The Fugitive Slave Clause: Another Imperfection in the Original Form of our Constitution
In an earlier post I explained one of the ways in which our Constitution was flawed. Although surely the greatest document in the history of human political life, the Constitution was not without its shortcomings, one of which was known as the Fugitive Slave Clause. Continue reading . . .
In an earlier post I explained one of the ways in which our Constitution was flawed. Although surely the greatest document in the history of human political life, the Constitution was not without its shortcomings, one of which was known as the Fugitive Slave Clause. It is found in 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.”
It sounds a bit technical and convoluted, but the meaning and application of this article is clear enough. Here is how the Paulsens explain it:
“The Fugitive Slave Clause meant that if a slave from a state that allowed slavery, like Virginia or North Carolina, escaped to a state in the North where slavery was prohibited, like Pennsylvania or Massachusetts, he was still not free. He (or she) could be recaptured by his master or by a hired slave-catcher (an actual profession), in which case the Northern state would have to return the slave to slavery in the South” (The Constitution: An Introduction, 75).
As you might imagine, delegates to the Constitutional Convention from Northern states initially opposed this provision when it was put forth late in the Convention by delegates from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. But much like the north’s capitulation to the Three-Fifths Clause, they again conceded this to the south as a condition for gaining their support for the new Constitution.
By requiring that free states return fugitive slaves to the south, the constitutional protection of the institution of slavery was solidified. There was simply nothing in the laws of free states that could secure freedom for those slaves who escaped from the south.
James Madison explained this to his fellow slave-owners at the Virginia ratifying convention by saying that the clause was “expressly inserted, to enable owners of slaves to reclaim them. This is better security,” said Madison, “than any that now exists.”
Although the Constitution guaranteed that free citizens of a slave state, such as Virginia, could not be denied any of the legal privileges that a free state, such as New York, gave its own citizens, this did not extend to slaves. It did mean, however, that “if New York prohibited slavery, a Virginian could not move to New York and keep his slaves” (Paulsen and Paulsen, 77). But if a slave from Virginia escaped into New York, the latter was required by law to return him/her to their legal owner.
Praise God that the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery in 1865 eventually superseded this heinous clause in our Constitution.