Author: Earl Maltz

distinguished professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, New Jersey

Fugitive Slave Laws

Fugitive slave laws provided enslavers and their agents with the legal right to reclaim runaways from other jurisdictions. Those states or jurisdictions were required to deliver the fugitives. As early as 1643, the United Colonies of New England had required the return of runaways, and, after the American Revolution (1775–1783), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 contained similar protections for enslavers. The U.S. Constitution included a Fugitive Slave Clause, which was agreed to without dissent at the Constitutional Convention. Following a dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which clarified the processes by which enslavers could claim their property and was designed to balance the competing interests of free and slave states. In 1823, the law was upheld by Massachusetts in a case regarding a Virginia runaway, and then upheld again by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 expanded the number of federal officials empowered to act in fugitive-slave cases, but by this time, public opinion, at least in antislavery hotbeds such as Boston, Massachusetts, had turned against such laws. Thus a captured Virginia enslaved man named Shadrach Minkins was rescued in 1851 and spirited north to Canada, but in 1854, authorities foiled an attempted rescue of the Virginia runaway slave Anthony Burns. Compromise soon became impossible, and enforcement of the law effectively ended with the onset of the American Civil War (1861–1865).


The Trial of Anthony Burns (1854)

The trial of Anthony Burns, a fugitive enslaved man from Virginia, occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, during the spring of 1854. Hired out in Richmond, Burns had saved money and stowed away on a ship to Boston, where he worked in a clothing store. A letter home to his brother unintentionally revealed his location, and when it was intercepted, Burns’s enslaver, Charles F. Suttle, traveled north and claimed Burns under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Approved as part of the Compromise of 1850, the law was designed to strengthen federal protections for southerners attempting recover enslaved people who had fled to free states. Members of the Boston Vigilance Committee, a group of antislavery activists who were committed to resisting the law, made an attempt to free Burns from custody. The rescue effort was unsuccessful, and a guard was killed in the process. In the trial, Burns’s lawyers argued that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional and that Burns was not actually the man whom Suttle claimed to own. On June 1, 1854, Judge Edward Greely Loring ruled against Burns, who was afterward transported to Norfolk. Antislavery activists later purchased his freedom, and he became a minister, dying in Canada in 1862. None of those responsible for the guard’s death was convicted, and many southerners believed that, in spite of the Fugitive Slave Act’s successful enforcement, the Burns affair proved that northerners could not be trusted to fulfill their constitutional obligations.