Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
The Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 Note: Superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment) guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished.
Excerpted text of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793
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 offences, 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.
The full text of the Act is available from the Library of Congress (and online) in the Annals of Congress of the 2nd Congress, 2nd Session, during which the proceedings and debates took place from November 5, 1792 to March 2, 1793. The specific Act and the Congressional vote is on pages 1414-1415.
Effect on people
This law put fugitive slaves at risk for recapture all their lives, but some slaveowners did not think it strong enough. It also classified children born to fugitive slave mothers as slaves and the property of the mother's master, for all their lives.
Oney Judge (sometimes spelled Ona) was one of Martha Washington's slaves and chambermaids; she served the Washingtons in Virginia and at the President's House in Philadelphia when Washington was President; the city was the temporary capital from 1790-1800. She escaped on May 21, 1796. George Washington made two attempts to seize her shortly afterwards, even enlisting the help of the Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr in a letter written on September 1, 1796. Later his nephew visited her and asked that she return. Neither attempt was successful. Washington acted discreetly to avoid controversy in Philadelphia, which had a strong Quaker abolitionist community.
Having settled in New Hampshire, married and had a child, in the 1840s Oney Judge was interviewed by Rev. Benjamin Chase. He published the account in a "Letter to the editor" in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, on January 1, 1847. He described that under the law, she and her child were still at risk for being seized as a fugitive slave at any time, even 50 years after her escape, if Martha Washington's descendants decided to make a legal claim. Legally, they had inherited the pair as part of their mother's estate.
"This woman is yet a slave. If Washington could have got her and her child, they were constitutionally his; and if Mrs. Washington's heirs were now to claim her, and take her before Judge Woodbury, and prove their title, he would be bound, upon his oath, to deliver her up to them."
Many northern states enacted legislation to protect free black Americans (who could otherwise be abducted, then brought before court without the ability to produce a defense, and subsequently lawfully enslaved) as well as runaway slaves. These laws came to be known as “personal liberty laws” and required slave owners and fugitive hunters to produce evidence that their captures were truly fugitive slaves, “just as southern states demanded the right to retrieve runaway slaves, northern states demanded the right to protect their free black residents from being kidnapped and sold into servitude in the south,” (Finkelman 399). One controversy was the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania. Edward Prigg, a citizen of Maryland, was indicted by a Pennsylvania court for attempting to kidnap a black woman in York County to return her to Maryland as a fugitive slave. He was tried and convicted by a local court in Pennsylvania, but the case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court. Prigg had originally shown his legal warrant to the Pennsylvania court, but it had been unlawfully ignored, demonstrating that the Fugitive Slave Act really depended on state judges, not the national law.
The slave-catching industry expanded as a result of this law, with men who were effectively bounty hunters capturing and returning many slaves to their legal owners. In addition, because of the high demand for slaves in the Deep South and hunt for fugitives, free blacks were at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, even if they had their "free" papers. There were numerous instances in which people who were legally free and had never been slaves were captured and brought south to be sold into slavery. The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 such cases in Freedom at Risk (1994) and estimated there were likely thousands more.
A prominent example was Solomon Northup, born free around 1808 to Mintus Northup and his wife, in Essex County, New York state. (Note: In his memoir, Solomon did not name his mother, but described her as of mixed race and a quadroon.) In 1841 Northup was tricked into going to Washington, DC, where slavery was legal. He was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and held as a slave in Louisiana for 12 years. One of the very few to regain freedom under such circumstances, he later sued the slave traders involved in Washington, DC. Its law prohibited Northrup from testifying against the white men because he was black, and he lost the case. The New York Times published an article on this trial on January 20, 1853. Northup published his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), a slave narrative of plantation life on the Red River in Louisiana, and a description of the slave trade in Washington, DC. It is available online to read at Project Gutenberg or Google books.
- History: "Fugitive Slave Act of 1793", President's House in Philadelphia, US History.org
- "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875", Annals of Congress, 2nd Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 1413 & 1414 of 1456, American Memory, Library of Congress, accessed 18 February 2012
- Stephan Salisbury, "A slave's defiance", Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 July 2008, at Philly Archeology Forum, accessed 18 February 2012
- Letter to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr, September 1, 1796, Writings of Washington, Vol. 35
- "Oney Judge Interview", President's House in Philadelphia, US History.org
- Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, University Press of Kentucky, 1994
- Solomon Northrup, David Wilson, Twelve Years a Slave, Auburn, NY: Orton & Mulligan, 1853, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
- "THE KIDNAPPING CASE. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup. INTERESTING DISCLOSURES", New York Times, 20 January 1853, carried at Documents of the American South, University of North Carolina
- Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave, ed. David Wilson, Buffalo, NY: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1853
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