Fugitive Slave Laws


Fugitive slave laws provided slaveowners 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 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, which 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, 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 slave 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).

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 slaves 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 slaves 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 slaves who escaped from states where slavery was legal, and also mandated that escaped slaves “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 slaves 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 slave to the state from which he or she had fled. While in criminal cases public order was at stake, in fugitive-slave cases slaveowners 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 owner 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 owner register their slaves by a certain date or 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, only to be found by a group of antislavery Pennsylvanians and returned to that state. Miller then hired three Virginia men to capture his slave, 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 a slaveowner might vindicate his right to reclaim a fugitive. Under the 1793 statute, signed into law on February 12, a slaveowner 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 slave’s owner.

Neither side was completely satisfied with the legislation. Some southerners worried that the rights of slaveowners 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 slaveowners 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, 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 slaves would be captured and returned to their owners, 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 slaves, 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 slaves. 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 slaveowners had a constitutional right to attempt to reclaim their own escaped slaves, 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 slaveowners, however. The justices concluded that Congress did not have the authority to require state officials to participate in the rendition of fugitive slaves. 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 slaves.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law

Faced with increasing difficulty in recovering escaped slaves, 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 masters “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 slaves 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 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 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 master.

Anthony Burns in Boston

Perhaps the most famous challenge to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 came in 1854, when 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, 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.

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.
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.
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.
  • 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.
APA Citation:
Maltz, Earl. Fugitive Slave Laws. (2021, June 09). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fugitive-slave-laws.
MLA Citation:
Maltz, Earl. "Fugitive Slave Laws" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (09 Jun. 2021). Web. 09 Dec. 2022
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