Portrait of George Washington

Signed into law by President George Washington on February 12, 1793, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 empowered local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who assisted in their flights to freedom. [Wikimedia Commons]

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

February 12, 1793

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was enacted by Congress in reaction to a dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia over the kidnapping of a black man in Pennsylvania by three Virginians. The act provided alleged fugitive slaves with no protection of habeas corpus, no right to trial by jury, and no right to testify on their own behalf. 

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Prelude

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union” between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition during the coming decades.

Protecting Slavery

Although the Founding Fathers did not use the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution, they endorsed three provisions that either codified or protected the “peculiar institution.”

  1. Article I, Section 2 stated, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons,” (emphasis added). “All other Persons,” meant slaves.
  2. Article I, Section 9 declared that “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person (emphasis added). “Such persons” was a more delicate euphemism for the word, “slaves.”
  3. Article IV, Section 2 mandated that “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 (emphasis added). “Person held to Service or Labor” was yet another more diplomatic substitution for the term “slave.”

Of these three oblique references to slavery in the Constitution, the last, often referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause, proved to be the most ambiguous, and eventually the most contentious and divisive. Although the founders were clear that runaway slaves should be “delivered up” or returned to their masters, they did not address regulations for doing so in the Constitution.

The Northwest Ordinance

At the same time delegates to the Constitutional Convention set about creating plans for a new government, representatives to the Congress of the existing government established under the Articles of Confederation were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio,” that stipulated “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . ” That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slaves states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

It was not long before it became clear that officials needed to establish rules regarding runaway slaves. In 1788, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society informed Governor Thomas Mifflin that three Virginians had kidnapped a free black resident of Pennsylvania named John Davis and sold him into bondage in Virginia. Pennsylvania authorities indicted the kidnappers, but could not bring them to trial because they had fled to their home state. In 1791, Mifflin appealed to Virginia Governor Beverly Randolph for the extradition of the kidnappers, but Randolph refused. Mifflin appealed to President Washington, who sent the matter on to Congress. The legal dispute prompted Congress to enact “An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,” in 1793.

Section 1 of the Fugitive Slave Act seemed to favor the Pennsylvanians. It declared:

That, whenever the Executive of any State . . . shall demand any person as a fugitive from justice, of . . . any such State to which such person shall have fled and shall . . . produce the copy of an indictment . . . or an affidavit . . . charging the person so demanded with having committed treason, felony, or other crime . . . it shall be the duty of the executive authority of the State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, to cause him or her arrest to be given to the Executive authority making such demand, (emphasis added).

In short, the law required the governor of any state harboring a fugitive charged with a crime in another state to arrest and return the accused criminal to stand trial in the state issuing an indictment. Thus, Virginia would have to extradite the kidnappers to Pennsylvania. 

The law went further, however. Section 3 of the act established special provisions for the return of runaway slaves. This section enabled slave owners or their agents to cross state lines to capture runaway slaves, take them before a federal or local magistrate, and upon presenting proof of ownership, receive authorization to return the fugitive to slavery. The law provided alleged fugitive slaves with no protection of habeas corpus, no right to trial by jury, and no right to testify on their own behalf.

Section 4 of the act went on to make it a federal crime to aid fugitive slaves and established a penalty of $500 (a princely sum in those days) for doing so.

Aftermath

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 put real teeth into the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, and it also opened the door to potential abuses by unscrupulous slave owners and their agents. Fearing that the law encouraged slave owners to capture free blacks and represent them as runaway slaves, some northern states enacted personal liberty laws that gave suspected fugitives judicial rights that the federal law denied them. In addition, Pennsylvania passed a law in 1826, making it a felony to kidnap fugitive slaves in that state.

In 1842, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the preeminence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 when it declared the Pennsylvania statute unconstitutional in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The court’s ruling proved unpopular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Although the court upheld the rights of slave owners to retrieve fugitive slaves in Northern states, they also ruled that state officials did not have to assist in the enforcement of the federal law. Many Southerners believed correctly that in some respects the court’s decision weakened their ability to recapture slaves in the North. To prove the point, in 1847, Pennsylvania enacted a law forbidding any state official from assisting in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

The Prigg decision undermined the intent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and the controversy regarding runaway slaves continued to fester for another decade. Congress addressed it once again by enacting a harsher fugitive slave act in 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. The new statute enraged abolitionists, leading them to commit open acts of violence against federal officials attempting to enforce the law in Northern states. Yankee defiance of federal statutes convinced many Southerners that rule-of-law would never secure what they viewed as their constitutionally guaranteed property rights. By 1860, the inability to find a peaceful resolution to this issue proved to be a major factor in the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union, triggering the American Civil War.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
  • Coverage February 12, 1793
  • Author
  • Keywords fugitive slave act of 1793, fugitive slaves
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date September 22, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 11, 2021
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