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First fugitive slave law enacted by Congress

In 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law to implement the provisions in the Constitution. It stated that to reclaim an escaped slave a master needed only to go before a magistrate and provide oral or written proof of ownership. The magistrate would then issue an order for the arrest of the slave. The slave was not given a trial in court or allowed to present evidence on their own behalf, including proof of having previously earned their freedom.

Many Northern states passed "Personal Liberty" laws that granted a fugitive slave rights, such as trial by jury. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, passed strong kidnapping laws which functioned to punish slave catchers. Edward Prigg was convicted of kidnapping in Pennsylvania after capturing a slave family. Prigg took his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court issued a double edged decision: it declared Pennsylvania's law unconstitutional but also ruled that the states did not have to use their facilities to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. This led to some states passing new personal liberty laws prohibiting the use of state facilities for the enforcement of the fugitive law.

After the first Fugitive Slave Law was passed, lawyer Salmon P. Chase was just starting on his anti slavery career. He became an avid supporter of abolitionist causes when he met the editor of an abolitionist newspaper, James Birney, in 1836. The year after Chase and Birney had met, Birney's housekeeper Matilda, a part African female, was captured as a runaway slave. Birney had been unaware she was a fugitive. Despite Chase's defense, which denounced the Fugitive Slave Law as unconstitutional, the authorities took Matilda back to New Orleans, where she was sold at auction. Chase moved on to defend Birney, who was charged with harboring a fugitive slave. Chase took the case to the Supreme Court, where the charges were dismissed because Birney did not know Matilda was a slave when he hired her. Chase continued to work defending fugitive slaves and those who aided them. Although he never won a case defending a runaway, he became known as the "Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves."

The Fugitive Slave Law angered many free blacks residing throughout the United States. In January of 1800 a group petitioned for Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law and abolish slavery. This petition, and others like it sent by free blacks, was predictably ignored by Congress on the basis that blacks were not recognized by the Constitution and thus not their equals.