Slaves who had escaped from their masters. Under the institution of slavery that existed in the United States until 1865, many African Americans were classified as property with no political or legal rights.
In 1619 the first African slaves
George Washington, James Madison, and some of the other Founders owned a large number of slaves and were reluctant to ban slavery because they derived profit from their slaves’ free labor and feared the potential damage to the fledgling American economy, especially in the South. The divisive debate at the Constitutional Convention created two strategic outcomes. First, the North forbade slavery in its territories and passed the 1787 Northwest Ordinance,
The institution of slavery in the United States was explicitly protected by four provisions in the Constitution. Article I, section 2, clause 3, known as the Three-Fifths Compromise, stated that a slave was counted as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of taxation and the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Article I, section 9, clause 1, called the slave trade clause, prevented Congress from stopping the slave trade for twenty years and taxed each slave brought into the nation. Article IV, section 2, clause 3, called the fugitive slave clause, demanded that escaped slaves be returned to their owners. Article V prevented constitutional amendments on the international slave trade until after 1808. Moreover, ten other provisions in the Constitution supported the institution of slavery. This legal superstructure laid the foundation for Supreme Court rulings that would follow, especially with regard to fugitive slaves.
Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. The act ordered free states in the North to turn over fugitive slaves to slave catchers and to expedite their eventual return with a federal certificate of removal to their masters in the South. When the act was implemented in the North, problems arose concerning the legal status of free African Americans. Northern states passed laws against kidnapping and personal-liberty statutes to protect free African Americans from Southern slave catchers. However, the steady rise in slave insurrections and runaway slaves amplified Southern whites’ fears concerning property losses and personal safety and caused them to increase their support for fugitive slave measures.
This 1851 poster cautions free blacks in Boston against dealing with the authorities lest they be mistaken for a fugitive slave and returned to slavery.
In Groves v. Slaughter
In 1850 Congress passed a revised, strengthened fugitive slave act, supporting the capture and return procedure and providing penalties for anyone who interfered. Federal commissioners were appointed to enforce the law. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that these federal commissioners could return slaves to their owners’ plantations based on proof of ownership by claimants, without a jury trial or hearing the alleged slave’s testimony. In this second act, Congress considerably strengthened the property rights of Southern slave owners. In Strader v. Graham
In Scott v. Sandford
Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 met with opposition in the North, and riots and rescues took place in several Northern cities. Northerners, many of whom were opposed to slavery, disliked being forced to participate in the return of slaves, and Southerners were angry because the North was not obeying the law. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the succession of the Southern states ended the return of slaves to the South. In 1865 the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States.
For a fugitive slave’s perspective, read William Wells Brown’s “Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave,” in From Fugitive Slave to Free Man (New York: Mentor, 1993), edited by William L. Andrews. Also read Austin Steward’s “Twenty Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman,” in In Four Slave Narratives (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969), by Robin A. Winks, Larry Gara, Jane H. Pease, William H. Pease, and Tilden G. Edelstein. Plantation Society and Race Relations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999), edited by Thomas J. Durant, Jr., and J. David Knottnerus, presents a wide-ranging discussion of Southern plantation slave society and the everyday conditions that led to an estimated fifty thousand slave escapes per year. For a review of the beginning and end of the slavery system in the United States, see Louis Filler’s The Rise and Fall of Slavery in America (New York: Van Nostrand, 1980). Merton L. Dillon’s The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974) provides a good review of the abolitionist movement. For an excellent political and historical chronology of the African and African American experience, read The Atlas of African-American History and Politics: From the Slave Trade to Modern Times (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), edited by Arwin D. Smallwood and Jeffrey M. Elliot.
Ableman v. Booth
Fugitives from justice
Groves v. Slaughter
Kentucky v. Dennison
Prigg v. Pennsylvania
Race and discrimination
Scott v. Sandford
States’ rights and state sovereignty
Taney, Roger Brooke