The Constitution's "Fugitive Slave" Clause

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution gave enslavers the right to capture enslaved people who had escaped to free states. It is one of only a few clauses in the Constitution that dealt with slavery directly, even though the men present at the Constitutional Convention opted not to include the word "slave." Because of this omission, some argued that the Constitution did not actually recognize slavery as a legal practice. 

The Fugitive Slave Clause was the center of much controversy in the late 1700s. However, the abolition of slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment made it unenforceable. 

What Is the Fugitive Slave Clause?

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3:

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.

This clause contemplated the existence of a positive unqualified right on the part of the owner of a slave that no state law could in any way regulate, control, or restrain. Consequently, the owner of a slave had the same right to seize and repossess him in another state, as the local laws of his own state conferred upon him, and a state law that penalized such seizure was held unconstitutional.1 Congress had the power and the duty, which it exercised by the Act of February 12, 1793,2 to carry into effect the rights given by this section,3 and the states had no concurrent power to legislate on the subject.4 However, a state statute providing a penalty for harboring a fugitive slave was held not to conflict with this clause because it did not affect the right or remedy either of the master or the slave; by it the state simply prescribed a rule of conduct for its own citizens in the exercise of its police power.5

Footnotes:

  1. Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 612 (1842).
  2. 1 Stat. 302 (1793).
  3. Jones v. Van Zandt, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 215, 229 (1847)Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859).
  4. Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 625 (1842).
  5. Moore v. Illinois, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 13, 17 (1853).

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