Combating Racism – Understanding History – Fugitive Slave Laws

An 1851 poster warning of police acting as slave catchers

I’ve continued to read The New York Times magazine of August 18, 2019—The 1619 Project. One of the poems contained in the project is a redacted version of the first Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law on February 12, 1793 by George Washington. Below is a replication of the page (page 43) from the Times magazine.

This page was compiled by the award-winning American poet, memoirist and teacher, Reginald Dwayne Betts. Knowing nothing about the Fugitive Slave Act, I was inspired to learn more.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Below are sections 3 and 4 of the act, much of which Betts used in his poem.

SEC. 3. And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or in either of the Territories on the Northwest or South of the Ohio river, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any Judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States, residing or being within the State, or before any magistrate of a county, city, or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such Judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or Territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such Judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent, or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent, or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney, when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor, as aforesaid, shall, for either of the said offenses, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by action of debt, in any Court proper to try the same, saving moreover to the person claiming such labor or service his right of action for or on account of the said injuries, or either of them.

And below is part of the actual text.

The full text of the act can be read here.

This Act was intended to further the Fugitive Slave Clause of our Constitution, which was ratified on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth and last necessary state to ratify, making the document the law of the land.

I admit it: I didn’t know our Constitution contained a Fugitive Slave Clause. How did I never learn this in school? Or in the years in college when I studied American political history?

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution—called the Fugitive Slave Clause—reads:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

This clause basically mandated that if a slave ran away to another state, the slave would have to be brought back to the original state so the owner could claim the slave, ensuring an unqualified right on the part of the slave owner which no state law could in any way regulate, control, or restrain. Any state law that penalized such seizure was held unconstitutional.

According to the Teaching American History website, during the debate over the wording of this clause at the Constitutional Convention, delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut noted that he saw “no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant than a horse.”

Anti-slavery sentiment remained high in the North throughout the late 1780s and early 1790s, and many petitioned Congress to abolish slavery. But bowing to pressure from Southern lawmakers, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

This edict, similar to the Fugitive Slave Clause, included a more detailed description of how the law was to be put into practice. Most importantly, it decreed that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. If they captured a suspected runaway, these hunters had to bring them before a judge and provide evidence proving the person was their property. If court officials were satisfied by their proof—which often took the form of a signed affidavit—the owner would be permitted to take custody of the enslaved person and return to their home state. The law also imposed a $500 penalty on any person who helped harbor or conceal escapees.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was immediately met with a firestorm of criticism. Northerners bristled at the idea of turning their states into a stalking ground for bounty hunters, and many argued the law was tantamount to legalized kidnapping. Some abolitionists organized clandestine resistance groups and built complex networks of safe houses to aid enslaved people in their escape to the North.

Refusing to be complicit in the institution of slavery, most Northern states intentionally neglected to enforce the law. On March 29, 1788, Pennsylvania passed an amendment to one of its laws (An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, originally enacted March 1, 1780) saying, "No negro or mulatto slave... shall be removed out of this state, with the design and intention that the place of abode or residence of such slave or servant shall be thereby altered or changed."

On March 25, 1826, Pennsylvania passed a further law saying that anyone who takes or carries away any “negro or mulatto from any part or parts of this commonwealth” for purposes of “selling and disposing of, or causing to be sold” that person(s) and their aiders shall be convicted of a felony.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

In 1832, a Black woman named Margaret Morgan moved to Pennsylvania from Maryland, where she had been born into slavery and held by John Ashmore. Ashmore's heirs hired slavecatcher Edward Prigg to recover her.

On April 1, 1837, Prigg led an assault and abduction on Morgan in York County, Pennsylvania and took her and her children to Maryland, intending to sell her as a slave (her children, one of whom was born free in Pennsylvania, were also captured and sold). Under Pennsylvania’s 1826 law, Prigg was convicted of a felony.

Prigg appealed to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law could not supersede the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Article IV of the Constitution. His lawyer argued that the 1788 and 1826 Pennsylvania laws were unconstitutional. The case was Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U. S. 539 (1842).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Prigg’s conviction and held the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional, as it denied both the right of slaveholders to recover their slaves under Article IV of the Constitution and the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. The Court’s decision set the precedent that federal law superseded any state measures that tried to interfere with the Fugitive Slave Act.

Despite decisions like Prigg v. Pennsylvania, by the mid-1800s, thousands of enslaved people had poured into free states via networks like the Underground Railroad.

Solomon Northup

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act resulted in many free Blacks being illegally captured and sold into slavery. One famous case concerned Solomon Northup, a freeborn Black farmer and a professional violinist. A landowner in Hebron, New York, Northrup was offered a traveling musician’s job and in 1841, went to Washington, D.C. (where slavery was legal). There he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave. He was shipped to New Orleans, purchased by a planter, and held as a slave for 12 years in the Red River region of Louisiana. He remained a slave until he met a Canadian who helped get word to New York, where state law provided aid to free New York citizens who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His family and friends enlisted the aid of the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, and Northup regained his freedom on January 3, 1853. The slave trader in Washington, D.C., James H. Birch, was arrested and tried, but acquitted because Northup as a Black man was prohibited from testifying against White people.

In his first year of freedom, Northup wrote and published a memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). He lectured on behalf of the abolitionist movement, giving more than two dozen speeches throughout the Northeast about his experiences, to build momentum against slavery. Northup's memoir was adapted and produced as the 1984 television film Solomon Northup's Odyssey and the 2013 feature film 12 Years a Slave. The latter won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, at the 86th Academy Awards.

Solomon Northup engraving from his autobiography

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Following increased pressure from Southern politicians, Congress passed a revised Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

Part of Henry Clay’s famed Compromise of 1850—a group of bills that helped quiet early calls for Southern secession—this new law forcibly compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaways. It also denied enslaved people the right to a jury trial and increased the penalty for interfering with the rendition process to $1,000 and six months in jail. To ensure the statute was enforced, the 1850 law also placed control of individual cases in the hands of federal commissioners who were paid handsomely for returning a suspected runaway.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was met with even more resistance than the earlier measure. States like Vermont and Wisconsin passed new measures intended to bypass and even nullify the law, and abolitionists redoubled their efforts to assist runaways. The Underground Railroad reached its peak in the 1850s, with many enslaved people fleeing to Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction.

Resistance also occasionally boiled over into riots and revolts. In 1851 a mob of antislavery activists rushed a Boston courthouse and forcibly liberated an escapee named Shadrach Minkins from federal custody. Similar rescues were later made in New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became virtually unenforceable in certain Northern states, and by 1860 only around 330 enslaved people had been successfully returned to their Southern masters. It wasn’t until June 28, 1864, that the Fugitive Slave Acts were repealed by an act of Congress.

While there continues to be much debate about the accuracy and inclusiveness of Project 1619, some of which I wrote about last week, one thing is certain: in reading The New York Times magazine of August 18, 2019, I am learning more than I ever knew about the history of slavery in our country. And about our Constitution.

Fortunately, the Fugitive Slave Law was superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, this amendment, while it ended slavery and began the long-term goal of achieving equality for all Americans, it did not end discrimination against Blacks and those who had been enslaved. Educational efforts, like those proposed in Project 1619 in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center are a necessary step toward ending the plague of systemic racial discrimination.

Correction: In my newsletter last week, I indicated that the poem by Wang Wei was written in 1921. This was incorrect. The poem appeared in 1921. Wang Wei died in 759.

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