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One of the ways that the US Constitution baked the institution of slavery into the very core of the new United States was through the fugitive slave clause. The clause required that people who escaped slavery be returned to their enslavers. In parts of the US that didn't want slavery, the clause sometimes went unenforced. Today we'll learn about how Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 to enforce that clause, how enslavers throughout the country used that rule, and the long-term effects of this law.

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SOURCES

-Somerset v. Stewart, 98 E.R. 499 (K.B. 1772)
-Karen Arnold-Burger, Fugitive Justice: Slavery and the Law in Pre-Civil War America, 46 Ct. Rev. 116 (2009).
-Louise Weinberg, Methodological Interventions and the Slavery Cases; or, Night-Thoughts of a Legal Realist Symposium: The Silver Anniversary of the Second Conflicts Restatement, 56 Md. L. Rev. 1316–1370 (1997).
-H. Robert Baker, The Fugitive Slave Clause and the Antebellum Constitution, 30 Law & Hist. Rev. 1133–1174 (2012).
-Allen Johnson, Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Acts, 31 Yale L.J. 161 (1921).
-John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Knopf, 1967).
-Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York: Atria Books, 2017)
-https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/habeas_corpus
-https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/ona-judge#_ftn11
-https://www.nps.gov/articles/independence-oneyjudge.htm
-https://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/slaves/oneyinterview.php

#crashcourse #history #slavery
Hi!

My name is Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History. At this point we’ve made clear that slavery was full of so many devastating, and horrifying realities that no human being should ever have had to experience.

The physical violence and torture that people were subjected to, the way so many families were separated and split apart, the way that your status as property was passed down from parent to child and from parent to child, across generations. And among these horrifying realities, is the way that someone could live in relative freedom for years and then, out of nowhere, be kidnapped by a slave catcher and brought back into bondage, or even brought into a bondage they had never known. It sounds like a nightmare, but it was real.

And it’s something that often left Black folks living in /free/ states with a profound sense of fear and anxiety even when they were just walking down the street. It left many feeling like their freedom, wasn’t really that free at all. Today we’re going to learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 – let’s start the show.

INTRO Not long after the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution, a national debate arose about how to control fugitive slaves in the United States. There were multiple laws and policies created to prevent uprisings and rebellions, and to generally control the movement of enslaved people. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 is perhaps the most expansive, far-reaching manifestation of this effort.

It was signed into law in February 1793 by President George Washington, and the act did three main things:

One: It empowered enslavers to capture enslaved people who ran away from their plantations. This meant that any enslaver could bring an escaped, enslaved person before any federal or state magistrate and reclaim the property the law said was theirs.

Two: It stated that there was no need to have a trial by jury to return an enslaved person to bondage. It only required oral testimony from the person making the claim.

Three: It stated that anyone who interfered with the recapturing of a fugitive slave could be fined, imprisoned, or sued by the enslaver. Part of why this matters, from a legal standpoint, is that the US was still a really young country and was still trying to figure out how this Constitution they had created, would end up working in practice. And as you can imagine, given that they were British until just a few decades before, many of their legal principles were still heavily influenced by their mother country. An example of this is the concept of property rights, and even the very notion of what constitutes property.

The case that prompted the newly formed United States to more directly address how they were going to deal with fugitive enslaved persons was Somerset v. Stewart. This case happened a few years prior to the United States being officially founded, and it was actually an English case, but its outcome would determine how a nation of the precipice of becoming its own would navigate the thorny question of fugitive slaves.

In 1769, James Somerset, an enslaved person from what would become the United States, was brought to England by his enslaver Charles Stewart, a man who had been a customs official while he was in Boston but who was now moving back to Britain. In 1771, while still in England, Somerset ran away from Stewart, only to be recaptured about two months later. Stewart then had Somerset imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica to be sold into bondage on one of the plantations there.

So in this case, Somerset was enslaved under Virginia law, but there was not a comparable law justifying his enslavement in England. The absence of such a law led many British abolitionists to claim that slavery was thus unlawful in their country. A group of these abolitionists filed a writ of habeas corpus--a document used to determine if the detainment of an individual is legal--which ultimately led to the dispute.

The British justice presiding over the case, Lord Mansfield, agreed, to an extent, proclaiming that no enslaved person “could be forcibly removed from Britain and sold into slavery.” The ruling though, didn’t immediately free enslaved people in England, and it certainly didn’t free enslaved people in British colonies. This presented a very real problem for the Southerners in, remember, what was still then. England’s American colonies.

Whatever the status of enslaved people following the decision, there was great concern about where the political winds were blowing. This fear and sense of anxiety became the backdrop of many debates on slavery during the founding of the United States. It also led Southerners to push for constitutional protections that would preserve slavery and ensure that, if they escaped, enslaved people would be brought back to their enslavers.

Thus the Fugitive Slave Clause was born – not to be confused with the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Clause said 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.” Let’s go to the Thought

Bubble: Though the Northerners allowed for The Fugitive. Slave Clause to be included in the Constitution, they did what a lot of lawmakers and law enforcement do when they don’t like something – they just didn’t enforce the law. From a moral standpoint, many northerners viewed the Fugitive Slave Clause as kidnapping and essentially decided that they would just ignore this portion of the Constitution. When the South said, hey guys you’re not enforcing the law, they were basically like “What?

What’s that? It’s so loud in here. I can’t really hear you over all the moral inconsistency in the room.” Anti-slavery sentiments were rising in the north and some northern states even started passing state laws banning “the kidnapping of ‘free people of color’” and criminalized wrongful enslavement.

All of this prompted Southerners to move away from the Constitution as their main enforcement mechanism, and use Congress to force the Northern states into compliance. So they went to Congress, and started lobbying for a new law that would more consistently enforce the terms of the Fugitive Slave Clause. And what they got, was basically a law that provided more details about how the spirit of the Fugitive Slave Clause could be put into practice.

For example, the Fugitive Slave Act gave enslavers and slave catchers the right to go into free states and search for those who had escaped and imposed a $500 fine on anyone who assisted escaped slaves or withheld information that would be helpful in their apprehension. Which is a lot of money now, but back in the 18th century was A LOT of money. Thanks Thought Bubble.

So, the legislators in Congress justified this by arguing that it was important for the Union to protect everyone’s property rights, and that not enforcing the Fugitive. Slave Clause was standing in the way of those rights. Individuals like Northern abolitionists opposed the law - arguing that the Act was unconstitutional because it curbed states’ right to make their own decision on the issue of slavery.

At the end of the day, the Southerner’s argument won out and the Fugitive Slave Act passed with a large majority in the House and with no real opposition in the Senate. Abolitionists in the north were furious about this, and felt like it would turn many of the cities that served as a refuge for Black people into places where glorified, federally sanctioned bounty hunters roamed around kidnapping Black folks at will, regardless of whether or not they were actually escaped slaves. A white person could effectively just lie and tell the court that someone was an escapee who belonged to them and claim them as their own.

No jury, no nothing. Just a white person’s word against a black person. And in 18th century America, you can probably guess whose word carried more weight.

As a result, many continued to ignore the laws in the Fugitive Slave Act just as they did with the Fugitive Slave Clause. But many other people, readily took advantage of powers bestowed on them by this new law. Even our first President, George Washington, who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, used the act in an attempt to recapture Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who was living and working at the President’s House in Philadelphia.

When she learned in 1796 she was going to be given to one of Martha Washington’s granddaughters, she ran away. Washington was supposedly furious, writing to his secretary of the treasury Oliver Wolcott,. Jr., “the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant…[she] ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” Judge was tracked down in New Hampshire.

Customs Collector Joseph Whipple talked to her and wrote to Washington that Judge would willingly return if she could be freed after George and Martha passed away. This wasn’t good enough for Washington, who demanded she be returned. At the same time, he knew that many northern states would not react happily to him, the president of the United States, tracking down an escaped slave.

He wanted her returned, but didn’t want it to become a public spectacle. So he wrote Whipple “I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot.” A few years later Martha’s nephew Burwell Bassett Jr. was in New Hampshire and tried to take her by force, but New Hampshire senator John Langdon heard the plan and sent a messenger to Judge, allowing her to escape. If for some reason it hadn’t been clear to them before, the Fugitive Slave Act made clear to even more people that slavery was an inhumane enterprise.

The spectacle of people being pulled from the streets, from their communities, from their homes and brought back down South was horrifying and for some in the north forced them to see and confront the insidiousness of the institution for the first time. There was no averting their eyes from this, and looking back we shouldn’t avert our eyes either. As has been the case with so much of the violence that Black people have experienced, we have to look at it directly, and sit with it, to understand it.

Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time. Crash Course is made with the help of all these nice people and our animation team is. Thought Cafe.

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