Slow Death of the Fugitive Slave Law

One of the curious aspects of slavery’s end in the United States is that even after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect that 1850’s infamous fugitive slave law remained on the books, and some stubborn slaveholders even tried to make use of it to recover their human property. This fact should not be a surprising since four states–Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri–were exempted from the proclamation because they had not seceded but remained loyal to the Union. It also should not be surprising given the power of slave owners over federal government before the war. They were used to getting their way and it must have come as a rude shock to them during the Civil War when suddenly Washington authorities were no longer responsive to their demands. Still, even with the peculiar institution crumbling around them, a few pigheaded owners still tried to rely on federal law to recover their slaves.

A good example of a late usage of federal fugitive slave law is the case of a Maryland slave, Andrew Hall. His story is related by Kate Masur in her book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (UNC Press, 2010). She writes:

The pivotal legal decision concerning fugitive slaves came in the spring of 1863, in the case of Andrew Hall, a nineteen year-old fugitive who had fled the estate of his owner, George W. Duvall, of Prince George’s County, Maryland [adjacent to Washington, D.C.]. Hall had been working in the capital for several months when, in April 1863, Duvall demanded the arrest under the federal fugitive slave laws of Hall and the two other men with whom he escaped. Ward Lamon, the federal marshal [and a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln], apprehended Hall in the city market, and Hall’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus, requiring that their client be brought to court for a hearing.

Hall’s case had special significance because it was the first fugitive slave case heard since Congress had reorganized the upper reaches of the District of Columbia’s court system. In March 1863, Congress had terminated the long-standing Circuit Court and, against vehement protests from local lawyers and city officials, created the District of Columbia Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the president. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect months earlier, but the newly organized court retained [Walter S.] Cox as fugitive slave commissioner, an indication that it planned to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Observers thus watched the Hall case closely to see what course the new justices would pursue.

The case was heard in a courtroom filled with black and white spectators. After extensive testimony and considerable deliberation, the four justices remained divided on the merits of the argument, made by Hall’s lawyers, that the fugitive slave laws applied only to the states and not to the federal district. Finally, in a split decision, the court affirmed that it must uphold the fugitive slave laws, provided the would-be owners could prove Union loyalty. Since Duvall had affirmed his support for the Union, the decision implied that Hall must return to his owner’s custody. But Hall’s lawyers immediately asked military authorities to intervene to secure his freedom. A melee ensued at the courthouse, as Duvall tried to grab Hall while onlookers sought to protect him. Military authorities took custody of Hall, and Duvall’s lawyers, in turn, attempted to bring charges against Hall’s attorney. But Duvall was powerless as provost marshal officials escorted Hall away. Hall later enlisted in a black regiment then being organized in the capital, and the next winter the court dismissed Duvall’s lawsuit.

So, while the Fugitive Slave Act and related legislation officially remained in force until June 1864, when Congress finally did away with it, they became essentially void. Even if a slaveholder, like George W. Duvall, could find a court to validate his claim, enforcing it was an entirely different matter. It is interesting though that men like Duvall tried, even after the Emancipation Proclamation’s release, to reclaim their slaves. It bespeaks a class of people, long accustomed to the law being on their side, in denial, that even though they technically were protected by the government in their slave property, in practice that increasingly the opponents of slavery, empowered by the war, could deny them those property rights with impunity. Or perhaps it was that federal authorities finally were protecting the real owners of those human beings–the slaves themselves and their right to their own person.

Source: Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 2010), 29-30.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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