Slavery in Federal Law
Before the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments, the Constitution was a document that supported slavery and that support was reflected in federal law, as well as by the Supreme Court, most famously in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Such that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a proslavery document and referred to it as a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with Hell.”
- Slavery in the Constitution
- Article I, sec. 2: Three-fifths Clause – counting three-fifths of all slaves to calculate population for representation in government
- Article I, sec. 9: 1808 Migration/Importation Clause – taxing the importation of slaves to the United States and ending it by the year 1808
- Article IV, sec. 2: Fugitive Slave Clause – barring states from freeing fugitive slaves and requiring their return to their owners
- Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
- Passed by Congress, the Act enforced the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution and authorized federal judges and state/local magistrates to determine who was a fugitive slave, authorized the return the fugitive slave, and imposed penalities on those assisting the flight of the fugitive.
States Abolish & Protect Slavery
- Slave states looked to federal law as well as the Constitution to protect slavery, but also used state law to protect slavery by passing Slave Codes to regulate slavery, by passing restrictions on entry to and residence of free black people within their state, and by passing laws suppressing abolitionist expression.
- Free states used state law to abolish slavery and Personal Liberty laws to keep their states free. This led to conflict with federal laws, such as in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), but also led to successes within state courts, such as in Lemmon v. People (1860).
Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)
The Supreme Court held that the Pennsylvania Personal Liberty laws passed in 1826, prohibiting the extradition of African Americans out of the state to be enslaved in a slave state, were unconstitutional. These laws violated the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV, sec. 2, cl. 3 of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, under the Supremacy Clause in Article VI, cl. 2 of the Constitution, where federal laws prevailed over state laws. Learn More
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
The Supreme Court held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and Congress did not have the legal authority to ban slavery in federal territories. Furthermore, the Court declared that people of African descent, either free or enslaved, could not be considered American citizens and therefore lacked standing to sue to assert their rights as citizens in federal court. Learn More
Lemmon v. People (1860)
The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the decisions in the lower courts, freeing eight individuals brought to New York enslaved and upholding New York law, abolishing slavery in all forms within the state. The Court of Appeals held that these individuals were neither part of interstate commerce to be subject to regulation by federal law, nor were they fugitives under the Fugitive Slave Law, because they had been brought voluntarily into New York. Therefore, New York law applied to them, including New York’s abolition of slavery. Learn More
- The Lemmon Slave Case, educational videos describing the case and legal decision posted by the Historical Society of the New York Courts
- Slavery and the Making of America, timeline under Time and Place, posted by PBS Thirteen/WNET
- Scott v. Sandford (1857), Landmark Cases, posted by C-SPAN
- Paul Finkelman, “Garrison’s Constitution: The Covenant with Death and How it was Made,” Prologue Magazine, vol. 32, no. 4, (Winter 2000), posted by the National Archives
“Abolitionism” exhibition, including images, information, and videos, posted under History Resources by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
“Dred Scott v. Sandford,” by Dr. Marc Brasof and Mr. Jake Wild, for use with C-SPAN’s Landmark Cases, posted by the National Constitution Center
“Lemmon Slave Case,” by Prof. Laura A. Hymson, a guided research project for students, posted by the Historical Society of the New York Courts