Personal Liberty Laws: Definition & History

Instructor: Amy Kasza

Amy has a master's of library and information science and a master's of arts in history.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, many northern states enacted personal liberty laws that protected runaway slaves from being returned to their owners. Discover how the roots of the Civil War included the battle between federal- and state-level legislation long before any guns were fired.

When we think about how different two states can be from one another -- take modern-day Minnesota and Texas, for example -- it isn't hard to imagine how distinct cultures and attitudes gradually developed in the North and South after the founding of the United States. Over time, slavery became the hot-button issue that divided the two regions culturally and politically.

In the first half of the 19th century, both sides attempted to resolve the growing tension through legislation. Individual states and the federal government passed laws that attempted to satisfy both slave-owners and those opposed to slavery, also known as abolitionists. Some laws passed by Northern states were a deliberate thumbing of the nose at Southern states, openly defying other legislation that required states to return runaway slaves to their owners. These laws enacted in a number of northern states were known as personal liberty laws, which protected runaway slaves and prevented their return to bondage in the South.

Setting the Stage: Fugitive Slave Laws

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution originally said that a slave who escaped into another state, regardless of the laws of that state, remained a slave and was required to be returned home. However, no consistent means of enforcing the law was provided. As a result, as Northern states gradually ceased the practice of slavery while Southern states continued it, conflicts arose between free and slave states over the responsibility of free states to return runaway slaves, or slaves who had escaped from their homes into another state.

An 1852 poster advertising a reward for the return of runaway slaves.

Personal Liberty Laws: The First Wave

In a very early effort to remedy the tension between slave and non-slave states, in 1793 Congress passed what became known as the Fugitive Slave Act. In part, the act gave explicit power to the federal government to enforce fugitive slave laws. It also made it a crime punishable by a heavy fine to aid and abet runaway slaves. Coincidentally but significantly, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed at a time when slavery was declining in Northern states, while the newly-invented cotton gin increased the need for slave labor in the South.

In 1824, Indiana was the first to pass a law that gave fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial to decide whether they would be returned to their owners. Connecticut passed a similar law four years later. Vermont and New York state extended the same rights to fugitive slaves in 1840. Also during the 1840s, four separate states enacted legislation prohibiting members of the state government from participating in the capture of fugitive slaves. These laws also prohibited the use of state-owned jails to house fugitive slaves. All of these state-level laws comprised the first wave of personal liberty laws created to attempt to nullify the federal law regarding fugitive slaves.

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