The New International Encyclopædia/Fugitive Slave Law
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Fugitive Slave Law
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FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW. In the history of the United States, the name of two statutes enacted for the purpose of securing to the slave-owners their rights in slaves who had escaped from the State in which they were held in servitude. Such statutes were directed to the enforcement of Article IV., section 2 of the Constitution, which provides that “persons held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof,” escaping into another, “shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” The existence of slavery depended entirely upon the sanction of State laws, and could in no way be affected by Federal laws. If, however, slavery was merely a status dependent upon positive enactment, such status ceased when the slave entered a State where slavery was prohibited. On the other hand, if the master's right in the slave was a property right, the situation was quite different. Property rights were defined by State laws, and the protection of such property rights in all other States was guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. Upon the ‘property’ theory of slavery, it was thus possible to pass such an enactment as that of February 12, 1793. This gave the owner or supposed owner of a fugitive slave the right to seize the alleged fugitive, to take him before any Federal judge or certain local magistrates, and, upon satisfying the judge or magistrates of his ownership, to secure a warrant for removing the slave, or alleged slave, to the State of the owner's domicile. There was no provision for a jury in this preliminary trial; the warrant might be secured upon the testimony of the owner alone, and a heavy fine was imposed for obstructing the owner or rescuing or concealing the alleged fugitive. The rigor of the act gave opportunity for considerable laxity in its enforcement, and as soon as the controversy over slavery became acute, efforts were made to amend the act or to nullify its effect. A way toward the latter end seemed to be opened by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Prigg against Pennsylvania (q.v.), in which it was held that the duty of enforcing the statute rested solely upon the Federal authorities. Thereupon various States passed laws prohibiting State officials from assisting in the enforcement of this Federal statute, and forbidding the use of State jails for such a purpose.
The continued and vigorous demands of the South for a more complete recognition of its rights led to the inclusion in the Compromise Measures of 1850 (q.v.) of a new Fugitive Slave Law, the statute of September 18, 1850. This included many features of the old act, and in addition provided for certain commissioners, with jurisdiction concurrent with that of the courts, who received a larger fee in case they decided in favor of the claimant than if they decided in favor of the fugitive. Ex parte testimony was sufficient to determine even the identity of the fugitive; the testimony of the alleged slave was expressly barred, and he was denied a jury trial, even after being returned to the State whence he had fled. The enforcement of the law was placed wholly in the hands of Federal officials, and heavier penalties were imposed upon violators of the law. The extreme anti-slavery element in the Northern States soon forced the issue by refusing to recognize the ‘finality’ of the Compromise of 1850, and by securing the passage of the so-called ‘personal liberty’ laws. These prescribed heavy penalties for the seizure of free persons, forbade State officials to aid in enforcing the Federal act, and provided that the fugitive should be entitled to a writ of habeas corpus, and to a trial by jury. Other requirements of the State laws served to minimize the effect of the Federal statute, and in some cases almost to nullify it. Ten States passed such laws, and thus afforded the South an available ground of complaint. The second Fugitive Slave Law was finally repealed on June 28, 1864. Consult McDougall, Fugitive Slaves (Boston, 1891). See Slavery; Underground Railway.