February 12

This Day in History

General Interest

Feb 12, 1793:

Congress enacts first fugitive slave law

On this day, Congress passes the first fugitive slave law, requiring all states, including those that forbid slavery, to forcibly return slaves who have escaped from other states to their original owners. The laws stated that "no person held to service of labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such labor or service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

As Northern states abolished slavery, most relaxed enforcement of the 1793 law, and many passed laws ensuring fugitive slaves a jury trial. Several Northern states even enacted measures prohibiting state officials from aiding in the capture of runaway slaves or from jailing the fugitives. This disregard of the first fugitive slave law enraged Southern states and led to the passage of a second fugitive slave law as part of the Compromise of 1850 between the North and South.

The second fugitive slave law called for the return of slaves "on pain of heavy penalty" but permitted a jury trial under the condition that fugitives be prohibited from testifying in their own defense. Notable fugitive slave trials, such as the Dred Scott case of 1857, stirred up public opinion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Meanwhile, fugitive slaves circumvented the law through the "Underground Railroad," which was a network of persons, primarily free African Americans, who helped fugitives escape to freedom in the Northern states or Canada.

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