Wednesday, December 26, 2007


FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitu­tion of the United States provides that runaway slaves escaping from one state to another "shall be delivered upon Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." The en­forcement machinery for this constitutional provision was pro­vided in the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. By this act, Congress empowered slaveowners or their agents (i.e., profes­sional slave-catchers) to "seize or arrest" fugitive slaves who had escaped bondage and fled into another state or federal ter­ritory. Once caught, the fugitive slave was to be brought before any federal district judge or circuit court judge, or any state magistrate in the vicinity of the apprehension. The judicial of­ficer, in turn, was empowered to issue a certificate warranting the return of the slave to the state [owner] from which he had fled. The certificate was to be granted (i.e., the fugitive slave was confirmed to be a fugitive) upon the oral testimony of the owner or upon the presentation of an affidavit signed by a magistrate of the state from which the alleged fugitive had escaped. Trial by jury, in other words, was not provided for, thereby rendering the fugitive or, for that matter, any black who could not "prove" that he or she was free, defenseless.

Northern opposition notwithstanding, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 became the law of the land. Some northern states, how­ever, enacted what were called "personal liberty laws" to impede the execution of the federal law. A Connecticut law of 1828, for example, provided that fugitive slaves were entitled to appeal the original decision against them, thereby automatically en­titling the accused to a trial by jury. In 1840, both New York and Vermont followed suit by giving fugitives the right to trial by jury and the right to retain an attorney. In addition to these "personal liberty laws," enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law in the North was hampered by the existence of the so-called Underground Railroad, a loose-knit abolitionist organization which helped fugitive slaves escape into Canada. Canada, of course, specifically prohibited slavery and did not recognize or honor American fugitive slave legislation.

As a result of the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that state authorities could not be compelled to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Law, as well as the passage of additional "personal liberty laws" in the North, southern states began to demand more effective federal legisla­tion to stem the growing number of successfully permanent slave desertions. This demand was in part satisfied by the so-called Compromise of 1850. An integral part of the Compromise was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Designed to amend and strengthen the 1793 legislation, the new Fugitive Slave Act provided for the appointment of federal commissioners with warrant-issuing authority and the right to summon a posse and compel private citizens (under the threat of fine or imprison­ment) to aid in the capture and return of fugitive slaves to their declared owners. Trial by jury and the right to retain an attorney were specifically denied, while stiff penalties were established for those caught in the act of aiding a fugitive slave. Additionally, it was provided that the federal commissioners would receive a fee of ten dollars when their "decision" favored the claimant [slaveowner], but only five dollars when it favored the alleged fugitive.

Although the amended Fugitive Slave Act was indeed more stringent than its predecessor, it did not work to the slave­owner's advantage. Among other things, the new legislation transformed many northern "moderates" into diehard abolition­ists; it resulted in the passage of a spate of new "personal liberty laws" by northern state legislatures; and it substantially increased the number of "passengers" to Canada via the Under­ground Railroad. See also: COMPROMISE OF 1850 and UNDER­GROUND RAILROAD.

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