I was told that a slave entering a sovereign state that has abolished slavery is automatically freed.

However, I was only able to trace legal statements on this for ships travelling under the flag of a state that has abolished slavery.

Were there any states which also applied this to their territory? If yes, which? When were these laws passed, and are they still effective?

  • 2
    Are you talking about the USA before the Civil War? I believe this is what initiated the famous Dred Scott case
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 21:33
  • 5
    States of these United States or fully sovereign states? Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 23:07
  • 1
    @SamuelRussell Fully sovereign states.
    – elaforma
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 4:50
  • the slave might be considered free under the law of the place (s)he was in at the time, but under the law of the place (s)he came from would still be a slave. Legal niceties, effectively you go from being a slave to being an exile.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 6:54
  • Why don't you ask the "maids" of Saudi Arabian princes living in London what happens to them? Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 1:00

2 Answers 2


It depends on the policy of the "sovereign state" and its agreements, if any, with the nation from which the slave originated. Both the United States and Britain routinely grant asylum to slaves. This does not "free" the slave, it just protects them from being repossessed by the nation of its origin.

In the United States before the 14th Ammendment, slaves were considered property and one state could not legally seize (or nullify) the property of a person from another state.

The Somerset Howell case in England in 1772 determined exactly what you said in your question--that slavery was no longer valid and any slave on English territory automatically became free. However, the American colony did not follow this precedent, even though it was subject to a degree to English laws.

  • Your second paragraph is not entirely true. There were ways that a slave in a free state could be freed. It just was not automatic.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 0:09
  • and the moment the slave leaves the jurisdiction he's been freed in without the consent of his/her owners, the slave would be liable to be returned to those owners depending on the jurisdiction the slave would find him/herself in.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 6:53
  • There are actually cases where the freedom was found to be binding even in the original slave state.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 21:56

This is not always the case. For example, the Fugitive Slave Law required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters by Federal Law.

Also, there was a distinction between 'sojourning' and taking up residence in a state. So, for instance, if you passed through a free state when traveling and then voluntarily went back with your master, you were not considered freed. Even temporary residence was a concept that had to be considered - how long did a master have to live in a free state to free the slaves he had with him. Usually even then a voluntary return was usually considered to return the slave to full slave status.

Dred Scott was considered an even grayer area as he lived in territories that were free by Federal Law, as well as a free state for a time. He might well have been considered a slave by the various sojourning rules as he came back, if the topic had not been taken up as a political issue by the Courts to try and 'settle' the slavery issue by Judicial diktat. This failed miserably, and led to more sectional strife than before.

EDIT: This Wiki Link Shows several court cases about slaves suing for freedom. Some were even binding in the original slave state (Rachel vs Walker). Note the absurd politically driven decision of Dred Scott, which is contrary to actual fact, since free blacks and freed blacks had always been considered citizens since colonial times.

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