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8.9.9 The Fugitive Slave Law

Text of the law.; Includes "Synopsis of the law," critical of the legislation, signed by S.M. Africanus, Hartford, Ct., and poem in three parts.

United States. Fugitive slave law (1850)
1850 September 18
Library of Congress

United States Fugitive Slave Law. The Fugitive slave law. Hartford, Ct. ? : s. n. , 185-?. Hartford, 1850. Pdf.

By 1850, when this Fugitive Slave Act became national law, there was already a large divide between the North and the South over the question of the future of slavery in the expanding United States. For many decades (since 1804), all Northern states had either abolished slavery in their state or passed gradual emancipation laws that gave blacks born into slavery freedom by adulthood. There were people in the North — most famously Harriet Tubman — who helped enslaved people escape from the South to the North through a network of safe houses on the "Underground Railroad. " Southern legislators resented the Underground Railroad network and knew that public sentiment in the North was increasingly turning against the institution of slavery by mid-century. Southern legislators used the opportunity of California's petition to enter the Union as a free state in 1850 to pass a harsher Fugitive Slave Act as part of the larger Compromise of 1850. We know that about 300 African Americans were arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, and most were returned to slavery. Others were protected from capture and arrest by determined abolitionists who hated the Fugitive Slave Act and worked to hide, defend, or help transport to Canada between 10,000 and 20,000 African Americans who were in danger of being re-enslaved under the new law.

What does the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 say about the rights of slave owners? What does it say about the rights of the "fugitives" who escaped slavery? What does it say about the rights of people in the North who objected to the capture of these fugitives? How might this law have influenced abolitionists in their work? How might this law have influenced those who supported slavery?

In 1793 Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act. This act allowed slave owners to track down their former slaves and re-enslave them. Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North prompted state laws that prohibited police from aiding in the recapture of runaway slaves and empowered state judges to hear testimony from runaway slaves. Meanwhile, the Underground Railroad became more robust in the early to middle decades of the nineteenth century. Troubled by these developments, slave owners became more insistent upon an effective law to keep slavery intact. By 1850 the nation was already dividing over the question of slavery's future. When California petitioned to enter the Union as a free state, thereby giving more Congressional power to the non-slave states, Congress settled on the Compromise of 1850, which included a more punishing Fugitive Slave Law. The 1850 law made aiding an escaping slave a federal crime and attached a $1,000 fine and six months imprisonment. The law also barred local governments from interfering, empowered federal marshals and commissioners to seize slaves, and prohibited captured people from testifying. This law did not prevent abolitionists from continuing to help individual slaves escape, and it often served as motivation for them to work harder toward emancipation for all slaves. In the months following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, abolitionists throughout the North held rallies to advance the antislavery cause and risked their lives to protect the fugitives hunted down by Southern slave owners and their agents. In smaller numbers, pro-Unionists in the North gathered for meetings and rallies as well, calling for an adherence to the federal law and respect for the unity of the nation.

You may wish to discuss how Southern support for the Fugitive Slave Act stood in contrast to later calls for "states' rights" by Southerners during the Civil War.

Section 6 And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the
United States, has heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the
person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, or his, her, or their agent or attorney ... may
pursue and reclaim such fugitive person ...
Section 7 And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or
prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them,
from arresting such a fugitive ... or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid,
directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant ... or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent
the discovery and arrest of such person ... shall ... be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars,
and imprisonment not exceeding six months ...