Fugitive Slave Acts
1643 – June 28, 1864
Location: United States of America
Laws intended to safeguard slave owners’ claims on human beings had been established as far back as 1643 in what would come to be known as the United States of America. Slavery had been allowed in all of the colonies but following the Revolutionary War, five of the Northern states implemented policies to gradually abolish or curtail slavery. Ironically, at the same time America was supposedly establishing itself as a democratic land of freedom, efforts were made to appease the Southern states with the inclusion of a Fugitive Slave Clause in the U.S. Constitution.
Over four years in the 1760s, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon surveyed 233 miles of land west of the Delaware River. They intended to settle a dispute over land claims between the descendants of William Penn and George Calvert, both of whom had been granted land by England’s King Charles I. Penn’s land would become Pennsylvania, a haven for Europe’s religious minorities, Quakers in particular, while Calvert’s became Maryland.
Mason and Dixon established a border between the two colonies at 39 degrees and 43 minutes north latitude. The line was extended in 1799 to officially establish a border between Pennsylvania and Virginia. What came to be known as the Mason-Dixon Line in combination with the Ohio River served as the boundary between the Northern and Southern colonies, later states. Over the years, the line would play a role in ideologically dividing the states, most notably on the issue of slavery.
With the end of the Revolutionary War, slavery became further entrenched in the South. But in 1804, New Jersey became the last of the Northern states to introduce measures to abolish slavery. Thus despite their shortcomings, the northern states became the promised land for enslaved people who were seeking their freedom. Even after the First Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, an escaped slave who managed to cross to the north of the Mason-Dixon Line or Ohio River was generally regarded as now being free.
In further efforts to thwart the natural human desire to escape from bondage and seek freedom, the U.S. Congress passed the first of two Fugitive Slave Acts. This was a mere five years after the ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause set forth that enslaved people would not be granted freedom even if they escaped to a free state. A growing abolitionist movement in the North and limited legal enforcement meant the clause was mostly ignored.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was intended to build upon the clause by expanding Southern slaveholders’ options for re-capturing runaway slaves. It vested slaveholders with the right for them or agents acting on their behalf to enter and search for runaway slaves in free states. Judges were authorized to grant or deny permission for accused escapees to be taken to the South. This wide discretion combined with minimal evidence requirements also put free Black people at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 carried a potential $500 fine for anyone who sheltered a runaway. Yet, as with the previous policies some who were anti-slavery passively ignored expectations for them to assist in the recapture of escaped enslaved people. Some jurisdictions introduced laws that gave accused escapees the right to a jury trial rather than the slave owner or agent submitting an affidavit to a judge for approval. Abolitionists took direct action by forming groups to repel attempts to recapture escapees while also helping them get to freedom. This informal network would evolve into the Underground Railroad.
In most cases, it was enough for runaways to merely arrive in one of the free Northern states and then avoid former owners and slave catchers. Abolitionists helping runaways escape and general Northerners not aiding in their recapture added to the growing tension between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. The Compromise of 1850 was created to force Northerners to comply and assist in recapturing alleged escapees.
1850’s Fugitive Slave Act attempted to expand and add greater enforcement power to the earlier laws. For starters, the previous $500 fine was increased to $1,000 with a six-month jail sentence as additional punishment. There was a concentrated effort to nullify the Northern state-level personal liberty laws by barring alleged escapees from testifying in court on their own behalf or opting for a jury trial. Federal marshals were pulled into enforcing the fugitive laws under threat of being penalized for failure to carry out their duties or if a runaway escaped from their custody.
As with the previous laws, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was ignored or otherwise met with subversion in the North. The Compromise and Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legalized the disregard of Black people’s rights based on their race not their status of freedom/bondage. 1857’s Dred Scott decision saw the Supreme Court officially pass judgment that people of African descent regardless of their place of birth, free or enslaved, had no rights as they were not citizens of the United States. Thus even in the North, any Black person was at risk of being deemed a runaway slave while lacking the ability to defend themselves in court.
Slave traders and others looking to profit from these laws took advantage of the system. Despite having no legal recourse and the deck being stacked against them, enslaved people continued their attempts to escape bondage in the South. The Underground Railroad was at its busiest during this period. But rather than just settling anywhere beyond the Mason-Dixon line or Ohio River, fugitive slaves now aimed for the safety of Canada. Continued resistance in the form of escape and assistance from Black and White abolitionists in the North further increased tensions and rumblings of threats of secession from the South which would contribute to the start of the Civil War.
The Fugitive Slave Acts remained in effect for the border states that did not secede from the Union until Congress finally repealed the Acts on June 28, 1864. Black people would not be officially declared citizens and thus have their rights reinstated until the 14th Amendment was adopted on July 9, 1868.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2020. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. July 23, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Fugitive-Slave-Acts.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2020. “Mason-Dixon Line.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. May 4, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mason-and-Dixon-Line.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Dred Scott Case.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. August 26, 2020. https://history.com/topics/black-history/dred-scott-case?li_source=LI&li_medium=m2m-rcw-history.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Mason and Dixon Draw a Line, Dividing the Colonies.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. October 15, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mason-and-dixon-draw-a-line.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 12, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts.
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