Fugitive slaves Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 slavesSlavery;beginnings of were brought to Virginia. By the late 1700’s, there were more than a million blacks in the United States. The battle between the proslavery and antislavery factions reflected an economic and moral divide. The proslavery faction threatened not to ratify the U.S. Constitution at the 1787 Constitutional Convention if the institution of chattel slavery was not allowed. The antislavery faction in the North posited that slavery was a moral outrage and contrary to the law of nature and, therefore, that international and national slave trade activities should be terminated.

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,Northwest Ordinance which outlawed slavery in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Second, the South was permitted in its territoriesTerritories and new states;slavery in to equate black slaves to property, enforce the subservience of blacks to whites by all means necessary, and ensure the legal subjugation and dehumanization of blacks required to maximize both economic productivity and wealth creation.

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.

The First Law

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.

(Library of Congress)

In Groves v. Slaughter[case]Groves v. Slaughter[Groves v. Slaughter] (1841), in a 5-2 vote, the Court ruled that the commerce clause in the Constitution did not interfere with the institution of slavery in the South. This major ruling advanced states’ rights over federal rights in the slavery domain. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania[case]Prigg v. Pennsylvania[Prigg v. Pennsylvania] (1842), Justice Joseph Story, speaking for the 8-1 majority, upheld the constitutionality of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and struck down state personal-liberty laws interfering with the return of slaves. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney,Taney, Roger Brooke a proslavery Southerner, argued that states had the right to enforce the act and certainly were not prohibited from doing so. In Jones v. Van Zandt[case]Jones v. Van Zandt[Jones v. Van Zandt] (1847), the antislavery faction along with free blacks contested the constitutionality of the 1793 act. In this case, an Underground Railway conductor, John Van Zandt, was accused of hiding and assisting fugitive slaves. Attorney and future chief justice Salmon P. ChaseChase, Salmon P. defended Van Zandt, arguing that the act was unconstitutional and that Congress had no enforcement power with regard to slavery. However, the Court found that the 1793 act was consistent with Congress’s enforcement power under the slave trade clause and that the 1787 Northwest Ordinance had not been negatively affected.

The Second Law

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[case]Strader v. Graham[Strader v. Graham] (1851), Chief Justice Taney argued that states had the legitimate right to determine the legal status of all blacks within their territory. In Moore v. Illinois[case]Moore v. Illinois[Moore v. Illinois] (1852), Judge Robert C. Grier wrote that a state using its inherent police powers had the right to both arrest and detain fugitive slaves as it would paupers, idlers, and vagabonds. Furthermore, a state could exercise such powers legally under the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.

In Scott v. Sandford[case]Scott v. Sandford[Scott v. Sandford] (1857), the Court, in a 7-2 vote, ruled that African AmericansAfrican Americans;citizenship[citizenship] were not citizens of the United States because they were both slaves and black. The decision denied African Americans access to the federal court system in civil cases, prevented them from exercising the rights of citizenship, and eroded the limited rights of blacks in free states. Moreover, in his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Taney argued that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional because Congress went far beyond its powers in legislating where chattel slavery could exist in the new territories. Taney asserted that blacks “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.” In Abelman v. Booth[case]Abelman v. Booth[Abelman v. Booth] (1859), the Court unanimously ruled that all provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law were constitutional. In Kentucky v. Dennison[case]Kentucky v. Dennison[Kentucky v. Dennison] (1861), the Taney Court held that the interstate extradition for trial and punishment from Ohio to Kentucky of a free black who had assisted a black slave could not be allowed nor could Congress force a state official to perform any duty to that effect. This ruling upheld states’ rights over federal rights in the fugitive slave domain.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Property rights

Race and discrimination

Scott v. Sandford


States’ rights and state sovereignty

Taney, Roger Brooke

Categories: History