First Fugitive Slave Law

The U.S. Congress passed a law establishing a procedure for southern slave owners to recover slaves who fled north, aggravating the sectional conflict between free states and slave states.

Summary of Event

In colonial America, the return of fugitives within and between jurisdictions was a common practice. These fugitives were usually felons escaping from jails; persons charged with crimes; apprentices and indentured servants fleeing from their employers; or black, African slaves white, or Native American slaves Native Americans;as slaves[slaves] running away from their masters. Their rendition between jurisdictions depended on comity among colonial authorities. The articles of the New England Confederation of 1643 included a provision for the return of fugitive slaves and servants. Like all subsequent American legislation on the topic, it did not provide for a trial by jury. [kw]First Fugitive Slave Law (Feb. 12, 1793)
[kw]Law, First Fugitive Slave (Feb. 12, 1793)
[kw]Slave Law, First Fugitive (Feb. 12, 1793)
[kw]Fugitive Slave Law, First (Feb. 12, 1793)
Fugitive Slave Act (1793)
[g]United States;Feb. 12, 1793: First Fugitive Slave Law[3090]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 12, 1793: First Fugitive Slave Law[3090]
[c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 12, 1793: First Fugitive Slave Law[3090]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 12, 1793: First Fugitive Slave Law[3090]
Cabot, George
Sedgwick, Theodore
Johnston, Samuel
Read, George
Sherman, Roger
Taylor, John
Washington, George;slave laws

In the late eighteenth century, with the growth of antislavery Antislavery movement sentiment in the North and the settlement of territory west of the Appalachian Mountains, a uniform method for the return of fugitive slaves became necessary. Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) Northwest Ordinance of 1787 excluding chattel slavery provided that persons escaping into the territory from whom labor or service was lawfully claimed in any one of the original states might be returned to the person claiming their labor or service. The provision did not distinguish between slaves and indentured servants.

The United States Slavery;and U.S. Constitution[US Constitution]
Constitution, U.S. Constitution of the same year incorporated the provision, without limiting the claimants to residents of the original states of the union. One of several concessions intended to win support from the slaveholding states, Article IV, section 2, states that

no person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

In 1793, Congress decided to set federal rules for the rendition of alleged fugitives. This action was prompted by Pennsylvania’s attempt to recover from Virginia several men accused of having kidnapped John Davis, a free black man. Unable to receive satisfaction, the governor of Pennsylvania brought the matter to the attention of President George Washington, who referred it to the Congress.

A committee of the House of Representatives, led by Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, reported a rendition bill on November 15, 1791, but no action was taken. A special Senate committee, consisting of George Cabot of Massachusetts (who chaired the committee), Samuel Johnston of North Carolina, and George Read of Delaware, submitted a bill on December 20, 1792, establishing a ministerial procedure for the extradition of judicial fugitives. It also provided a system for the recovery of fugitives from labor or service. A claimant had to present a written deposition from one or more credible persons to a local magistrate who would order officers of the court to seize the fugitive and turn him or her over to the claimant. The bill set penalties for harboring a fugitive, neglecting a duty, or obstructing an arrest. After debate, the bill was recommitted with instructions to amend, and John Taylor of Virginia and Roger Sherman of Connecticut were added to the committee.

January 3, 1793, a revised bill was reported to the Senate by Johnston, allowing the claimant or his agent to seize a fugitive and bring that person to a federal court or a local magistrate. Oral testimony or an affidavit certified by a magistrate of the master’s state sufficed to establish a claim. To guard against the kidnapping of free African Americans, residents of the territory or state in which they were seized, the new bill included a proviso assuring them their rights under the laws of that territory or state. This meant they were entitled to a judicial inquiry or a jury trial to determine their status. They were also to be presumed free, until proven otherwise, and allowed to testify on their own behalf.

After two debates, during which the proviso was dropped, the bill passed the Senate on January 18. It was entitled “An act respecting fugitives from justice and persons escaping from their masters.” The House passed it with little discussion, February 5, by a vote of forty-eight to seven. Seven days later, President Washington signed the bill into law.

The first two sections of the act, known popularly as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, dealt with the interstate rendition of fugitives from justice. The third section provided that when a person held to labor escaped into any state or territory of the United States, the master or a designated agent could seize that individual and bring him or her before a judge of the federal courts in the state or before any magistrate of a county, city, or incorporated town. Title was proven by the testimony of the master or the affidavit of a magistrate in the state from which the escapee came, certifying that the person had escaped. The judge or magistrate then had to provide a certificate entitling the petitioner to remove the fugitives.

The act applied to fugitive apprentices or indentured servants as well as to slaves, a provision important at that time to representatives of the northern states. The act did not admit a trial by jury, and it contained no provisions for the alleged fugitives to offer evidence on their own behalf, although they were not prevented from doing so if the presiding judge or magistrate agreed.

Section 4 provided criminal penalties, a fine of five hundred dollars, in addition to any civil action the owner might have under state law, for obstructing the capture and for rescuing, harboring, aiding, or hiding fugitives.

Although many attempts were made to amend the act, it remained the law of the land until the abolition of slavery, its constitutionality repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. It was amended and supplemented, not replaced, by the Second Fugitive Slave Act (1850) Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850 Compromise of 1850.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 contributed significantly to the growth of sectional conflict within the United States. Efforts to enforce its provisions encountered immediate resistance in northern states, isolated and scattered at first but increasingly well organized and vigorous (for example, the Underground Railroad), as slavery prospered in the Old South and spread to western lands. Many northern states passed personal liberty laws (Indiana in 1824, Connecticut in 1828, New York and Vermont in 1840). Designed to prevent the kidnaping of free African Americans, these laws provided for trial by jury to determine their true status.

The effectiveness of the statute was further diminished by the Supreme Court’s decision in Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842)[Prigg versus Commonwealth]
Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842) that state authorities could not be forced by the national government to act in fugitive slave cases. Subsequently, Massachusetts (1843), Vermont (1843), Pennsylvania (1847), and Rhode Island (1848) forbade their officials to help enforce the law and refused the use of their jails for fugitive slaves. Because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 provided no federal means of apprehending fugitive slaves, owners had to rely on the often ineffectual and costly services of slave catchers. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the law ceased to apply to the Confederate states. It was considered valid in the loyal border states until it was repealed June 28, 1864.

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Stanley. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970. Although the book focuses primarily on the 1850 act, chapter 1 deals with attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
  • Finkelman, Paul. “The Kidnapping of John Davis and the Adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 3 (August, 1990): 397-422. Discusses the incident that led Congress to take up the issue of fugitive slaves; thoroughly examines the legislative progress of the law.
  • _______. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2d ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. Examines the status of slavery in the newly created republic, including the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
  • ________. Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985. Presents a detailed description of judicial decisions, as well as other documents pertaining to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
  • McDougall, Marion G. Fugitive Slaves, 1619-1865. 1891. Reprint. New York: Bergman, 1969. Appendix includes the text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and many other relevant legislative and judicial documents.
  • Morris, Thomas D. Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1861. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. A definitive account of the efforts of northern states to secure individual liberty against the harsh implications of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
  • Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolition: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002. A history of American abolitionist activities from the 1770’s to the 1830’s. Newman traces the beginning of the abolition movement to Pennsylvania and discusses the movement’s reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
  • Wiecek, William M. Liberty Under Law: The Supreme Court in American Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Discusses the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 in Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842).
  • ________. The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760-1848. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Detailed exposition of the fugitive slave provisions of the Northwest Ordinance and the U.S. Constitution, 1787.

Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade

New York City Slave Revolt

Slaves Capture St. John’s Island

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

Northeast States Abolish Slavery

Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade

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