Personal Liberty Laws

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PERSONAL LIBERTY LAWS. Federal laws of 1793 and 1850 allowed for the arrest and removal of alleged fugitive slaves with only minimal evidence presented by the master or master's agent claiming a person as a fugitive. Many northern states adopted various laws, generally known as "personal liberty laws, " that were designed to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks as well as to provide a fair process for the return of actual fugitives. The kidnapping of a number of free black children in Philadelphia, some of whom were never returned to their families, led to the passage of Pennsylvania's 1826 law. Most of the early state laws required clearer evidence that the person arrested was actually a fugitive slave. The laws also gave alleged fugitives greater procedural rights. Pennsylvania's law of 1826, for example, required that any one removing a black from the state as a fugitive slave first obtain a certificate of removal from a state judge, justice of the peace, or alderman. Other laws, like Vermont's act of 1840, specifically guaranteed that an alleged fugitive be given a jury trial. While these laws provided protection for free blacks and procedural rights for actual fugitives, they also contained language and provisions that allowed claimants to turn to the states for enforcement of the fugitive slave law. Under these laws, for example, state officials could issue arrest warrants for fugitives and incarcerate them during a trial to determine their status.

In Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842), Justice Joseph Story of the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional any state laws that slowed down the removal process or in any way interfered with the return of fugitive slaves. Story asserted:

We have not the slightest hesitation in holding, that, under and in virtue of the Constitution, the owner of a slave is clothed with entire authority, in every state in the Union, to seize and recapture his slave, whenever he can do it without any breach of the peace, or any illegal violence. In this sense, and to this extent this clause of the Constitution may properly be said to execute itself; and to require no aid from legislation, state or national.

Following this decision, some northern states adopted new personal liberty laws, withdrawing all of their support for the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Laws. Under these laws, state officers were prohibited from helping to enforce the law, and state facilities, such as jails, were closed to slave catchers.

Partially in response to these new personal liberty laws, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law created a mechanism for national enforcement, including, if necessary, the use of U.S. marshals, state militias, and federal troops to return fugitive slaves to their masters. At least nine states responded to this law with new personal liberty laws, closing state facilities to slave catchers and denying any state or local support for the return of fugitive slaves. These laws helped undermine the effectiveness of the new law.


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


See alsoFugitive Slave Acts .

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