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Fugitive Slave Laws

The retrieval of runaway slaves and indentured servants during the early colonial period was not governed by law but by the prevailing attitude in each of the settlements. As time passed, intercolonial rules, regulations, and official agreements were implemented to maximize the apprehension of runaways.

In 1787, the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance (the Northwest Territory, that included Ohio, ceded by Great Britain after the Revolutionary War) provided: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; provided, always, that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service aforesaid."

That same year, a "fugitive clause" was inserted into the draft of the U.S. Constitution adopted by the Constitutional Convention that read: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." Since the federal government was not vested with power to enforce the issue, individual states were left to establish their own policy.

Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, allowing oral testimony of a claimant, to possession of an alleged fugitive slave, as sufficient right to claim ownership. Following actual proof of ownership, the surrender of the fugitive was mandatory, and a fine of $500 was to be levied on anyone attempting to conceal or rescue such individual.

Other slave laws, appeasing the South, would follow, only to be neutralized by personal-liberty laws enacted by the Northern states. The vocation of slave catcher proliferated, with gangs of men terrorizing and kidnapping free blacks in the North into a life of slavery. Frederick Douglass, fearing for his freedom, left for England in 1845 where he gained prominence and respect. He returned to the U.S. with enough donated funds to secure the official purchase of his liberty.

One of the most notorious slave catchers, Patty Cannon, operated a system throughout the Maryland area that functioned like an underground railroad in reverse, in that her stations enticed black fugitives with promises of help and assistance only to torture and murder some and to sell others back into slavery. After killing a family of four, including two children, she was jailed to await trial. She eluded the hangman’s noose by committing suicide in her cell, on May 11, 1829.

In 1848, Delaware businessman Thomas Garrett, a Quaker who had given 40 years of his life to sheltering fugitives, was assessed $5,400 in damages after helping a freed man to convey his enslaved family from Delaware to Philadelphia. Announcing that he had always feared losing what little he owned, he added, "but now that you have relieved me, I will go home and put another story on my house, so that I can accommodate more of God’s poor." He also told the court, "...if any of you know of any slave who needs assistance, send him to me."

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, designed to strengthen earlier laws, brought further peril to those who ran away and those who assisted them. The right to organize a posse to capture fugitives anywhere in the United States resulted in the increased abduction of blacks as far north as New England and west to Ohio, where they were taken from churches, homes and families. The criminal penalty for aiding a runaway was six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, and a civil liability to the owner of $1,000 for each fugitive. Another element of this law was that when an alleged runaway was taken before a magistrate, the law prescribed that a judge who found in favor of the claimant would collect double the fee he would collect if he ruled against the claimant. No impediments were to be put in the way of those seeking to reclaim their slave property. Under this law, legitimate free blacks were in fear of being claimed as runaway slaves. It was referred to as "The Kidnap Law".

Almost the first federal case under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 arose in Ohio whereby Washington McQuerry, a Kentucky runaway mulatto, was arrested in Troy, Ohio, where he had lived for four years. Tried in a federal circuit court in Cincinnati, the judge remanded him back to slavery.

The Dred Scott case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856–57 involved the status of slavery in the federal territories. Scott, a slave, had been taken to Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. Later, in Missouri, he sued for his freedom on the basis of his residence in a free state and territory. The Supreme Court's Southern majority declared that the Compromise was unconstitutional and that Congress had no power to limit slavery in the territories. Three justices also held that an African American descended from slaves had no rights as an American citizen and therefore no standing in court.

Thus was the great struggle over slavery between the North and South that would end in the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Law was repealed in 1864, and other such laws were nullified by the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

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Dred Scott

'Black History' segment written in June, 1998 by David Lodge

 

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