Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3

Document 10

House of Representatives, Fugitives from Justice

30 Jan. 1818Annals 31:837--40

Mr. Adams, of Massachusetts, opposed the bill at much length; on the ground principally that, in guarantying the possession of slave property to those States holding it, the Constitution did not authorize or require the General Government to go as far as this bill proposed, to render the Constitutional provision effectual; that the bill contained provisions dangerous to the liberty and safety of the free people of color in other sections in the Union; and that, in securing the rights of one portion of the community, he could not consent to jeopardise those of another.

Mr. Anderson, of Kentucky, spoke some time very earnestly in support of the bill, and in reply to the objections urged by the gentlemen who had at different times opposed it.

Mr. Livermore, of New Hampshire, submitted the reasons for his intention to vote against the bill. He was willing to go to the necessary extent in securing to the owners this species of property, permitted as it was by the Constitution; but the bill contained no sufficient guard to the safety of those colored people who resided in the States where slavery was known only by name. The bill provided that alleged fugitives were not to be identified and proven until they reached the State in which the person seizing them resided; and this would expose the free men of other parts to the hazard of being dragged from one extreme of the country to the other--though this fear was not strengthened by any want of respect for the wisdom and justice of the Southern judiciaries, to which he paid the highest compliment; but the feelings entertained on the subject in the South, he feared, would make less secure the liberty of any colored man carried there, and charged with being a fugitive.

Mr. Mason, of Massachusetts, delivered at length his motives for approving the bill. The Constitution, formed in the spirit of compromise, had guarantied this kind of property to the Southern States, and as it appeared from the insufficiency of the existing laws, that the proposed bill was necessary to secure this right, he was willing to adopt the measure, as he was always willing to approve any measure to effect what the Constitution sanctioned. The possible abuse of anything was no argument against it, if otherwise expedient, and on this ground he was not prepared to reject the feature of the bill so much opposed. The judicial tribunals of the South, he had no doubt, would decide on the cases as correctly as those of the North, and on this subject perhaps more so, as, he believed, so strong was the feeling on this subject in the latter section of the country, and so great a leaning was there against slavery, that the juries of Massachusetts would, in ninety-nine cases in a hundred, decide in favor of the fugitive. His feelings on this bill were also somewhat interested; as he wished not, by denying just facilities for the recovery of fugitive slaves, to have the town where he lived (Boston) infested, as it would be, without an effectual restraint, with a great portion of the runaways from the South.

Mr. Holmes, of Massachusetts, followed his colleague in submitting his reasons for approving the bill, and to reconcile the apparent contradiction in a gentleman from his part of the country appearing as the supporter of this bill. His course on this, as on other measures, was based on his duty as a Representative for the whole Union, instead of local interests. This measure, it appeared, was necessary to secure the Constitutional rights of a large portion of the States; and, as to the provision so strongly objected to by some gentlemen, he did not think it competent in Massachusetts to try a question between a Southern master and his slave; it was a kind of question, with which his constituents, to their honor, were not familiar, and he wished them to remain so. He did not believe the freedom of a single man in the North would be endangered by this provision of the bill; the habeas corpus would prevent it; and he went into various arguments to prove that the bill was expedient, and free from the evils apprehended by other gentlemen.

Mr. Rhea made some observations in support of the bill, and in reply to the arguments against it. So long as this property was authorized, there could be no doubt of the right of the holder to pursue it, and carry it back without hindrance to the place from whence it escapes. He thanked Heaven, this nation was not chargeable with the odium of introducing this species of property; it was an evil entailed on it; and this bill was in conformity with the principles of the compact which guarantied this property to its holders. There was little danger of persons going from the South to claim free men as their property; such a fear was without foundation. He always felt pain in hearing distinctions made between the slaveholding States and others; nearly all the old original thirteen States had held slaves, and, if circumstances had enabled some of them to get rid of the evil, the only feeling they ought to entertain towards the others, is, compassion that they are not so fortunate.

Mr. Storrs, of New York, entered into a number of arguments in support of the bill. He referred to and reasoned on the words of the Constitution, to show that the bill was consonant to its provisions, and did not exceed the limits within which Congress were authorized to legislate on the subject. He expressed his pleasure at the liberality which had been manifested by some in its discussion, but should like to see a little more displayed by gentlemen from the North, as an evidence they were willing to sacrifice some of their old prejudices to the spirit of harmony and mutual benefit.

Mr. Whitman, of Massachusetts, admitted the necessity of some additional regulations on this subject, as the existing law appeared inadequate; but he could not vote for this bill in its present shape. He objected to that provision, which makes it penal in a State officer to refuse his assistance, in executing the act. This feature, if retained, would prevent his voting for the bill, as its penalties would require the State officers either to resign, or perform an act which might be repugnant to their feelings, and render their official stations frequently disagreeable. Furthermore, he did not believe Congress had the right to compel the State officers to perform this duty--they could only authorize it; and, as he believed the bill might be made effectual without this objectionable provision, he hoped it would be recommitted, and receive the necessary modification. In reference to a remark of his colleague, (Mr. Mason) he had no doubt that justice would be administered under this act by the tribunals of Massachusetts, if the duty were devolved on them, as impartially as in any other part of the Union, notwithstanding the prejudices they felt on the subject; yet he did not doubt that exact justice would also be rendered by the tribunals of the South, where prejudices were felt of an opposite character.

Mr. Williams, of Connecticut, was called up by the remark of Mr. Storrs, and admitted that, if he could not and had not banished all his local prejudices, he ought to have done so. Mr. W. then entered, at large, into an examination of the bill, into his reasons for opposing it unless it was altered in some of its features, and to show that in its present shape it was calculated to excite angry feelings and rouse strong prejudices in those parts of the country where slavery was not tolerated. This effect would be produced by that provision under which a free man of color might be unjustly seized and dragged to a remote part of the country, and his liberty endangered, if not destroyed. In attempting, properly, he admitted, to secure the right of property to one class of citizens, it was unjust that the rights of another class should be put in jeopardy, when, too, as he contended, the danger might be avoided, in one case, without impairing the benefit in the other. Although he wished not to interfere between a slave and his master, yet he argued that the right ought to be tried in the State in which the fugitive should be arrested; and compared the case to that of a runaway apprentice, who could not be seized and carried away by the ex parte testimony of the person claiming him.

The question on the passage of the bill was then taken, and decided in the affirmative--yeas 84, nays 69.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, Document 10
The University of Chicago Press

Annals of Congress. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States. "History of Congress." 42 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1834--56.

Easy to print version.