The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, included the Fugitive Slave Clause, which declared that enslaved people who fled to states where slavery was illegal would be returned to their owners.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 empowered slaveowners to seize runaway slaves, ordered state and federal authorities to help capture and return runaway slaves, and fined those who assisted runaway slaves. As political conflict between abolitionists in the North and slaveowners in the South moved the country toward civil war, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed harsher punishments for interfering with slaveowners’ recapture of runaway slaves.
President and slaveowner George Washington was among the first to employ these laws. When Oney Judge, a slave belonging to his wife Martha, escaped to New Hampshire in 1796, Washington placed ads, hired headhunters, and even sought help from federal officials, but never recaptured Ms. Judge. In 1842, Alabama’s Wetumpka State Penitentiary received its first prisoner: a white man sentenced to 20 years for harboring a runaway slave. And in 1851, Thomas Sims, a Black man who had fled slavery in Georgia, was captured by Boston police and ordered returned to his owner.
For more than 70 years, these federal laws rendered all Black people in America “slaves until proven free” and facilitated the kidnapping and enslavement of thousands.