The Fugitives Who Changed America

Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University
James Hamlet, the first person returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in front of city hall in New York; engraving from the National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850. Hamlet was returned by force to Baltimore, but ‘by the time this appeared in print,’ Eric Foner writes in Gateway to Freedom, ‘New Yorkers had raised the money to purchase Hamlet’s freedom and he was back in the city.’

When the Constitutional Convention met at Philadelphia in 1787, slavery was on the way out in most states north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The bifurcation between slave and free states that would plague the nation for the next seventy-five years and bring civil war in 1861 had already begun. Many slaves had sought freedom by trying to run away. By 1787 they could run to states where slavery no longer existed or would soon disappear. Delegates to the Philadelphia convention from southern states therefore demanded a guarantee for the return of fugitive slaves as the price for approval of the new Constitution. They got what they wanted in Article IV, Section 2: “No person held to service or labour in one state…escaping into another, shall…be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service may be due.”

In the typical circumlocution of the Constitution, in which the word “slavery” does not appear until the institution was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, this article was a major concession to slave owners. “We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge,” declared Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina, “which is a right we had not before.”

But this fugitive slave clause did not enforce itself. Who would be responsible for apprehending escapees to free states and returning them to slave states? In 1793 Congress addressed this question with a law stipulating that a slave owner or his agent could capture a runaway and take him before any judge or magistrate to claim him as a slave, with nothing more than an affidavit from a slave-state judge or even the owner’s word as evidence. If the magistrate accepted this evidence, he would issue a certificate of removal and the owner would get back his property. This law made the capture of alleged fugitives the responsibility of the owners, not the state or federal governments. But it also made free blacks living in the North vulnerable to kidnapping and enslavement, with the collusion of corrupt magistrates.

During the first four decades of the nation’s history under the Constitution, neither the escapes of slaves nor the kidnappings of free blacks rose to the level of a national political issue. Several northern states passed anti-kidnapping or “personal liberty” laws to provide some legal safeguards for alleged…

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