Mary Bird: "Well; but is it true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folks that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn't think any Christian legislature would pass it!"

Senator Bird: "Why, Mary, you are getting to be a politician, all at once."

Mary: "No, nonsense! I wouldn't give a flip for all your politics, generally, but I think this is something downright cruel and unchristian. I hope, my dear, no such law has been passed."

Senator: "There has been a law passed forbidding people to help the slaves that come over from Kentucky, my dear, so much of that thing has been done by those reckless Abolitionists, that our brethren in Kentucky are very strongly excited, and it seems necessary, and no more Christian and kind, that something should be done by our state to quiet the excitement."

Mary: "And what is the law? It don't forbid us to shelter these poor creatures at night, does it, and to give 'em something comfortable to eat, and a few old clothes, and to send them quietly about their business?"

Senator: "Why, yes, my dear, that would be aiding and abetting, you know."

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Could the United States, which prided itself on being a nation founded in liberty, leave slavery in the Constitution when England had already abolished slavery in 1772? This question haunted the drafters of the Constitution. The nation's founders knew that slavery was morally wrong, but rationalized that it would become unprofitable and disappear without any action on their part. Thus when it became necessary to add three provisions to the Constitution to appease the slave states, they did not worry that slavery would last well into the next century.

The addition of these three provisions persuaded the Southern states to sign the Constitution. The first provision was the 3/5ths compromise, which allowed slaves to be counted as part of a person in population surveys. This was ironic in that the South did not want slaves to have basic human rights, and yet wished them counted as part of the human population so they could have more representatives in the House of Representatives. The next provision stated that Congress could not abolish the slave trade until 1808. The last agreement was that owners had the right to recapture their escaped slaves.

In 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law to implement the provisions in the Constitution. It stated that to reclaim an escaped slave a master needed only to go before a magistrate and provide oral or written proof of ownership. The magistrate would then issue an order for the arrest of the slave. The slave was not given a trial in court or allowed to present evidence on their own behalf, including proof of having previously earned their freedom.

Many Northern states passed "Personal Liberty" laws that granted a fugitive slave rights, such as trial by jury. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, passed strong kidnapping laws which functioned to punish slave catchers. Edward Prigg was convicted of kidnapping in Pennsylvania after capturing a slave family. Prigg took his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court issued a double edged decision: it declared Pennsylvania's law unconstitutional but also ruled that the states did not have to use their facilities to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. This led to some states passing new personal liberty laws prohibiting the use of state facilities for the enforcement of the fugitive law.

After the first Fugitive Slave Law was passed, lawyer Salmon P. Chase was just starting on his anti slavery career. He became an avid supporter of abolitionist causes when he met the editor of an abolitionist newspaper, James Birney, in 1836. The year after Chase and Birney had met, Birney's housekeeper Matilda, a part African female, was captured as a runaway slave. Birney had been unaware she was a fugitive. Despite Chase's defense, which denounced the Fugitive Slave Law as unconstitutional, the authorities took Matilda back to New Orleans, where she was sold at auction. Chase moved on to defend Birney, who was charged with harboring a fugitive slave. Chase took the case to the Supreme Court, where the charges were dismissed because Birney did not know Matilda was a slave when he hired her. Chase continued to work defending fugitive slaves and those who aided them. Although he never won a case defending a runaway, he became known as the "Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves."

The Fugitive Slave Law angered many free blacks residing throughout the United States. In January of 1800 a group petitioned for Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law and abolish slavery. This petition, and others like it sent by free blacks, was predictably ignored by Congress on the basis that blacks were not recognized by the Constitution and thus not their equals.

This text is also archived for academic purposes on my personal website at

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