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The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an Act of the United States Congress to give effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 Note: Superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment) which guaranteed a right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Act's title was "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters" and created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

 

The Act was passed by the House of Representatives on February 4, 1793 by a vote of 48–7 with 14 abstaining. The "Annals of Congress" state that the law was approved on February 12, 1793.

The Act was strengthened at the insistence of the slave states of the South by the Compromise of 1850, which required even the governments and residents of free states to enforce the capture and return of fugitive slaves

 

By 1843, several hundred slaves a year were successfully escaping to the North, making slavery an unstable institution in the border states.

 

In response to the weakening of the original fugitive slave act, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in present-day value).

 

 Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. 

 

In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

 

Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since a suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery, as suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.

 

The Act adversely affected the prospects of slave escape, particularly in states close to the North. One study finds that while slave prices rose across the South in the years after 1850 it appears that "the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act increased prices in border states by 15% to 30% more than in states further south", illustrating how the Act altered the chance of successful escape.

 

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