FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1793
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was a significant piece of American legislation related to the practise of slavery in the United States. In general, it allowed slave owners in the United States the ability to capture escaped slaves. This was an issue at the time due to slaves escaping and travelling north towards potential freedom in Northern ‘free’ states and Canada. For instance, the Underground Railroad was the most famous of the methods that escaped slaves used to free themselves from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was strengthened in favor of the slave owners decades later with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Due to this, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, was a significant piece of legislation in the late 18th century and continued to have a profound impact until slavery ended with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.
WHY WAS THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1793 CREATED?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was created in response to the growth of the American Abolitionist Movement in the 18th century. The American Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in the United States towards ending the practice of slavery. For instance, the term ‘abolition’ means to stop or end something. As such, an abolitionist is someone who was working to ban slavery. The American Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1865 when the American government abolished slavery following the end of the American Civil War.
There was quite a divide between the Northern and Southern states in relation to their views on slavery and the Abolitionist Movement in the 18th century. More specifically, the Northern states were the first to support the American Abolitionist Movement and by the end of the 18th century, most Northern states had some sort of anti-slavery legislation.
As such, slaves in Southern plantations began to learn that if they could escape north towards these ‘free’ states or even Canada, where slavery had been banned by the British government, then they could obtain their freedom. This created an issue for the Southern slave owners and politicians, because the practice of slavery was an important factor in the economy of the Southern states. In fact, the American South proved to be the ideal location for growing several significant cash crops that relied heavily on slave labor. These crops included tobacco, cotton and sugar. This meant that escaped slaves represented a challenge to the economic success of the South, which caused slave owners and Southern political leaders to push for the creation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
HOW DID THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1793 WORK?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was approved on February 12th, 1793. As stated above, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, essentially allowed Southern slave owners the ability to capture escaped slaves from the Northern ‘free’ states and return them to work on the Southern plantations. Under the law, the slave owners were allowed to employ ‘agents’ to find and capture the slaves. These ‘agents’ were essentially bounty hunters who travelled through the territory of the Northern states and found escaped slaves. Then the agent had to take the slave before a judge to prove their identity, before the slave could be returned. As well, anyone found guilty of assisting escaped slaves could be punished under the law with a fine.
OUTCOMES OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1793
Southern slave owners who wanted to protect their businesses and property welcomed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. In fact, slaves were considered a central aspect of Southern plantations, as they carried out the vast majority of the labor. However, some slave owners argued that the law of 1793 did not do enough to protect their economic interests. This eventually resulted in the government taking more extensive measures with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
While Southern slave owners supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, it angered many people who lived in the Northern states. This is because the Northern states were less supportive of the practice of slavery and instead supported the American Abolitionist Movement. Furthermore, Northerners resented the idea of Southern ‘agents’ travelling throughout the Northern states, looking for escaped slaves. For instance, a famous case of a free African American from the Northern states being captured and sold into slavery was the life of Solomon Northup. Northup was actually born free, but was tricked in 1841 and sold into slavery. He ended up living as a slave in Louisiana for twelve years. His life is chronicled in his famous memoir titled ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, which was published in 1851. As such, some historians have argued that he passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 actually helped grow the response of Northerners to the goals of the abolitionist movement.
One of the most important aspects of the American Abolitionist Movement was the Underground Railroad. In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada, and is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until the events of the American Civil War in 1863. The Underground Railroad involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, led to the growth of the Underground Railroad as abolitionists helped escaped slaves flee to their freedom. Furthermore, many of the escaped slaves began to flee further north to Canada. This was because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed slaves to be returned to the Southern slave owners from the Northern states. As such, many of the escaped slaves preferred to flee even further north into Canada, where they could not be returned to slavery. In fact, estimates claim that anywhere from about 30,000 to as many as 100,000 slaves arrived in Canada during the timeframe of the Underground Railroad. Canada was such a desired destination for the escaping slaves that it was often referred to as ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Promised Land’.
FULL TEXT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1793
An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters.
Be it enacted, &c., That, whenever the Executive authority of any State in the Union, or of either of the Territories Northwest or South of the river Ohio, shall demand any person as a fugitive from justice, of the Executive authority of any such State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, and shall moreover produce the copy of an indictment found, or an affidavit made before a magistrate of any State or Territory as aforesaid, charging the person so demanded with having committed treason, felony, or other crime, certified as authentic by the Governor or Chief Magistrate of the State or Territory from whence the person so charged fled, it shall be the duty of the executive authority of the State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, to cause him or her arrest to be given to the Executive authority making such demand, or to the agent when he shall appear; but, if no such agent shall appear within six months from the time of the arrest, the prisoner may be discharged: and all costs or expenses incurred in the apprehending, securing, and transmitting such fugitive to the State or Territory making such demand, shall be paid by such State or Territory.
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That any agent appointed as aforesaid, who shall receive the fugitive into his custody, shall be empowered to transport him or her to the State or Territory from which he or she shall have fled. And if any person or persons shall, by force, set at liberty, or rescue the fugitive from such agent while transporting, as aforesaid, the person or persons so offending shall, on conviction, be fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, and be imprisoned not exceeding one year.
SEC. 3. And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or in either of the Territories on the Northwest or South of the river Ohio, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any Judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States, residing or being within the State, or before any magistrate of a county, city, or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such Judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or Territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such Judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent, or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.
SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent, or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney, when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor, as aforesaid, shall, for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by action of debt, in any Court proper to try the same, saving moreover to the person claiming such labor or service his right of action for or on account of the said injuries, or either of them.
Approved by President George Washington on February 12th, 1793.
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