History Timeline 1790s

Image above: America builds its Navy. Image right: Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Engravings courtesy Library of Congress.


U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

America Builds

Sponsor this page for $75 per year. Your banner or text ad can fill the space above.
Click here to Sponsor the page and how to reserve your ad.

  • Timeline

  • 1793 Detail

    February 12, 1793 - The United States Congress passes a federal law requiring the return of slaves that escaped from slave states into free territory or states.

    Outcome of Fugitive Slave Law
    In many ways it was the law that started all the problems between states that allowed slavery and those that did not. Yes, the Constitution had codified slavery already with a future date to reconsider. Yes, somehow, the relatively few no slave states in 1793, were okay with a law that made them the police of all slavery issues, from runaways to those made free or those who were free but mistakenly kidnapped, when African Americans showed up on their streets.

    The Constitution had just been ratified in 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so. Vermont had been added as the fourteenth state in 1791 after fourteen years as an independent republic, and the fifteenth state, Kentucky, had been carved out of Virginia, and admitted to the Union on June 1, 1792. So when the debate came up in Congress about what to do about runaway slaves, there were fifteen states in on the discussion.

    However, even before the Constitution allowed such a practice, the practice of returning runaway slaves had been codified. The United Colonies of New England, as far back as 1643, required their return; the Northwest Ordinance of 1797 required it as well, even though it was a no slave territory. But there were still questions between the rights of no slave and pro slave states. Was there a missing mechanism between the section of the Constitution and the Extradition Clause that needed to be added into law.

    Oddly, the impetus for passing the law occurred when a free black man from Pennsylvania, John Davis, was kidnapped by three men, taken to Virginia, and sold to Nicholas Casey, the original owner of the Wappocomo Plantation. However, it was more complicated than that. John Davis had been a slave in northwestern Virginia before the American Revolution, but that area was absorbed into Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1779, during the war. Pennsylvania passed its Gradual Emancipation Act in 1780, which stated that slaveowners had to free slaves born after November 1, 1780. They also had to register slaves born before that. However, the border dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania was not solved until 1784 and most, including the owner of John Davis, had not registered their slaves. So the owner of John Davis, if that was even now true, moved back to Virginia, then rented him out; abolitionists freed Davis and brought him back to Pennsylvania under the assumption that he was now free under their law.

    However, the man who had rented Davis, thought he would be blamed for his loss and hired three men; Francis McGuire, Baldwin Parsons, and Absolom Wells to retrieve him and bring him back to Virginia. He was then sold to Nicholas Casey.

    McGuire, Parsons, and Wells were indicted for kidnapping by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury; but due to the lack of cooperation in these matters at the time, the men never appeared in court. Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania insisted that Davis was free and wrote Governor Beverly of Virginia to extradite them. He would not. He wrote to President Washington; he avoided the subject, handing the item down to Thomas Jefferson, who transferred it to Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Washington also sent the claim over to the U.S. Senate to come up with a conclusion to the overall problem. However, the kidnappers from Virginia were never extradicted to Pennsylvania and John Davis remained a slave.

    After all of the discussion in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, meeting in Congress Hall in Philadelphia, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 passed on the third version with the House of Representatives easily on February 4, 1793, fourty-eight to seven with fourteen abstentions. Both chambers were pro-administration, and when President George Washington approved the measure on February 12, 1793 near the end of the 2nd Congress, it was law. Read the text below, but essentially the act gave slave owners the right to reclaim them and made it a crime for northernors to help them escape.

    After its passage, most states in the North abolished slavery and did not enforce the law. There were jury trials for prove, but the problems were that certain measures were upheld in 1842 by the Supreme Court and the second Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, in order to avert Civil War. That did not work.

    It would not be until after the Thirteen Amendment abolishing slavery passed after the four years of Civil War did it make the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, and its successor, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act unlawful, moot, and abolished.

    Full Text - 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, February, 12, 1793

    Be it enacted, &c., That, whenever the Executive authority of any State in the Union, or of either of the Territories Northwest or South of the river Ohio, shall demand any person as a fugitive from justice, of the Executive authority of any such State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, and shall moreover produce the copy of an indictment found, or an affidavit made before a magistrate of any State or Territory as aforesaid, charging the person so demanded with having committed treason, felony, or other crime, certified as authentic by the Governor or Chief Magistrate of the State or Territory from whence the person so charged fled, it shall be the duty of the executive authority of the State or Territory to which such person shall have fled, to cause him or her arrest to be given to the Executive authority making such demand, or to the agent when he shall appear; but, if no such agent shall appear within six months from the time of the arrest, the prisoner may be discharged: and all costs or expenses incurred in the apprehending, securing, and transmitting such fugitive to the State or Territory making such demand, shall be paid by such State or Territory.

    SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That any agent appointed as aforesaid, who shall receive the fugitive into his custody, shall be empowered to transport him or her to the State or Territory from which he or she shall have fled. And if any person or persons shall, by force, set at liberty, or rescue the fugitive from such agent while transporting, as aforesaid, the person or persons so offending shall, on conviction, be fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, and be imprisoned not exceeding one year.

    SEC. 3. And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or in either of the Territories on the Northwest or South of the river Ohio, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any Judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States, residing or being within the State, or before any magistrate of a county, city, or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such Judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or Territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such Judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent, or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.

    SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent, or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney, when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor, as aforesaid, shall, for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by action of debt, in any Court proper to try the same, saving moreover to the person claiming such labor or service his right of action for or on account of the said injuries, or either of them.

    Photo above: Lithograph entitled, "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law," 1850, Theodor Kaufmann, Hoff and Bloede. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Lithograph of Congress Hall and the Philadelphia State-House, 1848, drawn from nature by Augustus Kollner; lithograph by Laurent Deroy; published by Goupil, Vibert and Co. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: "Fugitive Slave Act of 1793" via https://parks.ny.gov; "Fugitive Slave Act of 1793," comminlit.org; docsteach.org; Library of Congress; encyclopediavirginia.org; "Congress enacts First Fugitive Slave Law, Feb. 12, 1793," 2014, Andrew Glass, politico.com; "Wappocomo Plantation and the Origins of the Fugitive Slave Act," theclio.com; Wikipedia Commons.

    Congress Hall and Pennsylvania State House

    Back to Index

    History Photo Bomb