Fugitive Slave Acts

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Jamar Day
July 1, 2010
His 2111 Paper
Prof McCray
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the issue of slavery had caused a deep division between North and South. Slavery was an important part of the Southern way of life, and slave labor was a major aspect of the Southern states' economy. Northerners opposed slavery yet were concerned that the political, economic, and conflict with the South over slavery could threaten a civil war between the two sides. The conflict intensified over the issue of fugitive, or escaped, slaves. Because slaves were treated as property in the South, slave owners felt it was their right to seek out and recapture slaves who had escaped to free Northern states. Northerners tended to view this practice as kidnapping. Many wondered if officials in the free states had a right not to interfere with the slave owner or in fact had the power to declare the slave a free person. Article 4, section 2 of the Constitution stated that slaves who escaped to free states had to be surrendered to their owners upon demand. Although the Constitution recognized the institution of slavery and the rights of slave owners, it was still unclear just what the law required of the people and officials in free states in regard to the matter of fugitive slaves. In other words, enforcement of the Constitution on this matter was a gray area decades before the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an effort to provide a means to enforce the constitutional clause concerning escaped slaves. The act allowed a slave owner to seize an escaped slave, present the slave before a federal or local judge, and, upon proof of ownership, receive a certificate authorizing the slave to be retaken. It also established a penalty of 500 dollars for obstructing an owner's efforts to retake a slave, or for rescuing, harboring, or concealing a fugitive slave. Most Northerners saw the act as providing an excuse for the kidnapping of free blacks. Others resented the...
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