Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1818? Part 1

In his discussion of the Fugitive Slave Clause, referenced in my last post, Earl M. Maltz emphasizes the southern desire for greater involvement by northern state authorities in the rendition process (emphasis added):
In the antebellum world, where state government officials vastly outnumbered representatives of the federal government, these limitations [the ruling in Prigg that state officials could not be compelled to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793] were of great practical significance to slaveholders. Indeed, from an early date Southerners had pressed for greater state participation in the rendition of fugitive slaves and in 1817 nearly succeeded in having such a requirement enacted into federal law.

Having never heard that we almost had a Fugitive Slave Act of 1817 (actually 1818, hence the title of this post), I did some digging to see what I could find on the bill that failed and its legislative history.

The search was worth it. I can’t say I've completed my research, but the bill that was introduced in late December 1817 is fascinating – downright ingenious.

The moving force behind the bill that was presented seems to have been a Representative I had never heard of - James Pindall of Virginia. The Annals of Congress for the 1st Session of the 15th Congress record that on Monday December 15, 1817 Rep. Pindall moved for the appointment of a committee “to inquire into the expediency of providing more effectually by law for reclaiming servants and slaves escaping from one State into another; and that the said committee have leave to report by bill or otherwise.”

That same day, the House obligingly granted Rep. Pindall’s request, appointing a three-man committee composed of Pindall himself and two border state colleagues, Philemon Beecher of Ohio and Richard Clough Anderson, Jr. of Kentucky.

The committee worked quickly. Exactly two weeks later, on Monday December 29, 1817, “Mr. Pindall . . . reported a bill to amend the act respecting the recovery of fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters . . .. The bill was twice read and committed.”

In the next post, we’ll take a look at the committee’s ingenious handiwork.


  1. Very interesting, look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks, Christopher. More is on the way!


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