1793 to 1850 - First fugitive slave law
On this day in 1793, Congress enacted the first fugitive slave law. It required every state, including those that forbade slavery, to forcibly return slaves who had escaped from other states to their owners. The House vote was 48-7 with 14 members abstaining.
The legislation implemented Article IV of the Constitution — subsequently repealed by the 13th Amendment — requiring the federal government to go after runaway slaves.
Most Northern states soon abolished slavery and chose not to enforce the 1793 law. Many of them enacted laws ensuring fugitive slaves a jury trial. Some enacted measures, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842, barring state officials from aiding in the capture of runaway slaves. These so-called personal liberty laws required slave owners and fugitive hunters to produce evidence that their captives were truly fugitive slaves.
Wide disregard of fugitive slave law enraged Southern lawmakers, resulting in the passage of a second fugitive slave law as part of the Compromise of 1850, aimed at averting a Civil War between the North and South. It called for the return of slaves “on pain of heavy penalty,” but it permitted a jury trial under the condition that fugitives be prohibited from testifying in their own defense.
Fugitive slaves also circumvented the law through the Underground Railroad — a network primarily made up of abolitionists and free African-Americans — that helped fugitives escape to Northern states or to Canada.
The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott pro-Southern decision further stirred public opinion in the North against slavery. The backlash in turn raised pressure in Southern states to secede from the Union.
A movie, “12 Years a Slave,” based on an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup about plantation life on Louisiana’s Red River, has been nominated for an Oscar as the Best Picture of 2013.