Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Fugitive Slave Act . . . of 1791?

Somehow I was under the impression that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 as passed was virtually identical to the bill as originally introduced. In Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861, Earl M. Maltz sets me straight.

The original version of a fugitive slave bill, Prof. Maltz explains, was in fact introduced two years earlier, and it differed in fundamental respects from the bill that was later passed.

The original fugitive slave bill, reported to the House of Representatives on November 15, 1791, was the work of a three-man committee composed of Reps. Theodore Sedgwick and Shearjashub Bourne – what a remarkable name! - of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexander White of Virginia.

Frustratingly, I can't find the text of the bill online. As Prof. Maltz describes it, however, the bill relied upon the executive branch (i.e., governor) of the state into which the alleged fugitive had fled. The claimant (master) presented to the governor of the “fugitive” state an application “supported by depositions of two persons who affirmed that the person identified was fact a fugitive slave.” The governor then issued an arrest warrant that directed appropriate officers to arrest the fugitive and deliver him to the applicant. “State officials who refused to enforce the arrest warrants would have been subject to stiff fines in federal court.”

The original bill died in the House in 1791 of unknown causes. “The Sedgwick bill was read twice on November 15 [1791] and scheduled for a third reading. However, for unknown reasons, the third reading never took place, and the bill died without a vote.”

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