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The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850

The federal acts of 1793 and 1850 providing for the return between states of escaped black slaves. Similar laws existing in both North and South in colonial days applied also to white indentured servants and to Native American slaves. Many Northern states also passed personal-liberty laws that allowed fugitives a jury trial, and others passed laws forbidding state officials to help capture alleged fugitive slaves or to lodge them in state jails. As a concession to the South a second and more rigorous fugitive slave law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

Article 4. For the better security of the peace and friendship now entered into by the contracting parties, against all infractions of the same, by the citizens of either party, to the prejudice of the other, neither party shall proceed to the infliction of punishments on the citizens of the other, otherwise than by securing the offender, or offenders, by imprisonment, or any other competent means, till a fair and impartial trial can be had by judges or juries of both parties, as near as can be, to the laws, customs, and usage's of the contracting parties, and natural justice: the mode of such trials to be hereafter fixed by the wise men of the United States, in congress assembled, with the assistance of such deputies of the Delaware nation, as may be appointed to act in concert with them in adjusting this matter to their mutual liking. And it is further agreed between the parties aforesaid, that neither shall entertain, or give countenance to, the enemies of the other, or protect, in their respective states, criminal fugitives, servants, or slaves, but the same to apprehend and secure, and deliver to the state or states, to which such enemies, criminals, servants, or slaves, respectively below.

The 1793 law was loosely enforced, to the great irritation of the South, and as abolitionist sentiment developed, organized efforts to circumvent the law took form in the Underground Railroad.

In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the United States Supreme Court determined that 'personal liberty laws' were unconstitutional: They interfered with the Fugitive Slave Act. The Court held that while states were not compelled to enforce the 1793 federal law, they could not override it with other enactments.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. It was favored strongly by, and signed by US President Millard Filmore a native of Buffalo. Only John P. Hale, Charles Sumner, Salmon Chase and Benjamin Wade voted against the measure. Slave hunters were allowed to capture an escapee in any territory or state and were required only to confirm orally before a state or federal judge that the person was a runaway. At the behest of Senator Henry Clay, it was legislated that any United States Marshall who did not arrest an alleged and who refused to return a runaway slave would pay a hefty penalty of $1,000. The law stated that in future any federal marshalrunaway slave could be fined $1,000. People suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without warrant and turned over to a claimant on nothing more than his sworn testimony of ownership. A suspected black slave could not ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her behalf.

Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $500 fine ­ an expensive penalty in those days. Those officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee and this encouraged some officers to kidnap free Negroes and sell them to slave-owners. Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier led the fight against the law. If an escaped slave was sighted, he or she should be apprehended and turned in to the authorities for deportation back to the "rightful" owner down south. It was thought that the Fugitive Slave Act would diminish the incentive for slaves to attempt escape. The rationale behind this was the slaves' realization that even if they managed to escape from their plantation, they could still be caught and returned by any citizen in the United States. Even moderate anti-slavery leaders such as Arthur Tappan declared he was now willing to disobey the law and as result helped fund the Underground Railroad.

The law was opposed in many Northern states; several reacted by enacting legislation to protect free black Americans and fugitive slaves. The 'personal liberty laws' compelled a slave catcher to furnish corroborative proof that his captive was a fugitive and frequently accorded the accused the rights to trial by jury and appeal. Laws in some states made it easier to extradite a runaway if his or her slave status were confirmed.




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