklin, John Hope and Schweninger, Loren. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 17501925. New York: Pantheon, 1976.

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Fugitive Slave Acts


FUGITIVE SLAVE ACTS. In 1793, Congress passed an act to implement the provision in the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 2) stating that "fugitives from labour" should be returned "on demand" to the person to whom they owed "service or labour." The 1793 law allowed a master to bring an alleged fugitive slave before any state or federal judge or magistrate for a summary hearing to determine if the person seized was the claim-ant's runaway slave. The judge could accept any evidence he found persuasive on the status of the alleged slave. He could then issue a certificate of removal, allowing the claimant to take the slave back to his home state. The law provided a $500 fine for anyone interfering with the return of a fugitive slave. In addition, a master could sue anyone helping his slave for his costs plus the actual value of any slaves actually lost.

These liberal rules, as well as blatant kidnapping of free blacks, led northern states to pass personal liberty acts to protect their black residents from illegitimate removal. In the Supreme Court case of Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842) Justice Joseph Story, speaking for an 8–1 majority, upheld the 1793 law, struck down all state laws that interfered with the return of a fugitive slaves, and declared that slave owners had a common law right of recaption to remove any slave without any judicial hearing, if this seizure could be accomplished without any breach of the peace. Meanwhile, in Jones v. Van Zandt (1847), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a harsh interpretation of the 1793 law, which in effect applied to the north the southern legal presumption that all blacks were slaves until it could be proved otherwise.

Unable to protect their black residents, many free states passed new personal liberty laws withdrawing state support for enforcement of the 1793 law. Without state aid, slave owners had to rely on the tiny number of federal judges and marshals to aid them in their quest for runaway slaves.

In the wake of these new laws southerners demanded stronger federal enforcement, which led to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Technically an amendment of the 1793 law, the 1850 law was in reality an entirely new approach to the problem. The 1850 law allowed for the appointment of federal commissioners throughout the nation. These commissioners would hear fugitive slave cases and were empowered to call out federal marshals, posses, or the military to aid masters in recovering runaways. Penalties for violating the law included a $1,000 fine and a six-month jail sentence. In addition, anyone helping a fugitive slave could be sued for a $1,000 penalty to compensate the master for the loss of the slave.

Hearings before the commissioners were summary affairs, with no jury present. The alleged slave was denied access to the writ of habeas corpus and could not testify at the hearing. A U.S. Commissioner hearing the case would get $5 if he decided in favor of the alleged slave, but if he held for the master he would get $10. This disparity was in theory designed to compensate commissioners for the extra work of filling out certificates of removal, but to most northerners it seemed a blatant attempt to help slavery at the expense of justice.

The law led to riots, rescues, and resistance in a number of places. In 1851 a mob stormed a courtroom in Boston to free the slave Shadrach; in Syracuse a mob rescued the slave Jerry from a jail; and in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a master was killed in a shootout with fugitive slaves. In 1854, Milwaukee citizens led by the abolitionist editor Sherman Booth freed the slave Joshua Glover from federal custody, and, in 1858, most of the students and faculty of Oberlin College charged a courthouse and freed a slave arrested in Wellington, Ohio. All of these cases led to prosecutions, but most were unsuccessful or led to only token penalties. In Ableman v. Booth (1859), the U.S. Supreme Court firmly upheld the 1850 law and asserted that states could interfere with the federal courts.

In the long run, the fugitive slave laws did little to help recover runaway slaves, but they did much to under-mine the Union. Outrage over the 1850 law in the North helped create the constituency for the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Meanwhile, a number of southern states cited failure to enforce the fugitive slave laws as one of their reasons for secession (1861). In 1864, the Republican-dominated Congress repealed both fugitive slave laws.


Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985.

———. "Story Telling on the Supreme Court: Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Justice Joseph Story's Judicial Nationalism." Supreme Court Review (1994): 247–294.

Morris, Thomas D. Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780–1861. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.


See alsoAntislavery ; Slave Insurrections ; Slave Rescue Cases ; Slavery ; Underground Railroad .

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fugitive slave laws

fugitive slave laws, in U.S. history, the federal acts of 1793 and 1850 providing for the return between states of escaped black slaves. Similar laws existing in both North and South in colonial days applied also to white indentured servants and to Native American slaves. As slavery was abolished in the Northern states, the 1793 law was loosely enforced, to the great irritation of the South, and as abolitionist sentiment developed, organized efforts to circumvent the law took form in the Underground Railroad. Many Northern states also passed personal-liberty laws that allowed fugitives a jury trial, and others passed laws forbidding state officials to help capture alleged fugitive slaves or to lodge them in state jails. As a concession to the South a second and more rigorous fugitive slave law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. By it "all good citizens" were "commanded to aid and assist [federal marshals and their deputies] in the prompt and efficient execution of this law," and heavy penalties were imposed upon anyone who assisted slaves to escape from bondage. When apprehended, an alleged fugitive was taken before a federal court or commissioner. He was denied a jury trial and his testimony was not admitted, while the statement of the master claiming ownership, even though absent, was taken as the main evidence. The law was so weighted against the fugitives that many Northerners, formerly unconcerned, were now aroused to opposition. New personal-liberty laws contradicting the legislation of 1850 (and described, with some reason, by Southerners as equivalent to South Carolina's notorious ordinance of nullification) were passed in most of the Northern states. Abolitionists fearlessly defied the 1850 act, often mobbing federal officials in attempts to rescue fugitives. In Boston, for instance, the "good citizens," including some of the foremost Brahmins, stormed the federal courthouse, but failed to free the escaped Virginia slave Anthony Burns; moreover, it was thought expedient to have 1,100 soldiers guard him when he was marched aboard ship for his return to bondage. In Lancaster co., Pa., a riot broke out when a federal official ordered Quaker bystanders to help catch a runaway; the Quakers were prosecuted, but not convicted. Other notable fugitive-slave cases arose in Northern courts, and the trials further stirred up public opinion both North and South. The whole dispute, combined with the question of the extension of slavery into the territories, served to set the two sections at each other's throats. The actions of Northern states in nullifying the fugitive slave laws or rendering "useless any attempt to execute them" were cited (Dec. 24, 1860) by South Carolina as one cause for secession. Both acts were finally repealed by Congress on June 28, 1864.

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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated that states to which escaped slaves fled were obligated to return them to their masters upon their discovery and subjected persons who helped runaway slaves to criminal sanctions. The first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress in 1793 but as the northern states abolished slavery, the act was rarely enforced. The southern states bitterly resented the northern attitude toward slavery, which was ultimately demonstrated by the existence of the Underground Railroad, an arrangement by which abolitionists helped runaway slaves obtain freedom.

To placate the South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462) was enacted by Congress as part of the compromise of 1850. It imposed a duty on all citizens to assist federal marshals to enforce the law or be prosecuted for their failure to do so. The act also required that when a slave was captured, he or she was to be brought before a federal court or commissioner, but the slave would not be tried by a jury nor would his or her testimony be given much weight. The statements of the slave's alleged owner were the main evidence, and the alleged owner was not even required to appear in court.

Northern reaction against the Fugitive Slave Act was strong, and many states enacted laws that nullified its effect, making it worthless. In cases where the law was enforced, threats or acts of mob violence often required the dispatch of federal troops. Persons convicted of violating the act were often heavily fined, imprisoned, or both. The refusal of northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act was alleged by South Carolina as one reason for its secession from the Union prior to the onset of the Civil War.

The acts of 1793 and 1850 remained legally operative until their repeal by Congress on June 28, 1864 (13 Stat. 200).

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