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Fugitive Slave Laws

Fugitive Slave Laws

What were Fugitive Slave Laws?

The fugitive slave laws were a series of enactments by Congress, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and lasting up to the Civil War, that required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners if they escaped into Free states.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established that Virginia would relinquish all claims to the territories west of Pennsylvania for the establishment of future states.  These states would eventually become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  The Ordinance stipulated that there would be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the territory.  This was done, in part, so that southern farmers would not fear competition from the new territories.  As a compromise Article VI of the Ordinance required fugitive slaves to be returned.  This was the first fugitive slave law ever passed in the United States and with the expansion of the Union the law expanded as well.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Although the Constitution permitted the retrieval of fugitive slaves under Article IV and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 required the return of them there was not yet a legal mechanism for which a slave owner could physically retrieve his "property." By passing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 the federal government specifically ways method that one can use in capturing a fugitive slave as well as the punishment associated with aiding or harboring a fugitive slave.  The law stated that an individual may enter into another state or territory, be it a free or slave state, and recover his "property." The fugitive slave would then be brought before a District or Circuit Court judge to be tried.  If the judge found that the fugitive was the property of the slave, which was always the case, then the slave would be required to return with the slave owner.  Problems with the law were that many "freedmen" were taken by individuals coming into Free states to retrieve their slaves.  Because blacks had no right to be heard in court it was mostly the slave owner's word that was heard by the judge.  This resulted in many "freedmen" being bonded into slavery.

Personal Liberty Laws

In response to the manner in which slave holder could enter into Free states and abduct blacks, be it slaves or "freedmen", bringing them to the south; many northern states enacted "liberty laws." These laws gave blacks taken by slave owners the right to a trial, the right to testify and imposed fines for kidnapping.  This worked as an effective response to quell the abduction of "freedmen" from the north into the southern states but in 1842 the Supreme Court held the laws unconstitutional stating that the right of an individual to recover his property could not be trumped by state law.  The Supreme Court also went on to hold that northern states could not be compelled to aide in the recovery of stolen "property."

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Laws of 1850 were enacted as part of the Compromise of 1850.  The Compromise of 1850 were 5 decisions that were made regarding the admission of new states in the Union.  Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 the argument over slave and Free states had resulted in numerous compromises over which states would be free and which would not.  The decisions were important, not only for the interests of slave owners in the territories, but for balance in the Congress.  In the Compromise of 1850 California was admitted as a free state; New Mexico and Utah were permitted to use popular sovereignty to decide the issue of slavery; Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia; The republic of Texas gave up lands in New Mexico; and The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created federal commissioners to enforce the fugitive slave laws.  Where the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 only empowered federal judged to try suspected fugitive slaves, in the 1850 Act Congress bestowed upon a group of commissioners the same abilities to adjudicate the slave laws.  In addition, the new law required federal marshals to pursue fugitive slaves and could be fined if it was deemed they were not performing their job with the utmost enthusiasm.  Marshalls had that authority to deputize individuals in the search for fugitive slaves, including northern abolitionists against their will.  Individuals who were caught were brought before the federal commissioner and received no jury and no right to testify.  One of the most controversial aspects of the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1850 was payment of commissioners.  If a commissioner found that the fugitive was indeed the property of the slave owner he was entitled to a fee of $10, which is around $250 in present terms, and $5 if the commissioner found that the fugitive was not the property of the slave owner.  By that, it was perceived by many to be a form of bribery and of the 332 individuals returned to their slave owners during the 1850's only 11 had ever been found to be free.  

Dredd Scott Decision

The issue of fugitive slave laws came to a boiling point in 1857 with the infamous decision in Dredd Scott v. Sandford.  The fact of the case involved a slave owner taking his slave (Dredd Scott) from Missouri (a slave state) to Illinois (a free state) and then to Wisconsin (a free territory) and back to Missouri.  Upon the death of the slave owner Scott sued for his freedom claiming that his residence in the free state of Illinois made him a free man.

The decision made by the Supreme Court was 7-2 with the holding stating that a black man had no right to sue in a federal court and that it did not matter to which state a slave was brought to.  The only thing that matters is where the individual is a resident, in this case, Missouri, a slave state.  

The bigger issue from this holding was that the court struck down the Missouri Compromise of 1850.  The court noted that it was unconstitutional to limit the ability of a citizen to travel with his property anywhere in the United States.  This ruling essentially did away with popular sovereignty and, according to the Supreme Court; any individual could use his slaves in any territory in the Union.  The declaration of the unconstitutionality of the Compromise of 1850 essentially opened the flood gates to the impending civil war that would begin just 4 years later.