Despite the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause in the U.S. Constitution, anti-slavery sentiment remained high in the North throughout the late 1780s and early 1790s, and many petitioned Congress to abolish the practice outright. Bowing to further pressure from Southern lawmakers—who argued slave debate was driving a wedge between the newly created states—Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
This edict was similar to the Fugitive Slave Clause in many ways, but included a more detailed description of how the law was to be put into practice. Most importantly, it decreed that slave owners and their “agents” had the right to search for escaped slaves within the borders of free states. In the event they captured a suspected slave, these hunters had to bring them before a judge and provide evidence proving the person was their property. If court officials were satisfied by their proof—which often took the form of a signed affidavit—the owner would be permitted to take custody of the slave and return to their home state. The law also imposed a $500 penalty on any person who helped harbor or conceal escaped slaves.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was immediately met with heavy criticism. Northerners bristled at the idea of turning their states into a stalking ground for bounty hunters, and many argued the law was tantamount to legalized kidnapping. Some abolitionists organized clandestine resistance groups and built complex networks of safe houses to aid slaves in their escape to the North.
Refusing to be complicit in the institution of slavery, most Northern states intentionally neglected to enforce the law. Several even passed so-called “Personal Liberty Laws” that gave accused runaways the right to a jury trial and also protected free blacks, many of whom had been abducted by bounty hunters and sold into slavery.
The legality of Personal Liberty Laws was eventually challenged in the 1842 Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The case concerned Edward Prigg, a Maryland man who was convicted of kidnapping after he captured a suspected slave in Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Prigg, setting the precedent that federal law superseded any state measures that attempted to interfere with the Fugitive Slave Act.