1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fugitive Slave Laws

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FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS, a term applied in the United States to the Statutes passed by Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of negro slaves who escaped from one state into another or into a public territory. A fugitive slave clause was inserted in the Articles of Confederation of the New England Confederation of 1643, providing for the return of the fugitive upon the certificate of one magistrate in the jurisdiction out of which the said servant fled — no trial by jury being provided for. This seems to have been the only instance of an inter-colonial provision for the return of fugitive slaves; there were, indeed, not infrequent escapes by slaves from one colony to another, but it was not until after the growth of anti-slavery sentiment and the acquisition of western territory, that it became necessary to adopt a uniform method for the return of fugitive slaves. Such provision was made in the Ordinance of 1787 (for the Northwest Territory), which in Article VI. provided that in the case of “any person escaping into the same [the Northwest Territory] from whom labor or service is 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.” An agreement of the sort was necessary to persuade the slave-holding states to union, and in the Federal Constitution, Article IV., Section II., it is provided that “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 labour may be due.”

The first specific legislation on the subject was enacted on the 12th of February 1793, and like the Ordinance for the Northwest Territory and the section of the Constitution quoted above, did not contain the word “slave”; by its provisions any Federal district or circuit judge or any state magistrate was authorized to decide finally and without a jury trial the status of an alleged fugitive. The measure soon met with strong opposition in the northern states, and Personal Liberty Laws were passed to hamper officials in the execution of the law; Indiana in 1824 and Connecticut in 1828 providing jury trial for fugitives who appealed from an original decision against them. In 1840 New York and Vermont extended the right of trial by jury to fugitives and provided them with attorneys. As early as the first decade of the 19th century individual dissatisfaction with the law of 1793 had taken the form of systematic assistance rendered to negroes escaping from the South to Canada or New England the so-called “Underground Railroad.”[1] The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842 (16 Peters 539), that state authorities could not be forced to act in fugitive slave cases, but that national authorities must carry out the national law, was followed by legislation in Massachusetts (1843), Vermont (1843), Pennsylvania (1847) and Rhode Island (1848), forbidding state officials to help enforce the law and refusing the use of state gaols for fugitive slaves. The demand from the South for more effective Federal legislation was voiced in the second fugitive slave law, drafted by Senator J. M. Mason of Virginia, and enacted on the 18th of September 1850 as a part of the Compromise Measures of that year. Special commissioners were to have concurrent jurisdiction with the U.S. circuit and district courts and the inferior courts of Territories in enforcing the law; fugitives could not testify in their own behalf; no trial by jury was provided; penalties were imposed upon marshals who refused to enforce the law or from whom a fugitive should escape, and upon individuals who aided negroes to escape; the marshal might raise a posse comitatus; a fee of $10 was paid to the commissioner when his decision favoured the claimant and only $5 when it favoured the fugitive; and both the fact of the escape and the identity of the fugitive were to be determined on purely ex parte testimony. The severity of this measure led to gross abuses and defeated its purpose; the number of abolitionists increased, the operations of the Underground Railroad became more efficient, and new Personal Liberty Laws were enacted in Vermont (1850), Connecticut (1854), Rhode Island (1854), Massachusetts (1855), Michigan (1855), Maine (1855 and 1857), Kansas (1858) and Wisconsin (1858). These Personal Liberty Laws forbade justices and judges to take cognizance of claims, extended the habeas corpus act and the privilege of jury trial to fugitives, and punished false testimony severely. The supreme court of Wisconsin went so far (1859) as to declare the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional. These state laws were one of the grievances officially referred to by South Carolina (in Dec. 1860) as justifying her secession from the Union. Attempts to carry into effect the law of 1850 aroused much bitterness. The arrests of Sims and of Shadrach in Boston in 1851; of “Jerry” McHenry, in Syracuse, New York, in the same year; of Anthony Burns in 1854, in Boston; and of the two Garner families in 1856, in Cincinnati, with other cases arising under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, probably had as much to do with bringing on the Civil War as did the controversy over slavery in the Territories.

With the beginning of the Civil War the legal status of the slave was changed by his master's being in arms. General B. F. Butler, in May 1861, declared negro slaves contraband of war. A confiscation bill was passed in August 1861 discharging from his service or labour any slave employed in aiding or promoting any insurrection against the government of the United States. By an act of the 17th of July 1862 any slave of a disloyal master who was in territory occupied by northern troops was declared ipso facto free. But for some time the Fugitive Slave Law was considered still to hold in the case of fugitives from masters in the border states who were loyal to the Union government, and it was not until the 28th of June 1864 that the Act of 1850 was repealed.

See J. F. Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vols. i. and ii. (New York, 1893); and M. G. McDougall, Fugitive Slaves, 1619-1865 (Boston, 1891).


  1. The precise amount of organization in the Underground Railroad cannot be definitely ascertained because of the exaggerated use of the figure of railroading in the documents of the “presidents” of the road, Robert Purvis and Levi Coffin, and of its many “conductors,” and their discussion of the “packages” and “freight” shipped by them. The system reached from Kentucky and Virginia across Ohio, and from Maryland across Pennsylvania and New York, to New England and Canada, and as early as 1817 a group of anti-slavery men in southern Ohio had helped to Canada as many as 1000 slaves. The Quakers of Pennsylvania possibly began the work of the mysterious Underground Railroad; the best known of them was Thomas Garrett (1789-1871), a native of Pennsylvania, who, in 1822, removed to Wilmington, Delaware, where he was convicted in 1848 on four counts under the Fugitive Slave Law and was fined $8000; he is said to have helped 2700 slaves to freedom. The most picturesque figure of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman (c. 1820), called by her friend, John Brown, “General” Tubman, and by her fellow negroes “Moses.” She about a score of trips into the South, bringing out with her 300 negroes altogether. At one time a reward of $40,000 was offered her capture. She was a mystic, with remarkable clairvoyant powers, and did great service as a nurse, a spy and a scout in the Civil War. Levi Coffin (1798-1877), a native of North Carolina (whose cousin, Vestal Coffin, had established before 1819 a “station” of the Underground near what is now Guilford College, North Carolina), in 1826 settled in Wayne County, Ohio; his home at New Garden (now Fountain City) was the meeting point of three “lines” from Kentucky; and in 1847 he removed to Cincinnati, where his labours in bringing slaves out of the South were even more successful. It has been argued that the Underground Railroad delayed the final decision of the slavery question, inasmuch as it was a “safety valve”; for, without it, the more intelligent and capable of the negro slaves would, it is asserted, have become the leaders of insurrections in the South, and would not have been removed from the places where they could have done most damage. Consult William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, 1872), a collection of anecdotes by a negro agent of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and of the Philadelphia branch of the Railroad; and the important and scholarly work of Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1898).