The New Student's Reference Work/Fugitive-Slave Laws, The

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Fugitive-Slave Laws, The, were laws formerly in force in the United States to enable slave-owners to reclaim slaves who had escaped from them into another state. As slavery was a state affair, being recognized in some states and not in others, the logical outcome seemed to be that a slave ceased to be a slave when he entered a state in which slavery was not tolerated. This was true, unless one held strictly to the view that a slave was simply the private property of the owner, in which case the private property could be recovered through the intervention of Federal officials. On the assumption that a slave was private property, the Fugitive-Slave bill of 1793 was passed, giving the alleged owner the right to seize a person whom he could prove, before judge or local magistrate, to be his fugitive slave, and remove him to his own state. This law was much abused by kidnappers of free negroes, since a negro so seized was practically at the mercy of one who was willing to swear that he was his escaped slave, and the alleged slave was debarred from the right to demand a writ of habeas-corpus or a trial by jury.

Meanwhile states prohibiting slavery in some instances passed laws with a view to nullifying the laws permitting slave-extradition in this fashion, on the ground that state laws were here supreme. This led to much agitation on the part of slaveowners, and led to the passing of the Federal law of 1850 which denied the right of a slave to a writ of habeas-corpus or a trial by jury, and placed the enforcement of the law entirely in the hands of the officials of the Federal government. This second fugitive-slave law was repealed in 1864.