In an effort to prevent slaves from running away, the United States enacted fugitive slave laws. The first law was created in 1793 and basically allowed the capture and return of a runaway slave to his owner. The law authorized the local government to seize and return runaway slaves and created penalties for anyone that helped aid a slave in their escape. An earlier version of these laws called the “Fugitive slave clause” was already in effect which basically states “No person held to service or labor” would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state.
In 1793, congress passed the first slave act based on the pressure from the southern states. They claimed the conversation of slavery was causing a wedge between the newly created states and something needed to be done.
This law was similar to the clause but included a more detailed description of how the law would be put into practice. One of the main differences was now slaveowners and slave catchers could venture into free states to search for their runaways. Once a slaveowner captured a slave, he had to bring him in front of a judge and prove the slave belonged to him, usually by showing a signed affidavit. If everything was proved to be legit, slaveowners were then allowed to go back to their state with the enslaved person.
The north strongly opposed these laws and even went as far as to create “Personal liberty laws” which were designed to create a fair playing field and allowed runaway slaves who appealed the decision against them to be provided with a jury trial. Again, the southerners were unhappy with the end result of this slave act. In 1850, a new one was enacted that was much more stringent and favored the slaveowners. For example, if a slave were caught, he could not testify on his own behalf, nor was he permitted a trial by jury anymore.
Also, the punishment for helping a runaway slave was much harsher and it forcibly made normal citizens help law enforcement gather runaways and if you assisted a runaway, you could be fined up to $1,000 and faced 6 months in jail. To ensure the statute was enforced individual cases were controlled by federal commissioners who were paid more money when slaves were returned as opposed to allowing them to go free.
This further gave credence to the notion that the new law would benefit slaveowners more than anybody else. It is also important to note that because abolitionists and northerners opposed this law, they would design a network of people meant to help runaway slaves seek freedom, that network was called the underground railroad. People known as “Conductors” would guide the slaves to freedom. They would hide them in private homes, churches, and schools. These were called “stations”, “safe houses” or “depots”. In the 1850’s the underground railroad hit its peak with many enslaved men and women going to Canada to escape U.S jurisdiction.
By 1860, the fugitive slave laws were completely ineffective based on the norths reluctance to cooperate and the effectiveness of the underground railroad, and only 330 enslaved people were successfully returned to their southern masters. In 1864, both fugitive slave laws were repealed by congress.