Before the American Civil War of 1861-1865, tensions were high between the Northern and Southern states. Said tension found basis on the issue of slavery with the Southerners being pro-slavery and Northerners anti-slavery. Consequently, an abolitionist movement rose from the North and led to the development of the “Underground Railroad”. Despite its name, the “Underground Railroad” encompassed hidden houses, paths, and code words that the anti-slavery forces utilized in helping blacks escape to Free states and Canada where there was no slavery. Expectedly, such actions led to the retaliation of the Southerners who viewed blacks as property and sought to protect said property through different legal means. This paper seeks to identify the legal actions taken by the white slave owners to prevent slaves from escaping and in turn, analyze the effects of the actions on the abolition efforts to free slaves.
According to Kraehenbuehl, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, sought to help white slave owners secure runaway slaves upon sighting without any form of legal papers to prove ownership (1473). However, it was included in the act that said owner was expected to present a recaptured slave before a magistrate who in turn, will provide a certificate of removal with the white man’s word as proof. In other words, blacks were unprotected by any form of law as the court based its decisions on the word of the whites who brought forth the alleged slaves. With such laws in place, escaping slaves had to move in the dark and under unfavorable conditions to prevent being sighted by the pro-slavery whites. However, while in the Free State, the Fugitive Slave Act was inapplicable and the reacquisition of slaves entailed court hearings with white owners demanding the return of escaped slaves. For instance, Kraehenbuehl gives an account of Edward Prigg, who was Margaret Ashmore’s lawyer in her bid to repossess Margaret Morgan, a runaway slave living in Pennsylvania (Kraehenbuehl 1475). Therefore, white masters opted to use the law in reasserting their rights on slaves in the anti-slavery states.
According to Finkelman, America gained more territory after the Mexican War (848) and as a result, debates ensued between the rivaling northerners and southerners on whether the areas will be for or against slavery. The Compromise of 1850 was seen as a solution to the problem but instead it led to the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that “outraged the North because it was so antithetical to American values of justice” (Finkelman 855) Consequently, the feud between the Northerners and Southerners got more intense fuelling the determination of the abolitionists to liberate all slaves in America. In addition, white slave owners took to kidnapping escaped slaves from the Free states and returning them to their properties (Bakan 2). Consequently, pro-slavery forces crossed into the Free states in search of escaped slaves and some hired bounty hunters to look for said slaves.
The “Underground Railroad” was formed by free blacks and sympathizing whites from the Northern states. The Southerners sought after the secrets of the techniques used to free slaves, but no one from the enemy forces succeeded in finding out details of the escape systems. Eventually, the irreconcilable differences between the North and the South eventually led to the American Civil War, which was won by the North leading to the emancipation of all slaves.
Bakan, Abigail B. Reconsidering the Underground Railroad:Slavery and Racialization in the Making of the Canadian State. PhD thesis. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007. Print.
Finkelman, Paul. "The Cost of Compromise and the Covenant with Death." Pepperdine Law Review Vol. 38 Issue 5 (2011): 845-888. Print.
Kraehenbuehl, James K. "Lessons from the Past:How the Antebellum Fugitive Slave Debate Informs State Enforcement of Federal Immigration Law." University of Chicago Law Review (2011): 1465-1502. Print.