Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1818? Part 6

On Thursday January 29, 1818, the House of Representatives took up the Bill of the Committee headed by Rep. James Pindall of Virginia to amend the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

As you might have guessed, the focus of opposition was the Home District certificate feature, which, northerners feared, gave southern judges the power, in effect, to force northern authorities to arrest and deliver alleged slaves without an independent determination as to whether they were, in fact, slaves. Charles Rich of Vermont, for example, urged that the bill be amended "as to guard more effectually the rights of free persons of color."

William P. Maclay of Pennsylvania (nephew of this William Maclay) likewise expressed the objection that the bill lacked "a provision to prevent the apprehension of free persons of color, under pretense of their being slaves."

John Sergeant, also of Pennsylvania, attempted to gut the bill, "having in view to materially change the nature of the bill by making judges of the State in which the apprentices, slaves, &c., are seized, the tribunal to decide the fact of slavery, instead of the judges of the States whence the fugitives have escaped." His motion was voted down "by a large majority."

After extended and apparently repetitive debate (the reporter for the Annals of Congress observed that "[t]he debate, though not very interesting, was zealously persisted in to a late hour"), the House voted to engross the bill and have the third reading the next day. The vote in favor was 86 to 55.

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