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Past and Present

The Fugitive Slave Law

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

On February 12th, 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law. It was an addition to the U.S. Constitution’s Article 4 that required states to give “full faith and credit” to other states’ laws.

Passed shortly after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the law placed the power of the federal courts behind slave owners seeking to reclaim their runaway slaves. Initially, few people questioned this law. Beginning in 1793, Congress refused to hear petitions from free blacks who worried about being kidnapped and taken south, putting fear into the hearts of black men and women who had established new lives in northern states. But by the time the U.S. Supreme Court considered their first case dealing with the Fugitive Slave Law, the social, political,and legal conversation about slavery had changed.

In March of 1842, the Supreme Court heard the case Prigg v. Pennsylvania. A Maryland slaveholder named John Ashmore had hired Edward Prigg to recover Margaret Morgan, who had run away and established unauthorized residency in Pennsylvania. While the federal statute allowed Ashmore to hire Prigg, Pennsylvania law forbade Prigg to do his job. Prigg’s lawyer argued that Pennsylvania’s laws was unconstitutional because no state law can supersede federal law or the Constitution. Justice Joseph Story agreed. He held that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional because it denied the right of slaveholders to recover their property and violated the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

The case upheld the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, but by 1850, slaveholders and Southern politicians believed Congress needed to enact a stronger iteration of the law, and Northern abolitionists began mounting their moral and legal challenges to slavery in earnest.