Fugitive Slave Laws

Overview

There were only two federal fugitive slave laws in American history –1793 and 1850– but they were both enormously controversial.  Each one derived from what is now known as the Fugitive Slave Clause of the original 1787 U.S. constitution (Article IV, Section 2).  However, that clause proved to be too vague and uncertain for easy enforcement, especially after Northern states began abolishing slavery within their own boundaries.  Over the years between 1788 and 1861, these states imposed obstacles against federal enforcement of the fugitive code on their “free soil,” usually dubbed “personal liberty” statutes.  Ultimately, these state laws compelled the Supreme Court to rule on the conflict in a series of landmark cases (especially 1842 and 1859).  Yet even with all of that national debate over runaway slaves, the actual operations of the federal system on fugitive recapture and rendition was notably sporadic.  Black resistance proved fierce.  Even in northern states where color prejudice was strong and abolitionist sentiment was weak, there seemed to be greater white sympathy for the plight of freedom seekers and a significant wellspring of northern state rights sentiment that made enforcing the federal code quite difficult.  Thus, it was also true that for slave states such as Missouri, their own “slave stealing” statutes often proved more important to the return of runaways and the prosecution of those “Underground Railroad” operatives who assisted them than any federal code.  Yet obviously that meant that if any individuals or groups of freedom seekers could actually succeed in crossing into free soil, there chances of liberation were strong.  Southern complaints about this reality escalated throughout the 1850s and proved to be a central component of the movement toward secession in 1860-61.


Video Resources


Primary Sources


Secondary Sources

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.