American Civil War for Kids and Teachers - Fugitive Slave Laws Illustration

American Civil War - Fugitive Slave Laws

Not many slaves ran away, perhaps only a few hundred each year. It was not that they liked or disliked their life. It was that in many cases it was the only life they knew. The first slaves arrived in the American colonies in the early 1600s. The first African slaves arrived in the late 1600s. In colonial days, when slaves ran away, they would do so in groups, and try to set up an African type village. They were hunted down, beaten, and returned.  By the 1800s, slaves born into slavery knew nothing else. Most could not read. Most had never shopped in a store or knew anything about money. Even if they escaped, where would they go? Most slaves who ran away returned after a day or two, allowing time for their owner to calm down, hoping that perhaps their punishment would not be too bad.

After the county had been divided into free states and slave states, some fugitive slaves though they would be free once they entered a free state. But things did not work out that way. Because of the Fugitive Slave Laws, if they were captured, they were returned. There were several fugitive slave laws enacted prior to 1865, some by individual states and some by the federal government. States trying to help fugitive slaves would find their laws overturned by the court, mostly because of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery. Without an Amendment to change that, free states found few ways to legally help fugitive slaves. The Constitution counted a slave as 3/5th of a man, and thus slaves were considered property. Anyone who intentionally caused someone to lose their property could be fined or sued. As well, Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution stated that any person "held to service or labor in one state" who escaped to another "shall be delivered up on claim ..." This section was interpreted by the courts to mean escaped slaves, when caught, would be brought up in front of a judge, whether they were caught in a free state or slave state, and could be claimed by the owner or the owner's representative. Although these two sections of the Constitution might appear to be in conflict as they relate to slavery - are slaves property or persons? - one or the other of these sections, if not both, were used to overturn laws that free states tried to enact to protect fugitive slaves.

One of the problems Lincoln faced was what to do with fugitive slaves during the Civil War. Lincoln used his power to push through Congress the Confiscation Acts. 

  • The Confiscation Act in 1861, during the first year of the Civil War, said any fugitive slave whose owner was working or forced them to work for the Confederacy was to be set free. To protect the border slave states, the law also said that any fugitive slave whose owner was not rebelling against the Union would be returned to its owner.

  • The Confiscation Act of 1862, during the second year of the Civil War, authorized Lincoln to use escaped slaves as soldiers in the Union army.

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Harriet Tubman

Frederick Douglass

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