When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on the issue of slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming "a more perfect Union" between the separate states.
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on the issue of slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming "a more perfect Union" between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition during the coming decades.
Although the Founding Fathers did not use the words "slave" or "slavery" in the Constitution, they endorsed three provisions that either codified or protected the "peculiar institution."
- Article I, Section 2 stated, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons" (emphasis added). "All other Persons," of course, meant slaves.
- Article I, Section 9 declared that "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person (emphasis added). "Such persons" was a more delicate euphemism for the word "slaves."
- Article IV, Section 2 mandated that "No Person held to Service or Labour 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 Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due" (emphasis added). "Person held to Service or Labor" was yet another more diplomatic substitution for the term "slave."
Of these three oblique references to slavery in the Constitution, the last, often referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause, proved to be the most ambiguous, and eventually the most contentious and divisive. Although the founders were clear about their intent that runaway slaves should be "delivered up" or returned to their masters, they were inexplicit about rules or regulations regarding enforcement of this device.
It was not long before it became apparent that ground rules needed to be established. In 1788, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society informed Governor Thomas Mifflin that three Virginians had kidnapped a free black resident of Pennsylvania named John Davis and sold him into bondage in Virginia. The Virginians were indicted in Pennsylvania, but could not be tried because they had fled to their home state. In 1791, Mifflin appealed to Virginia Governor Beverly Randolph for the extradition of the kidnappers, but Randolph refused. Mifflin appealed to President Washington, who sent the matter on to Congress. The legal dispute prompted Congress to legislate "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," more commonly known as The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
Section 1 of the act seemed to favor the Pennsylvanians. It declared "That, whenever the Executive of any State . . . shall demand any person as a fugitive from justice, of . . . any such State to which such person shall have fled and shall . . . produce the copy of an indictment . . . or an affidavit . . .charging the person so demanded with having committed treason, felony, or other crime . . . 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" (emphasis added). In short, upon being presented with an indictment, the governor of any state harboring a fugitive, charged with a crime in another state, was required to arrest and return the accused criminal to stand trial in the state in which he or she was accused.
Congress was not done, however. Section 3 of the act established special provisions for the return of runaway slaves. This section enabled slave owners or their agents to cross state lines to capture runaway slaves, take them before a federal or local magistrate, and upon presenting proof of ownership, receive authorization to return the fugitive to slavery. The law provided alleged fugitive slaves with no protection of habeas corpus, no right to trial by jury, and no right to testify on their own behalf. Section 4 of the act went on to make it a federal crime to aid fugitive slaves and established a penalty of 500 dollars for doing so.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 put real teeth into the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause, but it also opened the door to potential abuses by unscrupulous slave owners and their agents. Fearing that the law encouraged slave owners to capture free blacks and represent them as runaway slaves, some northern states enacted personal liberty laws that gave suspected fugitives judicial rights that the federal law denied them. In addition, Pennsylvania passed a law in 1826 making it a felony to kidnap fugitive slaves in that state. In 1842, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the preeminence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 when it declared the Pennsylvania statute unconstitutional in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The court's ruling proved to be unpopular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Although the court upheld the rights of slave owners to retrieve fugitive slaves in Northern states, they also went on to rule that state officials were not required to assist in the enforcement of the federal law. Many Southerners believed correctly that, in some respects, the court's decision weakened their ability to recapture slaves in the North. To prove the point, in 1847 Pennsylvania enacted a law forbidding any state official from assisting in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
The Prigg decision undermined the intent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and the issue of runaway slaves continued to fester for another decade. Congress addressed it once again by enacting a harsher fugitive slave act, as part of the Compromise of 1850. The new statute enraged abolitionists, leading them to commit open acts of violence against federal officials attempting to enforce the law in Northern states. Yankee defiance of federal statutes convinced many Southerners that rule-of-law would never secure what they viewed as their constitutionally guaranteed property rights. By 1860, the inability to find a peaceful resolution to this issue proved to be a major factor in the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union, triggering the American Civil War.