Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Canada: The Promised Land for U.S. Slaves

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Canada: The Promised Land for U.S. Slaves

Article excerpt

From Slaves to Slave Fugitive Settlers

In the first Continental Congress in 1774 it was stated in the Articles of Association, that the "United Colonies" would "neither import nor purchase any slave" and that it would "wholly discontinue the slave trade." In 1776, Congress voted that "no slave be imported into any of the thirteen united colonies." The general sentiment at this time was against slavery, in part, because Blacks had fought so gallantly in the Revolutionary War. Many northern states attempted to embrace the spirit of the "Declaration of Independence," stating that, "All men are created equal." The new constitutions of Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New York contained emancipation acts and abolished slavery (David, 1924, p.20).

After much passionate discourse and fiery debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, those who defended the institution of slavery and those who opposed it agreed to the official sanctioning of the practice. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention, with resistance from the northern delegates, agreed that a slave would count as three-fifths of a White person for representational purposes in the lower house in the national legislature. Section 2 of Article IV of the Constitution states that "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to who such service or labor may be due." This means that the fugitive should be returned to their owners. Section 9 of Article I states that the importation of slaves would be permitted until 1808 and this could not be amended (Johnson, 1921, p. 161).

In 1793, the Second Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, "An act respecting fugitives from justice, and person escaping from their masters." This law was based on Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, which provided the legal authority for the return of fugitive slaves. It made it lawful to arrest and apprehend a fugitive and gave any magistrate of a county, city or town, the authority to act on this matter. For anyone who aided a fugitive they were fined $500. Slaves were more of a commodity around 1793 because of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin (Ridell, 1920, p.341).

1793 was the same year that the Upper Canada Abolition Act was established "to prevent further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province." The law stated that any child born of a slave mother would be free at the age of 25. Each of these acts had a significant impact on Canada being a safe-haven for slave fugitives (Bramble, 1988, p.21).

Southerners complained that the initial Fugitive Act of 1793 was not being enforced. Consequently, a stronger Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, which flared already heated tensions between the antislavery North and proslavery South. The Southerners felt there was a constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves back to their rightful owners. Northerners felt the Act was degrading and contradictory to the egalitarian spirit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Rodriguez, 2007, p. 301).

The stringency of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the desire for runaway slaves to escape to Canada more intense. This law made the U.S. a vast hunting ground for bounty hunters and civilians. If slaves were caught trying to escape they would often face horrid and unthinkable punishment when they were returned to their masters e.g. excessive lashings and/or the amputation of limbs.

This law outlawed safe-havens for slave fugitives in the northern states making it urgent for them to make it to Canada. In the immediate aftermath of the passage of this Fugitive Slave Law there was a dramatic increase in the number of Blacks escaping to Canada. …

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