Fugitive Slave Acts (1793, 1850)


Controversial federal statutes dealing with the treatment of runaway slaves.

Following the American Revolution, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act (1793) to protect the property rights of slaveholders and to enforce Article 4, Section 2 of the U. S. Constitution, which states: “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.” The legislation gave legal support to owners seeking the return of runaway slaves who had fled into other states or into a federal territory. The law met with resistance in the North, where most states had already abolished slavery. Many Northerners contended that the law left free blacks vulnerable to false claims that they were actually runaways. Northerners also refused to accept the idea that Southern slaveholders had the right to recapture their property without the use of the court system. As a response, most Northern states during the antebellum period (1848-1861) passed so-called personal liberty laws that required judicial oversight of the process of returning runaway slaves.

The rise of the antislavery movement during the 1830s focused greater attention on the fugitive slave issue, and the Southern states soon began lobbying for stronger fugitive slave laws. Congress finally passed a stronger Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. The new law, which outraged many in the North, called for harsher penalties against runaways and against anyone who aided runaways in their escape. Many Northern states passed stronger personal liberty laws in response, and the fugitive slave issue became one of the most inflammatory sectional issues over which Northern and Southern states disagreed during the 1850s.

Because of Northern resistance and the difficult logistics involved in capturing runaways, the Fugitive Slave Act actually had little practical effect. If anything, its passage bolstered the resolve of antislavery factions in the North. The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ultimately rendered the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 moot, and Congress officially repealed it on June 28,1864.

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