OxEARS: Oxford Early American Republic Seminar. ”The Law Must Rule Us:” Somerset and the Limits of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law

This chapter examines the origins of the political conflict over the legal rights of accused fugitive slaves. The fight over fugitives from slavery in the Revolutionary era was defined by the collision of two legal trends: (1) the proslavery effort to sequester Black people as far as possible from legal rights in order to secure a coherent property right over them, and (2) the struggle by Black people and their allies to secure freedom and rights through those same legal channels. An examination of the eighteenth-century origins of the struggle over the legal rights of accused fugitives will clarify how the struggle that enslaved people forced into formal politics by escaping bondage came to play a central role in the coming of the Civil War.