Critical Essays The Fugitive Slave Act


The issues of slavery and the rights of states to decide for themselves the slave question dominated domestic politics in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 essentially grew out of existing state and federal laws regarding the capture of escaped slaves. Colonial-era laws in various Southern states rewarded persons who captured fugitive slaves and punished those who sheltered or concealed them. The freeing of slaves in the North and the opening up of new territories in the West made fugitive slaves a national issue. Because not all Northern states and new territories had fugitive slave laws, runaway slaves often found haven there and thus enraged Southern slaveholders.

The first Fugitive Slave Act, passed by Congress in 1793, stipulated that slave owners or their agents could arrest and return escaped slaves from any territory or state, provided that proof be given to a magistrate that the apprehended blacks were indeed fugitives. Anyone hindering the arrest or providing haven to fugitive slaves was also liable for arrest.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, as opposition to slavery in the North grew, the Fugitive Slave Act began to lose its bite. Abolitionists and other sympathetic Northerners ignored the 1793 Act, and activists established a secret network of safe havens for fugitive slaves, stretching from the Deep South to Canada: the Underground Railroad.

Congress passed another Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, as a concession to Southern states, in an effort to preserve the Union and because the 1793 Act was essentially ineffective. Increasingly, the North was clashing with the South regarding the issue of slavery in new states and territories acquired from Mexico after the U.S.Mexican War (1846-48). Finally, the South threatened to secede. Congress then created the Great Compromise of 1850 as a last chance to preserve the Union.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was but one measure in this Compromise. Other measures mandated that California become a free state, that the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah tackle the question of slavery within their borders, that no slave trade be allowed in the District of Columbia, and that, because Texas lost lands to the newly created New Mexico territory, the Federal government would assume some of the debts of the old Texas Republic.

The North also promised to vigorously enforce this new Fugitive Slave Act. Specifically, the Act stipulated that U.S. commissioners, in addition to courts, could issue warrants for runaway slaves and that only a claimant's deposition was necessary to prove ownership of a slave. As a result, even freed blacks were sometimes forced into slavery by unscrupulous whites. Commissioners were rewarded for each fugitive returned to slavery, and thus it was profitable to rule in favor of the claimant. In addition, penalties for harboring slaves were increased; there was now a $1,000 fine, six months jail time, and an imposition of civil damages payable to the claimant.

Essentially, however, the Great Compromise of 1850 satisfied almost nobody. Both sides felt betrayed by the Compromise. Tension between the North and the South continued to grow over the issues of slavery and states' rights. Some Northern states countered the Fugitive Slave Act by enacting state laws nullifying its effects. In the end, the Great Compromise preserved peace for only ten more years.