As early as 1643 there was in existence slavery legislation in America and the New England Confederation. That law was enacted in a few of the initial 13 colonies. The states of Maryland and Virginia had laws that offered bounties to persons who would capture slaves that had escaped and even larger rewards for those who would return them to their masters. In 1705 New York had tough laws that outlawed fleeing away to Canada and other “safe havens”. This paper will discuss the three significant legislative actions that shaped the controversy over fugitive slaves between 1783 and 1860.
Most of the Northern states had abolished slavery as early as 1787 despite the fact that the “Fugitive Slave Clause” had been entrenched in the Constitution. Fearing that the North may become a safe escaping zone for slaves, lawmakers from the south pushed and succeeded in enacting “The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.” The southern legislators made their claim on the basis that the slave debate would put many new states at loggerheads. This law was in many ways similar to the fugitive slave laws that existed earlier but had more detailed provisions on how it would be effected. One notable feature is that it contained a provision that granted masters and their “agents” the right to search for fugitive slaves everywhere including the borders of the states that did not permit slavery. If suspected slave was captured, the persons who had hunted him down were to bring him before a judge and produce evidence to prove that the slave was their rightful property. If the judge was satisfied, he signed an affidavit and the slave was to be forced to return to their owner. Another distinctive mark of the law was that it imposed a penalty of $500 on any accomplice who aided a slave in hiding or escaping.
The Northern states, on the other hand, were not happy with their areas turned into bounty-hunting grounds. To show their rebellion, most of them neglected to enforce the law and passed the so-called “Personal Liberty Laws.” These laws gave slaves who had escaped the right to be tried by a jury and offered further protections to the colored men and women, most of whom were abductees and forced into slavery. The legality of these laws that sought to protect the black man and even assist him to escape enforced slavery was challenged in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842 at the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Prigg overturning his conviction that resulted from the kidnapping and capture of a suspected slave. This ruling dealt a major blow to the “Personal Liberty Laws” but did not kill the resolve of the Northern legislators in the war against slavery.
Lastly in 1850, the Congress passed the revised Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 amid sustained pressure for and against the law from both sides. The revised laws went a notch higher and had a provision that compelled citizens to help in capturing fugitive slaves. The law also expressly denied suspected escapees the right to a jury trial. It increased the fine of aiding a slave who had escaped to $1000 coupled with a six-month jail term. Despite these provisions the Northern states continued with their resistance and citizens began protesting aginst the law. The law, however, stayed put and was only repealed after the commencement of the civil war.
This essay discusses three phases of legislation that shaped the battle over escaped slaves. As discussed above, laws prohibiting slaves from escaping existed from as early as 1643. The Fugitive Slaves Act was enacted in 1793 to cover all the possible loopholes that existed in prior fugitive laws. This was met by resistance and the northerners enacted the Personal Liberty Laws to shield black men from being dragged into slavery. Lastly, the Personal Liberty Laws were countered by a reinforcement of Revised Fugitive Slaves Act in 1950.