ENTRY

Fugitive Slave Laws

SUMMARY

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).

READING LEVEL
Grade 4

Summary

Enslaved people resisted in many ways. One method was to run away. A person who escapes capture is often called a fugitive. Fugitive slave laws gave slaveowners the legal right to reclaim runaways from other states. Those states were required to deliver the fugitives. The U.S. Constitution included a Fugitive Slave Clause. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. It clarified the process used by slaveowners to claim their property. It was designed to balance the competing interests of free and slave states. It was 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. By this time, public opinion, at least in antislavery areas such as Boston, had turned against such laws. A captured Virginia enslaved man named Shadrach Minkins was rescued in 1851 and taken north to Canada. Compromise soon became impossible. Enforcement of the law effectively ended with the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–1865).

In This Entry

Contributor: Earl Maltz (Scaled for readability)

Early Laws and the U.S. Constitution

Enslaved people resisted in many ways. One method was to run away. Escaping allowed them to travel to a state where slavery was not legal. Some states had written laws about this very thing. New England required that any runaway be returned. The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. But it also required that escaped slaves must be returned. A person who escapes capture is often called a fugitive.

The writers of the U.S. Constitution discussed this in 1787. They agreed that states should return fugitives to their owners. Some worried about how much money it could cost to find and deliver fugitives. Even so, the delegates passed a Fugitive Slave Clause. The clause banned free states from freeing fugitives. Many worried that the disagreements of fugitive slaves might threaten the peace of the union. The law was designed to prevent that from happening.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. The law came from a case about an enslaved man named John Davis. Davis’s Virginia owner was living in Pennsylvania when the states’ boundaries were confirmed. The next year Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Emancipation Act. It required that men like Davis’s owner register their enslaved laborers by a certain date. If they did not, the enslaved people would become immediately free. Davis was never registered. This made him free according to Pennsylvania law.

In 1788, Davis was hired out to Mr. Miller in Virginia. Davis was found by abolitionists. He was returned to Pennsylvania. Miller then hired three Virginia men to capture his enslaved man. Soon after, Davis was sold to a man in eastern Virginia. A Pennsylvania court charged the three Virginians for kidnapping. Virginia governor Beverley Randolph refused to hand them over to the court.

Congress wanted to create a way for enslavers to reclaim fugitives. A new law said that an enslaver was allowed to arrest the fugitive and bring him before a federal judge. Proof could be provided by documents or oral statement. Anyone convicted of hiding a runaway or stopping his capture was subject to a $500 fine. This fine was payable to the slave’s owner.

Neither side was completely happy with the law. Some southerners worried that the rights of enslavers weren’t being protected. Some northerners believed that the law left free Blacks open to kidnapping. As a result, many free states adopted so-called personal liberty laws. These required enslavers to follow many steps before removing a fugitive from the state.

Testing the Limits

There were many challenges to fugitive slave laws. Situations kept happening that tested the limits of the laws. This caused many tensions between slave states and free states. Eventually, a case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court decided that enslavers had a right to reclaim fugitive enslaved people. However, it also decided that only the federal government could enforce the law. Many states passed laws to keep state officials from helping to recover fugitive enslaved people.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

It was becoming more difficult for southern enslavers to recover fugitive enslaved people. The compromise in 1850 made fugitive slave laws stronger. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 expanded the number of federal officials who could act on these issues. They had the duty of hearing the claims of the enslavers. Once they received proof of ownership, the commissioner was to give a certificate for removal of the fugitive.

Enforcing the new Fugitive Slave Act wasn’t always successful. Many believed it would be impossible to enforce in the “abolitionist north.” Many abolitionists fought attempts to reclaim fugitives. an armed crowd stormed the courthouse in Boston and rescued Shadrach Minkins.

He had run away from his enslavement in Norfolk, Virginia. This only led officials and supporters of slavery to work harder to find and return fugitives.

Disagreements on this issue became more and more tense over time. Eventually, challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act wouldn’t be fought in courtrooms. The next steps in this fight would happen on the battlefield with the beginning of the Civil war.

Anthony Burns in Boston

Grade 8

Summary

Fugitive slave laws provided slaveowners with the legal right to reclaim runaways from other states. Those states were required to deliver the fugitives. As early as 1643, the United Colonies of New England had required the return of runaways. After the American Revolution (1775–1783), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 contained similar protections for slaveowners. 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. It clarified the processes by which slaveowners 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. It was 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. By this time, public opinion, at least in antislavery hotbeds such as Boston, had turned against such laws. Thus a captured Virginia enslaved man named Shadrach Minkins was rescued in 1851 and taken north to Canada. In 1854, authorities thwarted 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).

In This Entry

Contributor: Earl Maltz (Scaled for readability)

Early Laws and the U.S. Constitution

Before the ratification of the Constitution, the problems with the treatment of escaped slaves had been recognized. For example, the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England required that any runaway servant be returned. It stated that any runaway “shalbe delivered either to his Master or any other that pursues and brings such Certificate or proofe.” The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in much of the territory west of the Appalachians. However, it also provided for the return of fugitives who escaped into those territories.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 first considered the issue of fugitive slaves. They had already agreed to a provision in which states would return fugitives. South Carolina representatives moved to require “fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals.” Later discussions included a complaint about the public cost of such a measure. Nonetheless, the following day the delegates unanimously adopted a Fugitive Slave Clause. An amended version of the clause was also approved without objection on September 15.

Article 4, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution forbade free states from emancipating slaves who escaped from states where slavery was legal. It also mandated that escaped slaves “shall be delivered up on the claim of the [the slaveowner].” The delegates understood that disputes over fugitive slaves might create tensions that could threaten the stability of the union. The Fugitive Slave Clause was apparently designed to prevent that possibility.

The Fugitive Slave Clause was modeled on the Extradition Clause. This made state governments responsible when dealing with runaways. The state in which the runaway was captured was forced to deliver the slave to their home state. In fugitive-slave cases, slaveowners stood to lose valuable property. This made these situations both more legally complex and ripe for abuse. Southerners potentially could make false claims, while free-state governments might be motivated to avoid their constitutional obligations to protect free Blacks from kidnapping.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Not long after the Constitution was ratified, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Inspiration for the law came from a case involving an enslaved man named John Davis. Davis’s Virginia owner found himself living in Pennsylvania when the states’ boundaries were finalized in 1779. The next year Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Emancipation Act. It required that men such as Davis’s owner register their slaves by a certain date. If they did not, the slaves would become immediately free. Davis was never registered, making him free according to Pennsylvania law, if not in practice.

In 1788, Davis was hired out to a Mr. Miller in Virginia. Davis was found by a group of antislavery Pennsylvanians and returned to that state. Miller then hired three Virginia men to capture his enslaved man, which they did in May 1788. Soon after, Davis was sold to a man in eastern Virginia. In November 1788 a Pennsylvania court indicted the three Virginians for kidnapping. Virginia governor Beverley Randolph, in July 1791, refused a request for their extradition.

Congress wanted to establish procedures for a slaveowner to defend his right to reclaim a fugitive. Under the 1793 statute, a slaveowner or his agent was “empowered to seize or arrest [the] fugitive” and bring him before a federal judge. Proof could be provided by documentation or oral testimony. The official was required to issue a certificate to remove the alleged fugitive from the state in which they were found. Anyone convicted of concealing a runaway or interfering in his capture was subject to a $500 fine. This fine was payable not to the state or federal government but to the slave’s owner.

Neither side was completely satisfied with the legislation. Some southerners worried that the rights of enslavers were insufficiently protected. Some northerners believed that the law still left free Blacks vulnerable to kidnapping. As a result, many free states adopted so-called personal liberty laws. These required enslavers to follow a variety of procedures before removing any alleged fugitive from the state.

Commonwealth v. Griffith (1823)

The constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was challenged in a case involving a Virginia slave named William Mason. Owned by Edgar McCarty and living near Alexandria, Mason ran away to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He lived there for four years, married, and possibly had a child. At some point he changed his name to John Randolph. After McCarty’s death, his estate hired Camillus Griffith to find and return Randolph. In November 1822, Griffith traveled to New Bedford, where he seized, allegedly beat, and confined Randolph. He then sought a certificate of removal by which he could transport Randolph back to Virginia. However, Griffith was arrested, tried, and convicted for false imprisonment and assault and battery. Randolph, meanwhile, reportedly traveled to New York and then to Barbados.

Griffith appealed his conviction to Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court. He argued that he had been well within his rights to capture Randolph. The state’s lawyers countered, arguing that this right was unconstitutional because it violated the Fourth Amendment. Griffith’s attorney responded that “the clause against unreasonable searches and seizures does not protect a slave.” Further, he argued that the law’s demand for proof of ownership provided sufficient protection for free Blacks.

The court agreed with Griffith. A majority of justices concluded that the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution did not describe the procedures by which fugitive slaves would be captured and returned to their owners. It was, therefore, up to Congress to fill in the details. If an accused fugitive claimed to be free, then an appearance in court was sufficient to determine the truth. Chief Justice Isaac Parker emphasized that the U.S. Constitution represented a compromise between free and slave states. “It was a compact by which we all are bound,” he wrote. Justice George Thatcher dissented, arguing that the laws of Massachusetts did not recognize slavery. Eventually Massachusetts law would stipulate that only fugitives could be considered slaves, and that all others became free upon entering the state.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)

Pennsylvania’s highest court issued a decision like Massachusetts’s, upholding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. But a New Jersey judge ruled the law unconstitutional, and the New York courts were split. In 1842 the U.S. Supreme Court sought to clarify the constitutional issues related to fugitive slaves. Prigg v. Pennsylvania revolved around the status of Margaret Morgan. She was an enslaved woman whose Maryland owner had informally stated that he had set her free. When he died, however, his estate demanded that she return from her new home in York County, Pennsylvania. In 1837, a party of four slave catchers, including Edward Prigg, captured Morgan and returned her to Maryland. She lost a suit for her freedom and she and her children were sold.

The incident led to a dispute between the governments of Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1838 Maryland formed a commission to work with its neighbor to prepare a case for review by the Supreme Court. On May 23, 1839, Pennsylvania authorized a trial by which Prigg was found guilty of kidnapping and his case appealed to the Supreme Court.

In Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842) the court determined that slaveowners had a constitutional right to reclaim their escaped slaves. It also upheld the constitutionality of most of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Associate Judge Joseph Story, of Massachusetts, wrote the opinion. He argued that the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause was fundamental to maintaining the union.

The Prigg decision was not entirely favorable to slaveowners, however. The justices concluded that Congress did not have the authority to require state officials to participate in the reclaiming of fugitive slaves. Because of different states’ attitudes toward slavery, only the federal government could uniformly enforce the law. In response, Massachusetts and several other northern states passed laws prohibiting state officials from aiding in the recovery of fugitive slaves.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Southerners were faced with increasing difficulty in recovering escaped slaves. They successfully pressed for the passage of a stronger Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Ironically, one of the bill’s chief supporters was Senator Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, a longtime foe of slavery. He Believed that compromise was the foundation of union.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 greatly expanded the number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners. They were able to issue certificates of removal and had the duty of hearing claims of presumed masters. Upon receiving “satisfactory proof” of the validity of the claimant’s assertion of ownership, the federal commissioner was to issue a certificate for removal of the alleged fugitive.

Attempts to enforce the new Fugitive Slave Act were met with mixed success. Senator David L. Yulee, of Florida, had argued that the bill represented a “phantasmagorian” dream that could not possibly be enforced in the abolitionist North. As if on cue, the antislavery community in Massachusetts blocked an attempt to reclaim the well-known fugitive slaves Ellen and William Craft. The following year an armed crowd stormed the courthouse in Boston and rescued Shadrach Minkins, a runaway from Norfolk, Virginia. Minkins eventually fled to Montreal. Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Georgia, was seized in Boston later in 1851. Government authorities took steps to ensure that the Minkins rescue would not be repeated. The courthouse was barricaded and placed under the protection of heavily armed guards during the hearing. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act itself. Sims was ordered returned to his former master.

Anthony Burns in Boston

Perhaps the most famous challenge to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 came in 1854. Anthony Burns, an escaped slave from Virginia, was seized in Boston. An attempt to rescue him failed, killing a deputy U.S. marshal. After repeated failures to purchase Burns’s freedom, a trial upheld his seizure and authorized his return to Virginia.

Fugitive slave laws, from the 1640s through the 1850s, had always been exercises in compromise. As sectional differences hardened, compromise became less possible. The next challenge to the Fugitive Slave Act would not be fought in the courtroom but on the battlefield.

Grades 11+

Early Laws and the U.S. Constitution

Thomas Jefferson Advertises for Runaway Slave

Even before the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the problems associated with the treatment of escaped enslaved people had been recognized in a variety of different contexts. For example, the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England, adopted in 1643, required that any runaway servant “shalbe delivered either to his Master or any other that pursues and brings such Certificate or proofe.” Similarly, although the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in much of the territory west of the Appalachians, it also provided for the return of fugitives who escaped into those territories.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 first considered the issue of fugitive enslaved people after already agreeing to a provision by which states would extradite fugitives from justice. On August 28, 1787, Pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina moved to require “fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals.” Subsequent discussion included a complaint about the public cost of such a measure and the statement, by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, that there was “no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or a servant than a horse.” Nonetheless, the following day the delegates unanimously adopted a Fugitive Slave Clause, and an amended version of the clause was also approved without objection on September 15.

As ratified, article 4, section 2, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution forbade free states from emancipating enslaved people who escaped from states where slavery was legal, and also mandated that escaped enslaved people “shall be delivered up on the claim of the [the slaveowner].” At the convention, all of the delegates seemed to understand that disputes over fugitive enslaved people might create sectional tensions that could threaten the stability of the union. The Fugitive Slave Clause was apparently designed to forestall that possibility.

The Fugitive Slave Clause was modeled on the Extradition Clause, making state governments the primary actors when dealing with runaways. The state in which the runaway was captured was obligated to deliver the enslaved person to the state from which he or she had fled. While in criminal cases public order was at stake, in fugitive-slave cases enslavers stood to lose valuable property, making such situations both more legally complex and ripe for abuse. Southerners potentially could make false claims, while free-state governments might be motivated to evade their constitutional obligations in order to protect free Blacks from kidnapping.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Not long after the Constitution was ratified, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Inspiration for the law came from a case involving an enslaved man named John Davis, whose Virginia enslaver found himself living in Pennsylvania when the states’ boundaries were finalized in 1779. The next year Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, requiring that men such as Davis’s enslaver register their enslaved people by a certain date or they would become immediately free. Davis was never registered, making him free according to Pennsylvania law, if not in practice.

In 1788, Davis was hired out to a Mr. Miller in Virginia, only to be found by a group of antislavery Pennsylvanians and returned to that state. Miller then hired three Virginia men to capture his enslaved person, which they did in May 1788. Soon after, Davis was sold to a man in eastern Virginia. In November 1788 a Pennsylvania court indicted the three Virginians for kidnapping, but Virginia governor Beverley Randolph, in July 1791, refused a request for their extradition.

The Washington Family

In the wake of this case, and at the request of President George Washington, Congress sought to establish procedures by which an enslaver might vindicate his right to reclaim a fugitive. Under the 1793 statute, signed into law on February 12, an enslaver or his agent was “empowered to seize or arrest [the] fugitive from labour” and bring him before a federal judge “or any magistrate of a county, city or town corporate” where the fugitive had been found. Upon “proof to the satisfaction of the official,” which could be provided by either affidavit or oral testimony, the official was required to issue a certificate that authorized the claimant to remove the alleged fugitive from the state in which he or she was found. Anyone convicted of concealing a runaway or interfering in his apprehension was subject to a $500 fine, payable not to the state or federal government but to the enslaved person’s enslaver.

Neither side was completely satisfied with the legislation. Some southerners worried that the rights of enslavers were insufficiently protected, while some northerners believed that the law still left free Blacks vulnerable to kidnapping. As a result, many free states adopted so-called personal liberty laws, which required enslavers to follow a variety of procedures before removing any alleged fugitive from the state.

Commonwealth v. Griffith (1823)

The constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was challenged in a case involving a Virginia enslaved man named William Mason. Enslaved by Edgar McCarty and living near Alexandria, Mason ran away to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he lived for four years, married, and possibly had a child. At some point, he changed his name to John Randolph. After McCarty’s death, his estate hired Camillus Griffith to find and return Randolph. In November 1822, Griffith traveled to New Bedford, where he seized, allegedly beat, and confined Randolph, and then sought a certificate of removal by which he could transport Randolph back to Virginia. Rather than receive a certificate, however, Griffith was arrested, tried, and convicted for false imprisonment and assault and battery. Randolph, meanwhile, reportedly traveled to New York and then to Barbados.

Griffith appealed his conviction to Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that he had been well within his rights, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, to capture Randolph. The state’s lawyers countered, arguing that this right, while afforded by the law, was unconstitutional because it violated the Fourth Amendment. Griffith’s attorney responded that “the clause against unreasonable searches and seizures does not protect a slave,” and that the law’s demand for proof of ownership provided sufficient protection for free Blacks.

The court agreed with Griffith. A majority of justices concluded that because the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution did not describe the procedures by which fugitive enslaved people would be captured and returned to their enslavers, it was up to Congress to fill in the details, and that if an accused fugitive claimed to be free, then an appearance in court was sufficient to determine the truth. Chief Justice Isaac Parker emphasized that the U.S. Constitution represented a compromise between free and slave states. “It was a compact by which we all are bound,” he wrote. Justice George Thatcher dissented, arguing that the laws of Massachusetts did not recognize slavery, making all people within the state’s borders free. Eventually, Massachusetts law would stipulate that only fugitives could be considered enslaved, and that all others became free upon entering the state.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)

Pennsylvania’s highest court issued a decision similar to Massachusetts’s, upholding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, but a New Jersey judge ruled the law unconstitutional and the New York courts were split. In 1842 the U.S. Supreme Court sought to clarify the constitutional issues related to fugitive enslaved people. Prigg v. Pennsylvania revolved around the status of Margaret Morgan, an enslaved woman whose Maryland owner had informally stated that he had set her free; when he died, however, his estate demanded that she return from her new home in York County, Pennsylvania. In February 1837, a party of four slave catchers, including Edward Prigg, captured Morgan and returned her to Maryland. She lost a suit for her freedom and she and her children were sold.

The incident led to a dispute between the governments of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and in 1838 Maryland formed a commission to work with its neighbor to prepare a case for review by the Supreme Court. On May 23, 1839, Pennsylvania authorized a pro forma trial by which Prigg was found guilty of kidnapping and his case appealed to the Supreme Court.

Joseph Story

In Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, decided March 1, 1842, the court determined that enslavers had a constitutional right to attempt to reclaim their own escaped enslaved people, and also upheld the constitutionality of most of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Associate Judge Joseph Story, of Massachusetts, wrote the opinion and argued that the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause was so fundamental to the protection of southern interests and property that its absence “would have created the most bitter animosities, and engendered perpetual strife between the different states.” This particular compromise, in other words, was fundamental to maintaining the union.

The Prigg decision was not entirely favorable to enslavers, however. The justices concluded that Congress did not have the authority to require state officials to participate in the rendition of fugitive enslaved people. Because of different states’ attitudes toward slavery, only the federal government could uniformly enforce the law. In response, Massachusetts and a number of other northern states passed laws prohibiting state officials from aiding in the recovery of fugitive enslaved people.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law

Faced with increasing difficulty in recovering escaped enslaved people, southerners successfully pressed for the passage of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Ironically, one of the bill’s chief supporters was Senator Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, a longtime foe of slavery. Believing that compromise was the foundation of union, he told the Senate, “The principle of the restitution of fugitive slaves is not objectionable unless the Constitution is objectionable.” During debate on the bill, Senator Salmon Chase, of Ohio, argued that if a jury trial were allowable in “the most ordinary controversy involving a contested claim to twenty dollars,” then it should be when a man or woman’s liberty were at stake. An amendment to that effect failed, however.

As passed, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 provided for the appointment of a greatly expanded number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners for the purpose of issuing certificates of removal, and also charged those officials with the duty of hearing claims of putative enslavers “in a summary manner.” Upon receiving “satisfactory proof” of the validity of the claimant’s assertion of ownership—defined as either a sworn statement taken by the responsible official himself or a document certifying that appropriate testimony had been given before an official in the state from which the alleged escape had occurred—the federal commissioner was to issue a certificate for removal of the alleged fugitive.

Advertisement for Auction of Shadrach Minkins

Attempts to enforce the new Fugitive Slave Act met with only mixed success. Presciently, Senator David L. Yulee, of Florida, had argued before the Senate that the bill represented a “phantasmagorian” dream that could not possibly be enforced in the abolitionist North. As if on cue, the antislavery community in Massachusetts foiled an attempt to reclaim the well-known fugitive enslaved people Ellen and William Craft just months after the bill was signed, and the following year an armed crowd stormed the courthouse in Boston and rescued Shadrach Minkins, a runaway from Norfolk, Virginia. Minkins eventually fled to Montreal. But when Thomas Sims, an escaped enslaved man from Georgia, was seized in Boston later in 1851, government authorities took steps to ensure that the Minkins rescue would not be repeated. The courthouse was barricaded and placed under the protection of heavily armed guards during the hearing to determine whether Sims should be returned to slavery. After the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act itself, Sims was ordered returned to the custody of his former enslaver.

Anthony Burns in Boston

Perhaps the most famous challenge to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 came in 1854, when Anthony Burns, an escaped enslaved man from Virginia, was seized in Boston. An attempt to rescue him failed, killing a deputy U.S. marshal. After repeated failures to purchase Burns’s freedom, a trial upheld his seizure and, with the assistance of federal troops, authorized his return to Virginia.

Fugitive slave laws, from the 1640s through the 1850s, had always been exercises in compromise. As sectional differences hardened, compromise became less possible, so that the next challenge to the Fugitive Slave Act would not be fought in the courtroom but on the battlefield.

MAP
TIMELINE
May 19, 1643
The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England are adopted and require that any runaway servant "shalbe delivered either to his Master or any other that pursues and brings such Certificate or proofe."
August 31, 1779
Representatives of Virginia and Pennsylvania, meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, agree on the boundary between the two states.
1780
Pennsylvania passes the Gradual Emancipation Act, freeing the children of slaves after an indenture, and requiring all slaveowners to register their slaves by a certain date or they will be freed immediately.
April 23, 1784
The Confederation Congress passes the Land Ordinance, which organizes land west of the original thirteen states and provides for the end of slavery in those territories after the year 1800.
April 6, 1785
In an amendment to the Land Ordinance, passed by the Confederation Congress the year before, Rufus King, of Massachusetts, calls for all fugitive slaves to be returned to their rightful owners. The amendment dies.
July 13, 1787
The Confederation Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance, which organizes territory west of the original thirteen states and north of the Ohio River. Article 6 contains a requirement that fugitive slaves be returned to their rightful owners.
August 28, 1787
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pierce Butler and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina move to require "fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals." The motion is adopted the next day.
September 15, 1787
The wording of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution is finalized, apparently without dissent.
May 1788
After John Davis's owner in Pennsylvania hires him out to a Mr. Miller in Virginia, and after friends find and return Davis to Pennsylvania, Davis is captured again by three Virginians hired by Miller. They transport him to Virginia and Miller sells Davis.
July 1791
Governor Beverley Randolph refuses to extradite to Pennsylvania three Virginia men accused of kidnapping John Davis and transporting him to Virginia, where he was sold.
February 12, 1793
President George Washington signs into law the Fugitive Slave Act. It allows slaveowners to seize and arrest fugitive slaves and present written or oral proof to an official in order to reclaim their property.
November 5, 1822
Camillus Griffith, acting for the estate of Edgar McCarty, of Alexandria, seizes and confines a runaway slave named John Randolph in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
October 1823
In Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Camillus Griffith, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upholds the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 in the case of a Virginia slaveowner attempting to capture and return his runaway slave.
February 1837
Four slave catchers, including Edward Prigg, capture the enslaved woman Margaret Morgan in York County, Pennsylvania, and return her to Maryland.
1838
Maryland forms a commission to work with Pennsylvania to prepare a case for review by the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
May 23, 1839
In an attempt to streamline an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case regarding a fugitive slave, Pennsylvania authorizes a pro-forma trial by which Edward Prigg, a slave catcher from Maryland, is found guilty of kidnapping.
March 1, 1842
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Edward Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, upholding the constitutionality of much of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, but holding that state officials need not participate in the rendition of runaway slaves.
September 18, 1850
President Millard Fillmore signs the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850. It expands the number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners for the purposes of hearing fugitive-slave cases.
October 25, 1850
Warrants are issued in Boston, Massachusetts, for the arrest of fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft.
November 1, 1850
After receiving threats from Boston's antislavery community on October 30, William H. Hughes, a jailer from Macon, Georgia, leaves town without the fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft.
February 15, 1851, 11:30 a.m.
Deputy federal marshals arrest the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins at his place of employment, the Cornhill Coffee House in Boston, Massachusetts.
April 3, 1851
Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Savannah, Georgia, is arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, about a month after his arrival.
April 11, 1851
A court in Boston, Massachusetts, issues a certificate of removal, allowing for Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Savannah, Georgia, to be returned to his owner.
May 24, 1854
Anthony Burns, a runaway slave from Stafford County, is arrested in Boston under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850).
June 1, 1854
Judge Edward Greely Loring issues a decision in favor of Anthony Burns's owner, authorizing him to transport the fugitive slave back to Virginia.
FURTHER READING
  • Collison, Gary. Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Union, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, 2000.
  • Grover, Kathryn. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
  • Maltz, Earl M. Fugitive Slave on Trial: The Anthony Burns Case and Abolitionist Outrage. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
  • Schwarz, Philip J. Slave Laws in Virginia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Maltz, Earl. Fugitive Slave Laws. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fugitive-slave-laws.
MLA Citation:
Maltz, Earl. "Fugitive Slave Laws" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 06
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